Anne Frank’s story could seem straightforward. Mirjam Pressler knew it was anything but.
To start, there were the multiple versions of Frank’s diary, Frank revised her journal entries exactingly, leaving behind multiple drafts. On top of that, her father, Otto Frank, had censored various aspects of her work. Then there was the matter of filling in the parts of Frank’s history and legacy that the diary didn’t cover. What was her family life like, as those other than Frank saw it? What happened to her extended family? What parts of her own life did Frank leave unexamined in her adolescent masterwork?
Over decades, Pressler — a German-Jewish novelist, translator and editor who passed away on January 16 at age 78 — worked patiently to complete the picture of Frank introduced to the world first through Frank’s diary, then through the numerous adaptations of that diary for stage and film. Pressler edited the so-called “Definitive Edition” of Frank’s diary released in English in 1991, a work that, among other accomplishments, introduced readers to Frank’s openly curious and occasionally graphic writing on sexuality. (Less famously, that edition of the diary included some of Frank’s fiction, as well as some of her more poignant musings on her ambition and worries about the constraints of womanhood.)
In presenting that writing, Pressler launched an unexpected new fight over Frank. Parents of students reading the diary were outraged by its newfound clarity about sex, and at least one American mother launched a campaign to have it banned in her school district. She was unsuccessful, but as other interpretations of Frank’s journal cheerfully failed to incorporate the sides of her writing and persona that Pressler’s work brought forward, some observers began to question what appropriate respect for Frank’s legacy might actually look like. Was it the portrait of girlish sainthood that certain texts, like the Broadway play “The Diary of Anne Frank,” not-so-subtly perpetuated? Or was it looking at Frank as she was, and contending with her in all of her complexity?
Through it all, Pressler herself remained an often remote figure, pursuing Frank’s story with unshowy determination. She tracked down letters and other documents left by Frank’s relatives, using them to expand the publicly-available story of Frank’s life and background. She spoke frankly about the challenges of contributing to the public image of a figure like Frank, on whose legacy readers tended to pin too many aspirations. She told the international German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that she didn’t believe books could truly alter the world, but knew they could change individual readers. Unlike many who have put their mark on Frank’s work with the aspiration of shaping broad trends in thought about human rights, Judaism and the Holocaust, Pressler’s focus was always on Frank herself, with her very human, very relatable flaws.
Pressler published her debut novel “Bitterschokolade” (“Bitter Chocolate”) in an effort to find new financial stability as a 39-year-old single mother. Deutsche Welle, reporting on Pressler’s passing, compared her start to that of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling. The two were similar in other ways, as well. Pressler’s own novels, often geared toward children, tended to focus on young people who had survived extreme adversity, often that incurred by the Holocaust. They were intensely humanist. As Deutsche Welle reported, Pressler once told the German newspaper Die Welt that her writing was “salvation for the speechless child I once was,” and wondered how children might “glean a view of the world if they can’t read.”
Like many children born in Nazi-era Europe, Pressler was originally unaware of her Jewish origins. Born in southwest Germany to an unwed Jewish mother, she spent her childhood first with a foster family and then in boarding school. Following a stint on a kibbutz after she finished her education, Pressler worked in retail and as a taxi driver before turning to literature. She was a prolific translator; the books she translated into German included works originally written in Hebrew, Afrikaans, English and Dutch. She also translated the Israeli author Amos Oz, who passed away last month.
But in the U.S., Pressler’s biggest impact came through her work with Frank. “The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition” made an unlikely appearance on a 1995 New York Times list of books recommended for vacation reading. The text, the list’s anonymous author wrote, “gives more texture and nuance to this renowned personal account of the Holocaust.” A crisp and unsentimental review; Pressler would have likely been thrilled. After all, it was all about Frank, as she was — and, without Pressler, as history might not have let her be.