A Need to Be Frank

A new children's book about Anne Frank aims to tell the truth about the period, and even includes realistic illustrations.

On Sunday, June 12, 2005, the 76th birthday of Anne Frank, a picture book by Josephine Poole, bearing the name of the Jewish girl who hid in an office building in Amsterdam and who died at the age of 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was published in Israel, the United States, Greece, Japan, Korea, France and other nations. The book includes realistic illustrations by Angela Barrett.

The decision to write a book about Anne Frank was not that of the native British writer. In a phone conversation from her home in London, she tells Haaretz that she only read the diary after the publisher contacted her to write the book about the life of Anne Frank. "At first, I preferred that someone else write the book. As far as I am concerned, everything related to the Holocaust is a nightmare that I would rather not think about.

"I was 6-years old when the war began. When it ended, I looked at pictures of prisoners from the concentration camps in horror, and I preferred to stay away from the subject. The war happened when I was too young to understand its significance, but not young enough to want to research it all from a distance. It affected me physically, and caused me to be stupid and repress the entire subject. I am not Jewish, so it also wasn't a part of my heritage, and I also did not know how I would tell such a horrible story to small children. They see horrendous things on TV but a children's book is supposed to be calming and beautiful."

Despite that, Poole accepted the offer after reading the diary. "I started writing and I understood how important it was, mainly because, despite the miserable circumstances, Anne Frank maintained a positive spirit."

The book, translated by Rimona Di-Noor and published by Keter, opens with the words, "The story of Anne Frank is the story of an ordinary girl, a girl who could sit beside any one of us in our classroom." The classroom invoked here is in one of the lower grades - perhaps, even kindergarten. It is a class of 5- to 7-year-olds, who cannot yet read the diary.

The book moves from the life story of the Frank family to a description of the political atmosphere which gave rise to World War II. "Germany was blamed for starting World War I, and it was forced to pay enormous sums in compensation for all the destruction. This was a severe punishment. Ten years after the war, Germany was a poor and desperate nation. Feelings of humiliation, revenge and rage arose in the hearts of the Germans, and grew from day to day. They looked for someone to blame for the situation. At that point, the Jews began to worry."

There are few children's books that examine historic-political topics, and even fewer that include illustrations depicting Adolf Hitler. Poole wondered how to present such a difficult subject to a young audience while still considering the offer of writing the book. However, once the book was written, she had no problem with the nature of the illustrations. "The book tells the truth about the period, and we need to talk about the period and the girl. In the diary, she says that she was not brave, that she was very frightened - I didn't want to lose that. All of that had to be included. There were parts that I decided not to put in the book because of the difficult content; the chapter in which her fountain pen was burned in the oven was too horrible - too symbolic. But, in general, the diary is not a difficult book. In many parts, it is humorous."

Diary entries

Before the story begins, there is an entry from Anne Frank's diary, dated November, 8, 1943:

"I see the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we're standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter. We're surrounded by darkness and danger, and in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other.

"We look at the fighting down below and the peace and beauty up above. In the mean time, we've been cut off by the dark mass of clouds, so that we can go neither up nor down. It looms before us like an impenetrable wall, trying to crush us, but not yet able to. I can only cry out and implore, `Oh, ring, ring, open wide and let us out!'"

Why did Poole decide not to include entries from the diary in the story line of the book?

"That depended on a very complex process of attaining permission from the Anne Frank Foundation," says Poole. "And we also wanted the book to be an introduction to the diary - so that the children who read my book would grow and read the complete diary. We didn't want to cut her work into pieces.

"Anne Frank wanted to be a writer. I am not certain that she was a good writer. She always wrote that her older sister, Margot, was smarter than her. But the diary presents very good writing. She has served as an inspiration not because her writing was amazing and not because she was a saint, but because of her spirit and because it came from her heart.

"I liked the parts of her diary where she listens to the church bells, and understands that there are children outside who are playing and carrying on as usual. I integrated them into my book."

Poole still does not know how children will respond to the book. In two weeks, she will participate in a book-signing for the first time. For now, she has witnessed the reactions of her grandchildren. "I read the book to my grandchildren. I wanted to feel as if they were involved. The Holocaust is taught here. My grandson is 12, and he learns about the period in school," she says.

The book is different in its subject matter, its content and its evocative illustrations than most children's picture books. It is also different in its tragic end, "Anne was only a girl, and her short life came to an end. But her story had only begun."