"The Anne Frank Project"

an installation

by Ellen Rothenberg

February 3 - March 24, 2001

The following article appeared in the

Chicago Tribune, Sunday, March 4th, 2001.




By Achy Obejas


`I want to go on living even after my death," wrote Anne Frank in her now famous "Diary of a Young Girl" in the spring of 1944. And so she also proved prophetic. Frank has lived on not only as a historical figure but also as a universal symbol of tolerance and forgiveness.

Even as she understood her fellow Jews were being arrested and murdered, young Frank was magnanimous: "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart," she wrote -- a line that would become both coda and mantra, the conclusion of 1956's Pulitzer Prize-winning play as well as the high point of the 1959 Oscar-winning film.

This pristine, nearly saintly image of Anne Frank -- carefully cultivated and preserved by her father, Otto, the only family member to survive the Holocaust -- is what's most known to readers worldwide and may be especially familiar to Jewish women like artist Ellen Rothenberg.

Years later, Rothenberg's take on the young refugee and the implications of her story are distilled in "The Anne Frank Project," an enormous and elegant installation on exhibit through March 24 at Gallery 312 (312 May St.). The show includes installation, video, sculpture and photographic elements.

"I read the diary when I was 12," says Rothenberg, now 52 and an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute. "My parents gave it to me along with `The Autobiography of Harriet Tubman' and I was just terrified. You can't help but project yourself, and as a Jewish girl in the '50s, I had a certain level of identification with Anne."

It wasn't until the late '80s when Rothenberg gave her husband, the filmmaker Dan Eisenberg, "The Diary of Anne Frank: The Critical Edition" that she became re-acquainted with Frank.

Certainly Rothenberg's perspective as an adult was bound to give her new insights into the story, but by the time Rothenberg had rediscovered her, Anne Frank was already undergoing a dramatic transformation on her own. The innocent, uplifting girl of the original 1952 Doubleday English edition (which included a foreword by no less than Eleanor Roosevelt) had emerged as a much more complex and anguished soul in the new version, published by the Dutch Department of War Documentation in 1986.

The critical edition revealed that the diary edited by Otto Frank had omitted about 30 percent of daughter Anne's actual entries. What was excluded concerned negative observations about Anne's mother and others living in the secret annex, as well as extraordinarily explicit passages about her emerging sexuality.

The critical edition -- and a definitive one published in 1995 -- would lead writer Cynthia Ozick to conclude in her 1998 essay "Who Owns Anne Frank?" that since its publication, the original diary "has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantalized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitshified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied."

"What I realized is that, in many ways, Anne Frank is a media creation," Rothenberg says.

But what struck Rothenberg most were the materials inserted into the 1986 edition, including documents that verified the authenticity of the diary itself, which had come under attack as a hoax by neo-Nazis during the turbulent '80s in Germany.

"What was most provocative to me were the images of the handwriting analysis," says Rothenberg of the writing samples that sought to examine every variation of every letter in the alphabet that Frank ever wrote. "What was fascinating was the renegotiation of history through the documents. It made me want to make visible the things that had been left out."

Rothenberg's "The Anne Frank Project," therefore, is not a documentary or an exploration of historical facts. It is instead a meditation on the mutations of history, on the changing nature of those very facts and how they're interpreted.

At Gallery 312, where the installation is spread over six exhibit areas, the viewer is first confronted with a piece called "The Alphabet Wall," 275 sheets of glassine paper covered with gold decal shop letters. The sheets are layered with wax and echo the signage of merchants in European Jewish enclaves -- not unlike Otto Frank's shop -- just before the carnage of World War II.

"Partial Index," another part of the exhibit, is a room with many doors, all weathered and opened. Inside are 29 indexed documents, images captured on bamboo paper saturated with wax. They hang from the ceiling, each translucent and illuminated by its own light. They include an architectural rendition of the hiding place, an aerial view of Auschwitz, and the portrait of a young girl on her birthday, which at first glance appears to be Frank.

"Actually, it's Queen Elizabeth I of England," Rothenberg says. "Anne Frank had her walls covered with pictures of movie stars and royalty, and this was one she had pinned up."

But not all the items depicted are Anne Frank artifacts; three -- a radio, a monogrammed handkerchief and a girl's undershirt -- are Rothenberg inventions inspired by Frank's text.

"What I'm trying to do is question notions of truth and falsehood, with history as a kind of shifting terrain," she says. The entire installation echoes what Rothenberg describes as the Nazi fixation with order and documentation. "It is absurd to think we could index everything, of course," she says. "But this idea of listing everything, typing, recording, it's one of the dark sides of National Socialism, and it's ironic because their documentation is also how we come to know so many of their atrocities."

"Partial Index" also includes a video room in which Rothenberg projects a loop of a tour through the secret annex, now a museum called the Anne Frank House. Because the furniture was removed, the rooms are bare. But in the center of each room is a scale model of how they once were, with tiny beds and tables and other fixtures. The video goes from the real rooms to the models, often seamlessly. What the viewer is aware of is everything that's missing in real life.

"In trying to get to know her, what you often encounter is silence," says Rothenberg, who conducted some of her research in Berlin. "During the time I was there in 1991, just a couple years after the fall of the wall, what you felt as a Jew was a profound sense of absence."

"Conditions for Growth," another part of the installation, is a startling piece in the main room consisting of industrial scales, scores of rulers hanging from the ceiling, pocketwatches and heavy steel castings of footprints. On the scales are objects that are inherently difficult or impossible to measure, such as the contents of diaries and a pillow. The back wall suggests Otto Frank's habit of lining up the children and measuring their growth by putting marks on the plaster. Here Rothenberg invites the viewer to measure up, providing pencils in label-less cans attached to the wall at about eye level.

"A Probability Bordering on Certainty" displays 10 different sets of business cards that bear the legend "Anne Frank, writer," in English, Dutch or German, the only reference to the possibility of Frank's future.

"What's most disturbing about her story is that, of course, the diary just stops, it doesn't tell you what happened to her," Rothenberg says. "But yet there's no end to Anne Frank, no end to the Holocaust, no end to all the holocausts."

Just as she hoped, Anne Frank lives on, a symbol of tolerance perhaps, but also a reminder of humankind's capacity for evil.