Books: Big messages from the small voice of truth

David Cesarani wonders why the bestselling record of one bright teenager's fate has come to stand for all the horrors of the Holocaust; Roses from the Earth: the biography of Anne Frank by Carol Ann Lee Viking, pounds 16.99, 297pp; Anne Frank: the biography by Melissa Muller Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99, 330pp
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IF THE Holocaust has one symbolic victim who apparently evokes the horror of racial persecution and mass murder, that person is Anne Frank. Yet this talented 15-year-old, who died miserably in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp two weeks before it was liberated, is an inappropriate representative. Nearly half of the Jews who perished due to Nazi policy were shot to death in Eastern Europe. Two-thirds of victims came from the Yiddish-speaking Jewish civilisation of Poland and Russia. About one tenth of these died of starvation, disease or ill-treatment in the ghettos.

By contrast, Anne Frank was born in Germany in 1929 and grew up mainly in Holland, where her family moved to escape persecution. Forced migration was difficult even for a bright, adaptable child, but Anne surmounted the challenges. She was not touched again by Nazi malevolence until summer 1941, a year after the Germans overran Holland. Nazi policy had tightened around the Dutch Jews and the refugees.

Like other Jews, Anne was forced out of her state school. When the Nazis began summoning Jews for "labour in the East", her father took his family into hiding: he had garnered enough information to make him fear the worst. Thanks to a team of courageous helpers, the family endured until August 1944, when they were betrayed. Anne, her sister, father and mother, were on the last train to Auschwitz from the Westerbork transit camp.

Having survived several months in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Anne - already weakened by hunger and hard labour - died in Belsen from typhus. Separated from her parents, she had watched helplessly as her older sister expired.

Anne's physical extinction alone, in agony, amid squalor and neglect, was typical and seems inexorable, but in other ways her experience was anomalous. Her iconic status calls for explanation but these two books, which richly document her life and death, depend too much on the myth of Anne Frank to deconstruct it.

Otto Frank was a cosmopolitan, Liberal Jew. He never denied his Jewishness, but downplayed it. After he returned from Auschwitz, the sole remnant of his family, he was surprised to discover from Anne's diary that in her last year she had become preoccupied with the suffering and mission of the Jews. This was one of the themes which he blurred in the process of editing it for publication and which he was content to see further diluted in successive editions and, above all, in the 1955 Broadway stage version that truly launched the diary. Reading early versions of the diary or seeing the film of the play, it is easy to miss the role of anti-Semitism in the persecution and the specific animus which the Nazis had for those who embodied Judaism.

Anne Frank has become symbolic of the victims of racism, but not all racism is the same. Each strand has its own etiology which needs to be understood for racism to be fought. Anne's fate offers only a partial explanation for the catastrophe that befell the Jews and, aside from banal generalisations, scarcely illuminates other varieties of racial or religious oppression.

If Anne was de-Judaised, what did she represent? She became the suffering child, the lamb of god whose death might redeem mankind in line with her own longing for a better world. She was also a very real child, an adolescent tormented by puberty, sibling rivalry and generational conflict.

Because her diary ended before the scabies of Auschwitz and the fecal swamp of Belsen, it was possible for teenagers around the world to identify just with her confinement ("Go to your room"), her anger, and her self- doubt. Fear of the unseen enemy and the abstract doom that awaited her prefigured the nuclear angst that plagued the children of the Cold War. It may not have been accidental to the appeal of the diary that Anne recorded a fear of bombing and the ominous sight of war planes overhead.

Adolescents today are more interested in sex and more afraid of Aids than the bomb. For this reason, Anne Frank has been repackaged as "stylish", "vain" and "sexy", to quote Carol Ann Lee. For Melissa Muller she is "headstrong ...mercurial ...demanding... possessive", as well as sexually curious: the very model of a modern teen. Both writers depict Anne as a proto-feminist, determined to forge an independent life as a writer.

Perhaps. Or maybe, had she had survived, she would like so many others have settled down with another survivor and had children to make up for the murdered thousands. Maybe she would have regarded a single-minded career as a betrayal of the need to reconstitute family, the kernel of Jewish life. We will never know, and for this reason Anne will remain the object of endless projections and fantasies.

We do know about her very ordinary life until 1942, her astonishing flowering while concealed, and her brutal end. To their great credit, in telling Anne's story Lee and Muller contribute to educating another generation about one aspect of the Holocaust. Muller is surer on the historical context, but Lee gives more, often distressing detail.

Whatever their limitations, we must be grateful for the increasingly accurate and honest portrait they have produced, as against what Cynthia Ozick condemned as "the bowdlerised, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced, infantilised, Americanised, homogenised, sentimentalised, falsified, kitschified" versions of her life that once prevailed.

David Cesarani's recent biography of Arthur Koestler, `The Homeless Mind', is published by Heinemann