The diary of Anne Frank has for many served as an introduction to the Holocaust – giving a face to a tragedy too immense to compute; and easier to digest than grainy film footage of anonymous skeletal bodies being pushed into mass graves.
Anne Frank kept her diary for two years while hiding from the Nazis in an attic with her parents, sister and four others, until they were betrayed and arrested. Anne was 15 when she died in Bergen-Belsen, just a few weeks before the concentration camp was liberated. Of the eight people in hiding, only her father survived. His efforts led to the publication of The Diary of a Young Girl, which was also adapted for theatre and film.
But what if Anne had survived the Holocaust? Moved to New York with her sister Margot and their attic-mate Peter, found a job and a husband – but couldn't find a publisher for her diary?
In her play The Secret Annex, which has its world premiere in Winnipeg on Thursday, Alix Sobler imagines Anne at 25: a progressive woman and incompetent receptionist, rooming with Margot in a Brooklyn apartment, and falling in love.
But Anne's happy ending bears a heavy weight, and contemplates a hideous trade-off: life for literary immortality.
A determined writer, Anne shops around a memoir of her time in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Following a sliver of interest from an editor, Anne (Tal Gottfried) pours everything she has into endless rewrites, certain that she survived the war for a reason: to tell this story.
"She was so clear in my head," says Sobler, "having read the diary, having read so much of her writing, having read so much about her."
Sobler, who had a Jewish education growing up in New York, already knew her Holocaust history when she first read the diary around the age of 12, but Anne Frank's story resonated deeply.
"I felt uniquely connected to her," says Sobler, who now lives in Winnipeg. "I identified with her so strongly and I remember feeling there were lines in her diary that were word for word the same ones in my diary at the time. Certainly nothing about being in hiding, but just general thoughts and dreams."
When she was younger, Sobler, who is also an actor, dreamed of playing Anne on stage. When she aged out of that possibility without having the opportunity, she wondered how she could create a character who was still Anne Frank, but 25. The rest is (rewritten) history.
Set in the 1950s and sixties, The Secret Annex plunks Anne Frank into Mad Men-era New York – complete with its fashions, attitudes and popular culture.
"Imagining them having survived and aging and becoming part of the world was actually a very big part of the creation of the play," says Sobler, who is in her 30s. "It's why music plays such a strong role in the play and allowing them to be a part of culture. And referencing the world around them was very important to me because I think Anne is so stuck in amber; she's so stuck in time…. A big part of why I wanted to write the play is to see her freed from that and moving and living and breathing."
While never completely spelling out the details, Sobler imagines that Anne and the others were liberated directly from the attic – no death camps. In New York, Anne meets Michael (Kevin Kruchkywich), a good man who makes a comfortable living and is crazy about her.
That's not to say that she doesn't struggle with the past. There is unfinished business with Peter (Andrew Cecon). And of course, it would be impossible for Anne – for any survivor – to breeze through life unburdened by such colossal suffering and loss. But in Sobler's imagined alternate universe, Anne lived to tell her tale.
"I really have tried to do her justice and give her … a happy existence," says Sobler. "I couldn't bear to make [her] suffer any more. I wasn't going to make her hungry, make her marry a jerk … I wanted to give Anne almost everything that you would hope for in life. This was our dream for what Anne Frank would have become."
The Secret Annex runs at Winnipeg's Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre from Feb. 20 to March 8, with a preview Feb. 19 (mtc.mb.ca).