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Playing Cat and Mouse with Searing History

The New York Time, By Edward Rothstein, October 13, 2013

Anne Poignant entries: a copy of Anne Frank’s diary in this 9,000-square-foot exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Photo: Monica Almeida, The New York Times

Museum of Tolerance Inaugurates an Anne Frank Exhibition

LOS ANGELES — What lessons do we learn from Anne Frank? Since her diary is the chronicle of an education, we learn what she learns: the lessons of daily life and early adolescence, acquired during a horrific time. We watch a meticulously observant girl, age 13, evolve into a self-consciously observant young woman, age 15. We watch — as one of Philip Roth’s characters pungently remarked — a fetus growing a face.

A film at the Museum of Tolerance features images of Anne’s Frank’s room.

What we don’t learn from the diary is what happened after the last entry, on Aug. 1, 1944. We don’t learn how this self-described “chatterbox,” whose most-quoted pronouncement is “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” must have come to doubt that sentiment; nor do we learn that by that winter, she was a typhus-ridden, starving, naked, weeping, walking corpse in Bergen-Belsen, where the Germans had shipped her from Auschwitz along with other condemned souls in the waning months of the war.

One achievement of a permanent exhibition opening on Monday at the Museum of Tolerancehere is that we do learn those things; history is not treated as the diary’s footnote but as its context. The exhibition is a $4 million, 9,000-square-foot examination of Anne’s life and times, offering films, touch-screens, reproductions and artifacts; it is perhaps the most extensive exploration of Anne Frank in any museum outside Amsterdam. It required arrangements with both the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, which holds the copyright to the diary and most of the images here. (The museum is charging a supplementary fee of up to $15.50 for admission to the exhibition.)

Bizarrely, though, for all its strengths, the installation nearly undermines its own achievement at the end. Understanding that also requires some history.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the sole survivor of the “secret annex” where Anne, her parents and sister, and four others hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam, published an edited version of Anne’s diary in 1947. Since then, partly because the diary only vaguely reports on history, the temptation has been to make history almost irrelevant. The diary’s subject is often turned into a generalized idea of injustice.

Sometimes the effort to lift the diary out of the particulars of its past has just meant a shift in emphasis. Mr. Frank wanted it treated as a universal tale. (“Do not make a Jewish play out of it!” he instructed the writer Meyer Levin in 1952, when Levin was trying to bring it to the stage.) And sometimes the diary is so wrenched from history that it can hardly be recognized; the Anne Frank House has long used Anne’s history and hiding place to champion causes including opposition to the Vietnam War or “the ugly face of nationalism” in the Balkan conflict.

In most of this exhibition, that approach is avoided. History is evident here, first of all as atmosphere. Designed by the Yazdani Studio, the installation includes streetscapes accompanied by sound effects in Frankfurt, where Anne was born in 1929, then in Amsterdam, where her family arrived in 1934. The somber narrative that follows unfolds in a circular corridor whose inner wall is lined with faded folded clothing, meant to recall that of 1.5 million murdered children. Throughout, excerpts from Anne’s diary and letters are heard.

There are authentic artifacts here — some from the warehouse of Otto Frank’s firm, Opekta, for example, whose walls hid the Franks; or the 1943 Gestapo telephone directory that Simon Wiesenthal used to track down the Austrian-born officer who arrested Anne. But this is not really an exhibition of artifacts; most objects are copies.

Pictures of Anne Frank taken in a department store booth. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

We see pictures of Anne with friends and hear from her about figure skating, table tennis and boys. Sheets of passport-size photos, copies of those taken in an Amsterdam department store, are strangely moving, their multiple smiling poses and varied postures evoking a world of possibility. There are also pen-pal letters exchanged by Anne and her sister, Margot, with two sisters in Iowa in 1940, after which the correspondents might as well have been living in different galaxies.

The shadows gather. We see a copy of a letter that Otto Frank wrote on April 30, 1941, to Nathan Straus Jr., an American friend and Macy’s heir, seeking help in obtaining United States visas. ”I would not ask if conditions here would not force me to do all I can in time to be able to avoid worse,” Otto wrote. “It is for the sake of the children.” But State Department restrictions, some of which were designed specifically to limit the immigration of Jews, multiplied.

So the family went into hiding in 1942. A reproduction of the famous bookcase swings aside, leading us into a theater for a screening of a short film in which the diary’s texts provide a capsule history of the years in hiding.

Then the diary can lead no more. No sane diarist could. Videos recount the fates of the people in the annex, taken to Westerbrook, a camp in the Netherlands, then to Auschwitz and on to their deaths, with the exception of Otto.

A corridor wall lined with faded clothing, evoking 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust. (Monica Almeida/The New York Time)

But in a final gallery this carefully constructed history nearly collapses. Here, touch-screens display the diary’s supposed lessons for “making the world a better place,” including “Valuing Family,” “Speaking Up” and “Appreciating Nature,” with each theme accompanied by Anne’s commentary and an example of how the principle might be applied today.

For “Assuming Responsibility,” Anne, we learn, wrote that people should “review their own behavior.” A contemporary example? “I’ll not talk behind my friends’ backs.”

What about “Speaking Up?” Anne: “Even if people are still very young, they shouldn’t be prevented from saying what they think.” And now? “I’ll take a stand against bullying.” Visitors are then asked to make pledges of their own. “I’ll start attending my child’s school board meetings,” one read during my visit. Another: “I’ll keep my dog on the leash when we walk in the town forest.”

Isn’t it remarkable how Anne’s diary can inspire such empathetic efforts?

A film at the Museum of Tolerance features images of Anne’s Frank’s room. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

But look how thoroughly history has been dissolved! See how horrific circumstances are distilled into effervescent platitudes! The Museum of Tolerance teases unconvincing homilies from Holocaust history, as if intolerance were the root cause of genocide, which now seems to be an international delusion. As a result, the extreme is diminished in its awfulness, the trivial becomes grotesque and, ultimately, any analogy becomes possible.

And Anne herself? A wall-size mural here recreates an early photo of her, perhaps at age 12. “This is a photograph of me as I wish I looked all the time,” Anne wrote. “Then I might still have a chance to get to Hollywood.”

We understand: her wish is granted. Her face, illuminated at night, peers out a window facing those celebrated hills. It is as if the years in hiding, the hideous deaths, the barbarity that took hold through indulgence and accommodation had never happened.

Instead, we are left with a fantasy — lessons about planting trees and shunning bullies instead of confronting tyrants and crematories.

Such a comforting displacement is a familiar characteristic of childhood. And perhaps, occasionally, of Hollywood as well.

“Anne” opens on Monday at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles; (310) 553-8403; museumoftolerance.com.

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