Outside the Attic

In her biography of Anne Frank, Melissa Muller steered away from sentimentalized portraits, including the notion the young diarist lived in cramped quarters. Muller will appear at the Jewish Book Festival tomorrow.

November 09, 1999

Not long ago, a young Australian journalist named Melissa Muller set out to rescue Anne Frank.

The young girl's would-be British saviors had arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 15, 1945, just weeks after Anne -- not quite 16, naked, starved and bereft of the hope that would later make her renowned -- succumbed to typhoid. For Anne, there was no escape from the Holocaust.

What Muller wanted to save Anne from was the sanctification that has befallen her since her death. In film, on stage, in exhibitions, even in her father's selective editing of her legendary diary, Anne Frank has been transformed into something she was not in life. Rather than the spirited, perceptive, occasionally self-centered adolescent who hid in an Amsterdam annex for two years, in death she became the idealized embodiment of Hitler's victims, the romanticized image of goodness and innocence.

Obscured, in Muller's opinion, was the real Anne Frank.

"The image I had was very sentimentalized, even kitschy," says Muller. "Precisely because she had become a legend, I thought it was important to tell her story correctly and in detail."

The result is Muller's highly regarded 1998 biography. In the United States to promote the new paperback edition, Muller will be in Owings Mills tomorrow at the Jewish Book Festival.

Muller said the idea for the book originated five years ago when a friend surprised her with the gift of Anne Frank's diary. She was not altogether grateful. By then, Anne Frank was no more than an iconic figure to Muller, a free-lance magazine writer in Vienna, and held no interest. Yet, when she began rereading the diary, she was captivated.

"I was surprised how differently she spoke to me than I remembered," said Muller, 32. "Anne herself is much more mature than I thought, much more skeptical about the world and herself."

When Muller finished, she found herself unsatisfied. After all, the diary covered only 25 months of Anne's life. "The more I got into it, the more questions I had. What were the circumstances in which she had grown up? Who influenced her in her early years? Who were the people she mentioned? What had she experienced before going into hiding? What did she experience about the persecution of Jews before 1942 and, of course, what happened to her after her last diary entry?"

To her dismay, Muller found that no one had written about Anne's life beyond the confines of the diary. "So I started my own research."

Her biography provides context to the diary. It follows Anne from her birth in 1929 into an assimilated, upper-middle-class Jewish family in Frankfurt. It continues through a happy childhood even as the rise of National Socialism begins to sharply restrict the Franks in Germany. It traces the family's flight to Holland when Anne was 4. And it details the ever-shrinking existence of the Franks after Germany's invasion in 1940 and the rising level of terror that finally prompted Otto Frank to take his family -- daughters Anne and Margot and wife Edith -- into hiding in the annex above his business.

Muller is alert to the cruelties Anne experienced before disappearing into hiding. For instance, in September 1941, Anne happily returned for the start of school, only to learn she and other Jewish children were being expelled. Of the timing of the Nazis' action, Muller wrote: "They waited until classes had begun and the children had returned to their old schools -- that way their banishment would be all the more obvious, insulting and painful."

Muller spoke to at least 20 people who had known Anne. "Talking to them, you heard the most diverse opinions," said Muller. "Some liked her. Some found her a terrible girl trying to boss people around, trying to be the center of attention all the time, often jealous. Others tell how very charming she was, how she could always motivate the others and always found reason to laugh and be happy. The picture was more balanced."

Muller came to admire Anne, especially for her personal growth in the stressful confines of the annex. "She learned to look at herself very critically and to discover her good sides and her bad sides and to try to work on her bad sides in a very responsible way, in a way many grown-ups aren't able."

Anne tried to hold onto her idealism ("in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart"), but her optimism was tempered by a sober assessment of her potential fate. She wrote that she could "hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too." She knew Jews were being gassed in Poland.

That last revelation chilled Muller, who remembered her own Austrian grandmother denying knowledge about the murder of Jews. If Anne knew, secluded though she was, how could non-Jews claim ignorance?

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