There was a point when I found myself uncomfortable with Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea — an album that I, like many of you, once listened to over and over — after someone pointed out to me that Jeff Mangum used a victim of the Holocaust as its inspiration. But I kept listening, concluding that Mangum’s motives, while maybe a little too whimsical about a subject like a dead teenage girl, were not exploitative, and at least he succeeded at celebrating Anne Frank’s short life in his own strange way. Indeed, I think there are ways to successfully talk, write, and make music and films about horrific atrocities like the Holocaust.
But there’s something really wrong with Jillian Cantor’s Margot, a new novel with the premise that Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, didn’t actually perish in the in Bergen-Belsen camp; instead, she survived and moved to Philadelphia, abandoned her religion, and started a whole new life, all the while haunted by her past:
I close my eyes, and I can see my mother again, and my sister now too, both their bodies, loose flesh and limbs, lying next to me in the darkness at night at the camp.
What strikes me as wrong about Cantor’s novel isn’t that she wrote about the Holocaust, but that she used the late Margot Frank. She could have created an original character, but she chose the dead sister of one of history’s most famous murdered children as her subject, and there is something horrifically exploitative about that. Margot’s story in Cantor’s novel is unspecific enough that it could have been about any survivor, but the usage of the Frank name rings of gimmickry. Not only that, but the novel itself doesn’t seem to have anything to say about the weighty and loaded topic from which it takes its premise, offering little to think about outside of its half-baked “what if?” scenario.
Shalom Auslander, in 2012’s Hope: A Tragedy, wrote a book that I consider in even poorer taste, placing a still-alive Anne Frank in the modern-day attic of somebody’s house, trying to squeeze humor from this Philip Rothian plot device. Like Cantor, and unlike Mangum’s album or Quentin Tarantino’s fictional Jewish revenge film Inglourious Basterds, his book upset me because it trivialized, rather than made moving art in tribute to, the real lives of Holocaust victims. Auslander and Cantor ought to realize that their works piggyback on the unspeakable suffering of real people, and that their artistic failures add insult to one of history’s most shameful injuries.