Saturday, January 05, 2008

Anna Frank's Legacy

Normblog today has a post about an Anne Frank exhibit and some Jewish reaction to its chosen venue:
As part of an effort to put children at the centre of its cultural activities in 2008, the city of Liverpool is organizing a large number of events involving the young. One of these is an Anne Frank exhibition at Liverpool Cathedral, to include a life-size replica of Anne Frank's bedroom. The organizers hope that this might put across a message of tolerance to the thousands of children who are due to visit the exhibition - a good ambition, one might have thought.


Liverpool's Jewish schools have banned pupils from attending because the festival is being held in a Christian place of worship.Can that be true? If it is true, how utterly wrong-headed a decision. The exhibition is endorsed by the Anne Frank Museum. It's intended to teach a lesson against hatred. Isn't there, indeed, something positive in the fact of a memorial to this Jewish girl in a Christian place of worship?

Banning pupils from experiencing any knowledge, whether through reading or visiting a museum or an exhibit is never a good idea. It is the very opposition to the idea of school, which should be about learning and expanding the horizons.

However, two aspects of this exhibit bother me:


Why is it placed in a Christian Church? Couldn't they find a synagogue or a religiously-neutral locale to host it?

I can't help but see it as the latest manifestation in a trend which started with Elinor Roosevelt's introduction to the first edition of the book, when she wrote:

"Written by a young girl—and the young are not afraid of telling the truth—it is one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read. Anne Frank's account of the changes wrought upon eight people hiding out from the Nazis for two years during the occupation of Holland, living in constant fear and isolation, imprisoned not only by the terrible outward circumstances of war but inwardly by themselves, made me intimately and shockingly aware of war's greatest evil—the degradation of the human spirit. At the same time, Anne's diary makes poignantly clear the ultimate shining nobility of that spirit."

It is an introduction which neglects to mention that this girl was Jewish, and that her persecution was due to exactly that identity.

In "One Voice Speaks for Six Million: The uses and abuses of Anne Frank's diary" Lawrence Graver notes:

Another aspect of the ongoing controversy about the Anne Frank legacy concerns the Jewish specificity of the diary. The best-known adaptations (the Goodrich and Hackett play and the George Stevens film) minimized the Jewish content in order to achieve a greater universality and hence consolation and commercial success. For years after the premiere of the play and film, the heroine was widely perceived not only as a symbol of the Holocaust but as a ubiquitous emblem of hope, a persecuted victim whose utterance "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart" encapsulated her inspirational message to the entire world.

That Anne Frank was Jewish and killed for that reason only became less significant than the comforting image of her as the ardent child who, during a barbaric time, never lost faith in the basic goodness of human beings. In the diary itself, however, Anne writes powerfully of the suffering of European Jews and ponders the reasons for their persecution. Also neglected in the Broadway/Hollywood account of the girl who kept faith is the fact that she wrote the much-quoted sentence before she was arrested and condemned to see mass murder and before she herself died wretchedly in Bergen-Belsen.
As Lawrence Langer has said, the acclaimed sentence (yoked from context and used as the uplifting curtain line of the Goodrich and Hackett play) "floats over the audience like a benediction assuring grace after momentary gloom," and is "the least appropriate epitaph conceivably for the millions of victims and thousands of survivors of Nazi genocide."

Placing an Anne Frank exhibit in a church seems like an attempt to blur her Jewishness. There is no reason why a universal symbol of suffering cannot be explicitly Jewish. Is there a particular reason why there is a need to render her memory more palatable and accessible by downplaying her identity?


The exhibit is described as:

The exhibition, which includes a life-size replica of Anne Frank’s bedroom, explores the history of the Holocaust and debates contemporary issues such as racism in football, bullying and questions of identity in modern British society.

Why is it necessary to kick off a discussion of "racism in football, bullying and questions of identity in modern British society" by a Holocaust memory? Isn't that a bit of an overkill, to say the least? Isn't it a by-product of the all universalizing, all-levelling impulse to hush down the radical evil of the Holocaust in order to make it into a useful tool for fighting football racism and bullying?

So I guess I agree with Norm that banning the pupils from visiting the exhibit is misguided but I don't agree with his judgment that it is perverse. Perhaps because I take the word "perverse" to mean unhealthy, miscreant. Paul Ricouer uses this term when he tries to define evil. It means it is an indefensible position. I don't think this is the case here.

It is, however, misguided because by banning themselves the schools render themselves passive and transparent.

There is indignation in this ban, which I interpret as a reaction against being brushed aside as marginal and insignificant.

But the reaction to being discounted (whether intentionally or not) by standing apart is hardly a vigorous reaction. It seems to affirm Jewish outsiderness. A more appropriate response would have been to take the bull by its horns, showing up in organized numbers, to pay homage to a Jewish girl whose promising genius was so brutally and gratuitously cut short. And never mind the location.

Perhaps the Jewish schools will reconsider.


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