In his sparse white-walled studio in central Tel Aviv, illustrator David Polonsky flips through a stack of drawings and sketches, the raw material of what would become the graphic-novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary he created with longtime artistic partner Ari Folman.
There are sketches of Anne walking in the rain to what would become her family’s hideout from the Nazis for two and half years, and of her imagining warplanes zooming over Allied soldiers invading Europe, based on the radio reports she heard about D-Day.
Folman and Polonsky were the creators of the Oscar-nominated “Waltz with Bashir,” the 2008 animated documentary. When they were first approached by the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, to take on the project, with access to the foundation’s archive, their initial response was no thank you.
“I thought she was too iconic and we have nothing new to say,” said Folman, 54, a screenwriter who adapted Anne Frank’s diary entries for the book. “But then I read the original diary and I talked to my mother who’s a Holocaust survivor and thought about my teen kids who don’t read at all aside from the manuals for their video games. I decided maybe.”
Even after they agreed to take the project on, they still felt overwhelmed. The Hebrew edition of the book came out this week and editions have also been released in European languages such as French. All English-language editions are due out next year.
“I was worried that Anne is a girl and we are two grown men and we wouldn’t be able to strike the right tone. But her observations are so cute and grown up that it’s not a child’s voice really,” said Polonsky, 44. “Once you realize it’s an adaptation, it’s an homage to her creation, you can play along.”
A tale told by clouds
The result is a 151-page book rich with images in a muted palate inspired early 20th-century European illustrations. The images are both painfully realistic — book burnings, a Jewish woman being dragged from her home by the Gestapo — and fanciful, drawn from Anne's own imaginings.
One is inspired by a diary entry dated September 16, 1943, in which Anne wrote:
“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.” (From “The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition,” Doubleday, 2001)
In Polonsky’s illustration, Anne and her companions from the annex are standing on a white cloud, while Anne is looking up toward a round patch of blue sky above her, light streaming down. The others appear to be in despair, while Peter, Anne’s paramour in the annex, peers over the cloud to see the scene of destruction below, clutching his cat.
Folman and Polonsky hope they have made Anne's diary more accessible to younger readers by putting it in graphic form, but not as a replacement for reading the diary itself. Instead, they hope it will be an intriguing introduction.
The book is the first step in a project that includes a planned animated film based on the diary that Folman is working on and is planned for release in the first half of 2020.
Polonsky credits his precise understanding of Folman’s working methods — and vice versa — with helping them undertake another deep challenge. “Part of the fun of working with Ari is the dialogue between us,” he said. “It’s very precise.”
But it took time for them to figure out how the book would read and look.
“In the beginning it was very difficult and editing the pages was like figuring out a language,” Folman said. “But the more I progressed, I had more ideas.”
Never forget Margot
They also knew they wanted the work to be vivid and colorful, in contrast to the sense that the Holocaust happened in black and white.
“Also because Anne was clever, was very edgy and was funny as hell. She was sharp and could be very mean about [the others in the annex]. All this had to be reflected in the text,” said Folman of his daunting task of adapting and condensing her words.
In the diary, Anne often complains about how she is compared to her supposedly smarter, better behaved and kinder older sister Margot. Folman and Polonsky have a page that has Anne saying, “They're always comparing my sister to me.” Underneath are four rows contrasting pictures of the two. In one image Anne’s arms are crossed and her eyes narrowed as if she’s cross. Next to her, Margot appears placid with a half-smile. In another, Anne is crying and Margot is laughing.
Polonsky immigrated to Israel from Kiev with his parents and sister when he was 7. His parents noticed his talent for drawing when at 3 he drew detailed rows of crabs and spiders. On Saturdays his father would drive him and his sister from their Haifa home for private art lessons with another Soviet émigré, Rachel Kogen, in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim.
A small oil self-portrait of Kogen hangs facing Polonsky’s desk at his studio. She keeps him inspired and honest, he joked.
Her gaze followed him as he drew the most painful illustration for him in the book. It’s an image of Anne as she imagined herself as an adult.
“Working on comics you get used to solving problems of expression, body language and styling, and you tend to distance yourself from the work,” Polonsky said. “But once I had to imagine how she would look as a grown-up — I can’t explain it. It broke my heart to see the loss of potential.”
As he put it, “I’m the father of a little girl much younger than Anne was when she was writing, but you think of your kids and have hopes for how they will turn out and also fear what will be. And here there was this huge promise. She would have been an amazing writer, an amazing person. And all of a sudden you feel all that loss.”