The Internet, at times the source of curious obsessions such as a balloon floating above the Colorado landscape or repeated versions of a talk-show host’s admittance of “creepy” behaviour, has been coughing up remarkable material from the Jewish cultural past.
In Canada, the CBC Digital Archives plays a steady catalogue of early performances and interviews with Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler, the most entertaining of which is the 1966 meeting between a young Adrienne Clarkson and a largely deferential Cohen as they discuss why critics are calling his novel Beautiful Losers “the most revolting book ever written in Canada.”
A striking appearance out of the American past that was, for a time, a YouTube favourite, is the eight-minute routine by a Yiddish comic – decked out in boater and bow tie – going by the name of Shepsil Kanarek. Playing on the Old World-New World divide in America, the routine recounts, largely but not entirely in Yiddish, the efforts of a cantorial hopeful to impress synagogue committees made up of presidents, treasurers and their wives. The highlight of the piece is Kanarek’s habit, when sensing that his voice might give out, of producing a raw egg from his jacket, piercing its end and drinking it down like a Jewish Popeye before embarking on further ostentatious yashmi’enus.
Kanarek seems to have landed from another planet, his Yiddish humour (“In Poughkeepsie iz geven azoi gepakt…) as lost as the Yiddish vaudeville from which he draws his stand-up style.
Even more startling is the recent appearance on YouTube of the 21-second footage titled Anne Frank: The Only Existing Film Images, posted by Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. What would have once remained in the domain of a few researchers and documentary filmmakers at a fee has received, as of this past week, nearly 2-1/2 million visits. There, on a staid Amsterdam street, the camera captures a newly married couple as they descend a set of stairs, while in the background Anne Frank appears as a bystander on a second-floor balcony.
Anne’s iconic status has had a long run, beginning as early as 1952 when the American edition of her diary was published, and buttressed three years later by a successful Broadway play based on the diary. The international success of the diary, its teachability and its appeal to young readers have made it one of the key texts by which we encounter the history of the war.
Anne’s face, in numerous photographs that survived the war and entered the public realm, is known like that of no other victim. These pictures compete with a series of iconic images that were equally or better-known in the postwar years, appearing routinely on book covers and in Holocaust-related documentaries. The three that come to mind most readily are: a still taken from Soviet footage of children at Auschwitz shortly after their liberation; an image of a young boy in a cap and knee socks, hands raised before German guns; and a close-up of a religious Jew, prayer shawl about his shoulders, the laughing faces of German army men behind him.
One wonders if the newly revealed footage of Anne Frank will further her role as a paradigmatic victim of Nazi violence – as the face that documentarists and book designers turn to when they need an image evocative of the war, yet one that is not too disturbing.
These concerns are at the heart of Philip Roth’s 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, which is about America in the middle ’50s. Set in 1956, it captures the moment when the diary was on Broadway, as well as the beginning of an Americanization, some would say the sanitization of the Anne Frank story, making it more appealing to non-Jews and more palatable to Jews in a postwar era when the Cold War, not the Holocaust, was the geopolitical story of the day.
Roth is merciless in his criticism of the Broadway play’s need to highlight Anne’s upbeat humanism, deriving its message from one line from the diary: “I still believe that people are really good at heart,” while avoiding Anne’s recognition of her own identity: “It might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good… We can never become just Netherlanders… we will always remain Jews…”
The ingenious turn in The Ghost Writer, alongside Roth’s critique of the diary’s reception, is his imagining the possibility of Anne alive, after the war, a young woman with writerly ambitions. Proof of the latter is central to Anne s own sense of herself in the diary, where she wrote in May1944 that her “greatest wish is to become a journalist someday and later on a famous writer.”
Roth gives Anne her due, mining the diary for its writerly sophistication, its imaginative power and its particularity. The Ghost Writer has the effect of dispelling aspects of the legendary Anne – the smiling, girlish face, happy in the world – which contribute to a forgetting of her final days at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Each viewer of the prewar footage of her will contend with the impact of Anne’s reappearance, momentary, endlessly repeatable, on YouTube.
Norman Ravvin’s essays on Holocaust literature are collected in A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory. He is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.