THE BOY WHO LOVED ANNE FRANK
Four (4) Stars (Out of Five)
By Ray Palen
“To what extent do we remain obligated to the world even when we have been expelled from it?” – Men In Dark Times, by Hannah Arendt.
This quote, which opens up Chapter 10 of Ellen Feldman’s novel, THE BOY WHO LOVED ANNE FRANK, puts forth the suggestion that those who have been made redundant or rejected by the world need not retain faith in it. This premise is firmly converse to Anne Frank’s sentiment when she stated at the end of her own diary that she still loved life and the world.
Peter van Pels, whose family name was listed as van Daan in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, allegedly stated to Anne while they were hiding in their Amsterdam attic annex during the height of WWII that if he got out alive he would reinvent himself entirely. What author Ellen Feldman has done with this ingenious novel is to imagine the life that Peter might have had post-WWII. There is no direct evidence that Peter perished in the Nazi death camps --- although this has been assumed by all who knew him, including Otto Frank --- so Feldman has taken this supposition and built a fictional life around it.
Peter van Daan is now living in America as Peter van Pels and passing himself off as Christian. Ironically, the first girl he falls in love with ultimately rejects him because she is Jewish and her family would not be pleased if she married outside of her faith. Funny enough, he begins dating her sister, Madeline, and she does not have an issue with his faith as their courtship eventually leads to marriage and a family. Peter finds employment in the growing field of Real Estate/Property Management and settles down to a nice suburban life in New Jersey.
However, Peter is continually haunted in his dreams by his secret and realizes the truth in the affirmation that you cannot run away from your past! In 1947, Peter’s worst fears are realized as a novel is released worldwide titled ANNE FRANK: THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL (later re-titled to match the play/film, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK). Not only is Peter horrified that he will be exposed but his own wife and daughters become fans of the novel. Peter at one point steals the novel and travels a great distance to dispose of it --- only to sneak back out into the night to reclaim for himself. He reads the novel in secret, furiously turning the pages. While he disagrees with several portrayals within the novel he is moved by its’ haunting passages that hit home for him.
Eventually, the play version of the novel becomes a big hit as THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK hits Broadway. Many people, including Anne’s father, Otto Frank, object to the actress cast as Mrs. Frank who is a non-Jew. Peter has even more objection with Otto Frank who he feels watered down and tainted many passages of Anne’s Diary. Specifically, he is not at all pleased with his father, Mr. van Daan, being portrayed as thief who stole bread from the cupboards at night, thereby depriving the rest of those in hiding from much needed nourishment.
Otto Frank chooses to bring the author of the play version of Anne’s Diary, Meyer Levin, to court. Levin will later go on to pen the book, THE STOLEN LEGACY OF ANNE FRANK: MEYER LEVIN, LILLIAN HELLMAN AND THE STAGING OF THE DIARY, which continues to show contention with Otto Frank’s editing of his daughter’s original work. Peter is intrigued by this court case and sends a note to Otto Frank attesting to his true identity and listing his grievances with the edited version of The Diary. Mr. Frank’s legal representative writes Peter back suggesting that his impersonation of someone that was dear to Mr. Frank was not appreciated and further correspondence will lead to legal action.
Peter shows up at the courtroom during the Otto Frank/Meyer Levin case and runs into an elderly woman who also has issue with Mr. Frank’s edited Diary. This woman introduces herself to Peter as the wife of the character incorrectly named Pfeffer in both the Diary and the Play. Will Peter confront Otto Frank and thereby reveal his own secret to the world (and his family)? This question is answered in kind by Ellen Feldman and the result is seen in the novels final chapters.
Peter was under psychiatric care throughout his new life in America as he fought to deal with the secret he harbored. These scenes in the story are particularly poignant and reveal the inner battle Peter fights on a daily basis. Ellen Feldman’s THE BOY WHO LOVED ANNE FRANK gives us an opportunity to imagine “what if” about one of the most beloved characters in modern non-fiction and allow the reader to travel along with Peter as he finds himself through his past.