How Anne Frank Turned Up At Occupy

When future scholars of non-paper textual artifacts explore the thousands of hours of shaky-cam footage documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement this past fall, after they’ve parsed the Manichean struggle of agreeable jazz hands versus dismayed waggle fingers, and noted that a staccato prose style best lends itself to recitation via the people’s microphone, they might puzzle over a video clip date-stamped October 6, when Jeff Mangum, the man behind the beloved indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, treated the occupiers in Zuccotti Park to an eight song solo set. Dressed in a shaggy Nordic sweater and dark Mao-ish cap, Mangum looked the very model of the modern hipster protest singer. But his lyrics—echoed by the crowd of hundreds surrounding him—were a long way from “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening, 1945
With just her sister at her side
And only weeks before the guns

All came and rained on everyone 

The strangeness of an urban park crammed with people gleefully chanting words about premature burial notches up considerably when one knows—as anyone familiar with Mangum would have—that this is a song about Anne Frank. The lyrics don’t track exactly with history (Anne and her sister Margot likely died of typhus before they were buried in a mass grave outside the confines of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp) but their deaths did indeed come just weeks before the camp was liberated. The song’s title, “Holland 1945,” unites the place her of birth in 1929 with the year of her death at age fifteen.

Throughout his thirty-two minute set, Mangum returned more than once to the sad fate of the teenage diarist, and in doing so he created a moment that seemed at once a communal high point of the movement and a peculiarly ominous sing-along, Kumbaya mashed up with catastrophe.

But perhaps Anne Frank’s invocation at Zuccotti was not so peculiar, after all. Because of the hold that The Diary of a Young Girl has long had on young readers, generations of writers and artists have attempted to revive her in and through their creations. Beginning perhaps with Philip Roth’s odd short novel The Ghost Writer, in which the author’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman encounters a mysterious young woman who bears a striking resemblance to the most famous victim of the Holocaust, she has served especially as a foil for the ambivalence of American Jewish writers, born far from the camps but never free of their ubiquitous shadow. In the classic Rothian turn at the heart of the novel, Zuckerman falls in love with an Anne who has somehow survived the war and made her way to New York. He even imagines writing home to his parents: “Dear Folks: Anne is pregnant, and happier, she says, than she ever thought possible again.”

More recent treatments of Anne Frank as a character prove that, unlikely as it may seem, impregnating a child martyr was not the furthest the literary assault on the cult of her memory would go. Just a few weeks after Magnum’s performance in October, a series of book trailers began circulating online for Shalom Auslander’s first novel, Hope: A Tragedy. In each of three short films, Auslander asks well-known bookish friends—including Ira Glass, John Hodgeman, and Sara Vowell—a pointed question: Should another Holocaust occur, would they hide the novelist and his family?

Auslander has said in recent interviews that the idea for these videos developed during a conversation with his publisher. “Just out of curiosity I asked him if he would hide me and my family if there was another Holocaust. He said no,” Auslander recalled. “I was like, ‘What are you, an anti-Semite?’ And he goes, ‘No, I wouldn’t hide you. I would hide other Jews, but you are a pain in the ass.’”

All of this was, naturally, a black humor marketing ploy for Auslander’s novel, which depicts Anne Frank not as Roth’s survivor-ingenue, but as a bitter old crone lodged in the attic of the novel’s protagonist. In Auslander’s satire, the real pain in the ass is not an author who asks if he can move in to wait out the maelstrom; it is the fact that one child’s experience, however horrible, continues to use up so much of the air in the crawlspace of our collective unconscious.

Thanks to a moment of literary synchronicity perhaps not seen since two Truman Capote biopics were released in the same year, the discomfiting question Auslander asked as teaser for his novel now moves to center stage. In the title story of Nathan Englander’s new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, characters indulge in a boozy version of the “Who Will Hide Me?” game. While Auslander played it unabashedly for yucks, for Englander it’s serious business—because, really, what if?

For Auslander, Englander, and Roth, what we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank is mainly a question of Jewish identity. Yet Jeff Mangum’s performance, and the chorus that greeted him when he asked the occupiers to sing along his ode to “the only girl I ever loved,” suggests that Anne Frank has also come to mean something else. Translated into sixty languages, with tens of millions of copies sold, The Diary of a Young Girl is among the most widely read autobiographies in history, but its ripple effect through other works of art may have less to do with how many people have read it, than with when they did.

Far from Zuccotti park, but perhaps not far from the experience of many of the young occupiers, in the pilot episode of the 1990s teenage drama My So-Called Life, Claire Danes’ Angela Chase is shown daydreaming in class during a discussion of the diary. When the teacher asks “So how would you describe Anne Frank?”, Angela responds with perfect, distracted, accidental adolescent insight: “Lucky.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?” her teacher huffs. “How could Anne Frank be lucky?”

“I don’t know,” Angela replies. “Because she was trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked?”

Whatever else it has become, Anne Frank’s diary is a book written by an adolescent and largely read by adolescents. It is a book children encounter when they are just beginning to realize that they soon will be adults. For many would-be writers and artists, it is the book that first suggests that their voices, like Anne’s, can be used to struggle to make sense of the world.

Much has be written about the folly of trying to make a story like Anne Frank’s into everyone’s story. Francine Prose, for one, in her book about the diary and its author, lamented attempts through endless translations and adaptations to replace “the particular” with the “so-called universal.”

Yet in at least one video of Jeff Mangum’s set, the camera swings around briefly and shows the faces of those listening to him. Many of them look no older than Angela Chase, not much older than Anne Frank herself. Years from now, when they themselves look back at such videos, they will likely look even younger. The camera captures them at a moment when they seem ageless, indomitable and safe in their hidden corner of the city. Before his last song ends, Mangum offers up a question, a wish, and an accusation.

And will she remember me fifty years later?
I wish I could save her with some sort of time machine.
We know all our enemies.
We know who are enemies are.

The rumble of voices that joins this last line seems to shake the camera. Are their enemies Anne’s enemies? Most certainly not. But why shouldn’t they sing her hymn? Doesn’t the death of innocence belong to everyone?

Peter Manseau is the author of five books including the novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, and the forthcoming One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, from Little, Brown.