The Anne Frank Center in New York is a tiny space, smaller than the secret apartment in Amsterdam where the Frank family spent much of the war in hiding.
In its center is a circular structure with a permanent installation detailing the Franks’ life in hiding. On one wall is a handsomely designed, detailed time line of the Franks’ experience of the war and the story of the famous diary. Placed throughout are square pillars on which are mounted enlarged reproductions of the photographs from the Frank family albums, comprising the exhibition “Picturing the Frank Family."
There are pictures of Anne as a baby, her toddler sister Margot powdering her bottom; the two sisters at the beach, Anne’s shoulder blades so skinny they seem about to sprout wings; Margot playing with a black baby doll; Anne in 1941, sprawling in a garden chair, sullen because she can’t go sunbathing – because she’s a Jew. This is the only photograph in which we see the direct effect of the Nazis on her life.
Because the space is so small and because the pillars are placed in clumps rather like trees, there is (apart from the timeline) little sense of narrative. This itself enforces the feeling of precious evanescence that all snapshots have, but these especially, since we know that only Otto Frank will survive the war. (He spent the rest of his long life working to preserve his daughter’s memory.) The albums themselves, their tiny pictures labeled in neat European handwriting, are in a case on the wall opposite the timeline. It also contains facsimiles – extremely good ones – of Margot Frank’s baby album and the diary itself, covered in plaid fabric. Anne’s own hand is rather messy, urgent but legible.
Anne Frank has become so iconic in our culture that you might think only something like Shalom Auslander’s “Hope: a Tragedy,” in which she is imagined in her eighties, grumpy and still writing in the attic of a house in upstate New York, could make us see her anew. But “Picturing the Frank Family” succeeds by the opposite method: these images of a happy, comfortable family make one feel sharply not so much the horror of the Nazi era (the phrase itself is inescapably trite), but how weird, how undeserved and random that horror must have felt to children like Anne and Margot.
Part of Anne Frank’s iconicity derives from what a good looking child she was. It’s easy to love someone with such a winning and intelligent face. But it’s the individuality of the whole family that makes this exhibition worth seeing, an individuality that we are miraculously able to share. By far the most moving photograph in the exhibition does not show Anne Frank; it’s a picture of Otto Frank in 1945, soon after he has learned that he is the sole survivor, alone in the attic of the secret annex, looking at the empty room where his family used to be.
“Picturing the Frank Family” is on view at the Anne Frank Center, 44 Park Place, until August 29.
Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.