It's one of the most remarkable stories of the 20th century and one of the most powerful memoirs of Hitler's Holocaust. And more than 60 years after its publication, The Diary of Anne Frank has now been turned into a comic. First published in the Netherlands in July, Anne Frank The Graphic Biography hit bookstores in Germany on Nov. 10 (and the U.S. in September), accompanied by a chorus of historians and educators praising its sensitive and serious handling of the story. But the book has also caused a stir, with some Germans wondering whether it's appropriate to use a comic book to depict such a dark time in history.
The 150-page book tells the well-known story of Anne Frank's 15-year life, her family's time in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and her death in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. With its colorful illustrations, lively dialogue and pithy text, Anne Frank The Graphic Biography differs from the famous diary which has been translated into 70 languages and has sold more than 35 million copies in that it starts with the story of Anne's father Otto Frank and the outbreak of World War I. It traces Otto's marriage, his family's life in Frankfurt, and their emigration to Amsterdam. After depicting the family's two years of hiding in the annex of Otto's business office and Anne's death at Bergen-Belsen, the book culminates with Otto the only member of his family to survive the concentration camps returning to Amsterdam at the end of WWII and discovering his daughter's diary. It ends with Otto's death in 1980 and the opening of the Anne Frank House.
Rather than sentimentalizing Anne's story, Anne Frank The Graphic Biography sets out to provide a historical context and is packed with snippets of information about significant events, ranging from the economic crisis of 1929 to Hitler's rise to power, from the 1935 Nuremberg Laws which excluded Jews from German society to the Wannsee Conference in 1942, when the Nazis drew up plans to exterminate Europe's Jews. "The graphic biography is an extensive portrayal of Anne Frank's whole life and a serious look at history," says Menno Metselaar, a researcher at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, who was closely involved with the project.
The book's American author, Sid Jacobson, and its artist, Ernie Colón, are veterans of the comic-book industry who published a graphic adaptation of The 9/11 Commission Report in 2006. Jacobson, 81, was born the same year as the young diarist and tells TIME that he has always been fascinated by Anne's "tale of human courage and the ugliness of humanity." The Los Angelesbased author says he spent two years poring over Anne's history and her family's experiences, reading dozens of documents and books, and visiting the cramped rooms in the Amsterdam canal house where they hid from the Nazis until they were arrested by Gestapo henchmen and sent to concentration camps in 1944. "We wanted to bring the familiar story of Anne Frank to life, and the graphic biography is visual and true to reality," says Jacobson. "There are lessons to be learned today for any minority living in a dictatorship."
The Dutch seem to agree: since its publication in the Netherlands, Anne Frank The Graphic Biography has been taught in schools. And while the book is aimed at kids ages 15 to 16, the Anne Frank House says it wants to make the Jewish teenager's life story accessible to everyone, including those who wouldn't normally read her diary. "We hope [the book] will improve people's understanding of the Holocaust and inspire them to read Anne's diary," says Metselaar.
This isn't the first time the comic-book format has been used to portray the Holocaust. When the first volume of Art Spiegelman's Maus was published in 1986, it provoked a storm of controversy in Germany. The illustrated biography of the author's father Vladek, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, depicted Jews as mice and Germans as cats, and won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Since then, other cartoons about the Holocaust have been published, each one forcing Germans to question whether it's appropriate to tell the story through illustration.
"When Germans think of cartoons, they think of Mickey Mouse or Superman, which are funny and entertaining," says Thomas Heppener, director of the Anne Frank Center in Berlin. "It's difficult for Germans to accept a cartoon as a serious educational tool, especially when dealing with the darkest chapter of German history." But he adds that he hopes German teachers will use Anne Frank The Graphic Biography as part of the school curriculum.
Some Jewish community leaders believe the book's message could shine through the debate over the medium. "There is a danger that the Anne Frank graphic biography could trivialize the Holocaust," Stephan Kramer, general-secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, tells TIME. But the comic could be "an important tool to teach children about the Holocaust," he adds. "History has to be taught for many generations."
And that could be all its creators ask for. As Anne wrote in her diary, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."