It's rare when writers can point to the exact moment a play is conceived. But for Anne Frank and Me, it was at 7:02 p.m., CST, March 20, 1994.
My husband (and frequent co-author) Jeff
Gottesfeld and I had just watched a "60 Minutes" report featuring Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, a man who looks like he could be your next-door neighbor. Zundel had spent several minutes expounding how the Nazi extermination of the Jews was a "deception."
I remember my reaction: "You know, if you're a gentile teenager and you see a skinhead with a swastika carved into his forehead, you scoff. But this jerk? He looks like someone's uncle. If you didn't know better, you could get sucked in."
Thus Anne Frank and Me was conceived to do battle with the lie. It took shape as a play that premiered in 1995, ran off-Broadway in 1996 and is now one of the most widely produced plays in the Dramatic catalog.
Fast-forward eighteen months, during which the Internet mushroomed. It was the burgeoning of cyberspace that drove us to adapt this play to fiction. What happened? In the midst of some online research, Jeff wandered into the Internet equivalent of Ernst Zundel—a Holocaust denial website made up to appear as scholarly as the Encyclopedia Britannica, featuring the junk history of Zundel and his compatriot in deceit, electrical engineering professor Arthur Butz. And he thought: If a kid didn't know better, this good-looking drivel could suck him in.
Anne Frank and Me, our novel, will be published in March 2001 by G.P. Putnam's Sons books, (ISBN 0-399-23329-6, 288pp., $18.99 US). Especially in a school setting, it's the perfect adjunct to Anne Frank and Me, the play.
Novel and play have many similarities, but also some differences. In both, our tenth-grade heroine Nicole is assigned Anne Frank's diary. In both, she's too distracted by her social life to read it. In the novel, she searches for a Cliff Notes version on the Internet, and moments later, is surfing oblivioiusly into a handndsome-looking Holocaust denial site.
The Internet angle is one of the key narrative changes we made in our story. In fact, Nicole's father onstage is an Arthur Butz type and her otherwise-nice mom shares his beliefs. It's a strong dramatic choice particularly suited for the theater.
But with kids' access to the Internet so open, and denial material so easily found, I wanted to shine a bright light on these cyber-deadfalls for young people. So Nicole's parents are drawn quite a bit differently in the novel. The opportunities for educators to compare and contrast the two approaches are obvious.
In both versions of the story, teens recognize Nicole, a middle-of-the-pack gentile girl with the same hopes, dreams, crushes and insecurities that they have. When she is launched on her epic voyage, our audience willingly goes along. And when Nicole ultimately meets Anne Frank on a transport from Holland to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we hope that meeting will be our readers' meeting.
But only a few minutes of Anne Frank and Me is set in a Nazi death camp. Our thrust is different: about what it was like to be a teen in a sophisticated city (Paris) under Nazi occupation; about collaboration, resistance and do-nothing-ism; about the moral choices made by teens of every faith.
Ultimately, Nicole comes to understand why the Holocaust matters to her twenty-first-century life. When that awakening occurs, she and our readers are armed to do battle for the truth. They know that it was teenagers like themselves who were victims of the Nazis—not just in rural Polish hamlets, but also in cities as hip as anywhere in America. They know that non-German collaborators were eager to help the Nazis. They know that Anne Frank could have been a friend of theirs.
Anne Frank and Me was meticulously researched, using English and French primary and secondary sources, and then vetted by prominent French and American Holocaust scholars. It is as accurate a piece as we could write. Jeff wrote an acclaimed study guide to accompany it that is also available from Dramatic.
What's better, play or novel?
Never ask an author that.