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Holocaust on Stage

DW staff (als/kjb)February 28, 2008

The director of a musical about Anne Frank's tragic story says his venue is a better way to reach young people than through a stuffy exhibit or book. The show premieres in Spain on Thursday, Feb. 28.

An actress plays Anne Frank
The musical doesn't directly quote Anne Frank's diaryImage: AP

Millions of people have read her diary; numerous films have been made about her life in hiding from the Nazis.

At first glance, though, the story of Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl forced into hiding for two years before finally meeting her death in a Nazi concentration camp, doesn't necessarily seem to lend itself to a musical format.

But the musical has indeed taken the stage -- "Anne Frank: A Song to Life," which is more of a tragic opera, premieres in Madrid's Haagen-Dazs Calderon Theater on Feb. 28.

The story centers around the diary, which Anne received for her 13th birthday and which she named "Kitty."

In the musical, smoke fills the stage floor as Kitty enters as a glamorous woman dressed in glittering red. The vision is a personification of young Anne's dreams of womanhood.

Anne Frank's diary
The diary isn't quoted directly in the musicalImage: APTN

Spanish director Rafael Alvero said he got the idea 10 years ago when he was working in Amsterdam and had a chance to visit the house where Anne Frank hid with her family from the Nazis.

"I felt I would one day bring the feelings, which the place and the story evoke, to the public through something I do with ease, which is produce music," Alvero told AFP news agency.

History vs. entertainment

Yet the musical sparked an international controversy over what critics said was a frivolous treatment of the story of a girl who died in the Holocaust.

Anne Frank's oldest living relative, her 82-year-old cousin Buddy Elias, was fiercely opposed to the idea of the Jewish girl's story being presented as entertainment.

He heads the Swiss-based Anne Frank Fonds, which holds exclusive publishing rights to her diary. However, the organization could not take legal action against Alvero because the diary is not directly quoted in the musical.

Anne Frank (l) with her sister Margot in the Netherlands in 1938, before they went into hiding
Anne (l) with her sister Margot, before going into hidingImage: AP

Until his death in 1980, Anne Frank's father, Otto Frank, had refused to allow any artistic adaptations of his daughter's diary.

The Anne Frank Foundation, which runs a museum in Amsterdam, has, according to Otto Frank's wishes, typically been cautious about backing artistic productions based on the girl's story. But Elias told AFP news agency that the Fonds had not opposed earlier film, theater and TV adaptations because they were considered "realistic."

Serious issues not new to musicals

However, after its initial skepticism, the foundation threw its full support behind Alvero and worked closely with him to ensure historical accuracy. The director convinced the foundation with "his quality of work and high standards," Jan Erik Dubbelman, the international director, told Spiegel Online.

Alvero himself said that the stage adaptation is an effective way to share Anne Frank's tragic story. And since it's in Spanish, it can serve as a vehicle to bring a piece of Holocaust history to Latin America.

He also pointed out that somber topics have been addressed in musicals before, such as in "Les Miserables" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Lead actress also lived in hiding

Anne Frank began writing her diary on her 13th birthday in 1942. Throughout the next two years she described everyday details of life in hiding, giving later generations a unique personal window into the Holocaust period.

Anne sitting at a desk
Anne kept up her schoolwork while in hidingImage: AP

She and her family were betrayed and arrested in 1944, when they were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne died of typhus there in 1945. Since then, her diary has been published in nearly 70 languages.

Comparisons have been made between Anne Frank and the 13-year-old girl who portrays her on stage, Isabella Castillo. The latter fled Cuba with her mother at a young age and the two hid for a time in Belize on their way to the US. That's where the comparison stops, however.

New face appears

In another twist to Frank's life story, just this week, it was announced that the face of Peter Schiff, described as "my one true love" by Anne Frank in her diary, will be shown to the public for the first time by the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.

A photo of the boy, who was 13 when his adolescent romance began with then 11-year-old Frank, was supplied by childhood friend Ernst Michaelis, who visited the museum last month with his children and grandchildren and felt he should offer up the picture.