Anne Frank and universalism vs. particularism

Anne Frank and universalism vs. particularism

You may know something of the controversy surrounding the first publication of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and the play and movie based on it. Meyer Levin, a journalist and novelist who often wrote on Jewish themes, championed the original version of the diary, which was more assertively Jewish than what became popularized.

When writer/director Garson Kanin came across Anne Frank’s actual words from her diary as transmitted by Meyer Levin in his initial draft script of the play to be made from her story, he reportedly dismissed them as Jewish “special pleading” that had to go. Lillian Hellman also weighed in heavily against Levin’s version; she was regarded by many as a Stalinist who did not want to showcase “Jewish” issues, and this is how she was identified by Cynthia Ozick in a panel at Lower Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, following a Sept. 14 staging of the radio play by Levin (originally broadcast by CBS in 1952). It was a mere half hour in length, a distillation from the young girl’s diary.

Toward the end of the Levin play, shortly before the Nazis find their attic hideout and cart them off to their deaths (only Anne Frank’s father, Otto, survived the camps), Anne Frank engages in a monologue (taken from her diary) that speaks of Jewish suffering through the ages and asks if somehow there’s a purpose to it. She also indicts all of humanity for going along with the wars and hateful schemes of their leaders. This passage, in contradiction, also includes her famous declaration that in the end, she sees “all people as good at heart.” But it does not culminate with this statement.

Kanin and Hellman de-Judaized Anne Frank’s own words and made her statement about “people being good at heart” into her bottom-line pronouncement. And her words on the ongoing suffering of the Jewish people were replaced with an utterance on how at various times, many peoples suffered persecution at the hands of others.

This editorial distortion fueled Meyer Levin’s multi-year struggle, culminating in a libel trial. Levin’s attorney happened to be in the audience Monday night and discussed the circumstances of the case during the Q & A. The jury found in favor of Levin, but the judge set aside the monetary damages awarded him for some “technical” reason(s).

During the panel discussion, Cynthia Ozick, a brilliant writer with perhaps an overly sharp sensibility, noted that the universalized production of Anne Frank’s story was a great success when staged in West Germany, about ten years after the war had ended. Ozick remarked that it was the first time that Germans felt sympathy for victims who were not German; oddly, she then denounced this circumstance because the Germans were reacting to the version of the play that was “a lie.”

This all comes down to the issue of universalism versus Jewish particularism. I am a liberal who believes in universalist ideals, but there’s too much of a dichotomy between Ozick’s fierce Jewish particularism and the high-minded but intolerant and peremptory universalism of Kanin and Hellman. It seems to me that a truer kind of universalism accepts, or is at least sensitive toward, the specific sensibilities and concerns of particular groups of people. Why can’t the particular suffering of the Jews throughout history serve universalist principles as a case study and a warning against the persecution and demonization of minorities?

May our readers & friends have a sweet & good new year. Shana Tova

By | 2009-09-18T16:45:00-04:00 September 18th, 2009|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Anonymous September 18, 2009 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Right on,Ralph.

Leave A Comment