I was a teenager myself when I first read Anne Frank’s diary, or at least the edited version of it that was then in print and which was the basis for the Broadway show and the subsequent movie featuring Millie Perkins as Anne Frank, Joseph Schildkraut as Otto Frank, Shelly Winter as Auguste van Pels (for which portrayal she won an Oscar), and Richard Beymer as Peter van Daan. I was too young to have seen the show on Broadway—it ran from 1955 to 1957—nor did I see the revival in 1997 featuring Natalie Portman as Anne. (We were still living in British Columbia back then, although I surely would have gone had we been in New York.) I did see the original 1959 movie, of course, but it was the book itself that made the greatest impression on me as a young man and which continues to exert its force on me even now after all these years.
Thinking back on the experience, I find myself wondering what precisely it was that I found so moving about the diary. There are, after all, other diaries left behind by people who died in the camps. As a young man I read, for example, the diary of Moshe Zev Flinker, a young man whom the Nazis murdered at Auschwitz in 1944, which was published by Yad Vashem in 1965 as Young Moshe’s Diary and which somehow found its way into my hands around the same time I first read Anne Frank’s diary. And, of course, I read the so-called Oneg Shabbat diaries collected and preserved by Emanuel Ringelblum in three huge milk cans he managed somehow to bury safely beneath the Warsaw Ghetto before being executed by the Germans in March of 1944. (One of the milk cans was never located and is presumably still buried under Warsaw somewhere. The righteous souls who were hiding the Ringelblums outside the ghetto were also executed.) And there are many more such diaries, some of which were featured in a very well-received 2006 film by Lauren Lazar called I’m Still Here: Real Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust which was subsequently nominated for two Emmy awards. I’ve even read some of the perpetrators’ diaries, particularly the diary of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, published as Death Dealer: the Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz (and subsequently also under several other titles), which was as shocking in its detail as it was creepy in terms of its author’s detachment from his own story…and as depressing a book about the depths to which the human soul can sink as anything I believe I have ever read, possibly with no exceptions at all.
Anne Frank’s diary is in its own class, however, and it had its own special effect on me. Partially, that was because we were only separated by four degrees of separation: I grew up in Queens as the next door neighbor of Erna Neuhauser, who was the girlhood friend in Vienna many years earlier of Miep Gies (then known as Hermine Santruschitz), the woman who became Otto Frank’s secretary and later played a key role, really the key role, in hiding the Franks and the others in the so-called Secret Annex. I’ve written about Miep Gies on several occasions before, mostly regarding her disinclination to be labelled as hero for merely having behaved morally and bravely. (If you are reading this electronically, you can find my letters about Miep easily by entering her name in the search box at the top of the screen.) But now I’d like to say something about Anne Frank…and particularly about her legacy.
Some of you may have noticed in the paper the other day that the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has mounted a huge exhibit about Anne and her family that includes not only photographs and a full-length facsimile of the diary itself, but also actual artifacts from the Secret Annex. If the exhibit itself leads a new generation of young people to read the diary and to internalize the lesson that the k’doshim who died during the Shoah were not special people in any specific way, just ordinary Jewish citizens who had the misfortune to fall into the fiend’s hands and then to pay with their lives for their membership in the House of Israel…and, of course, also the corollary of that thought, that if any of us had been in that place at that time we likely would have met that fate…then it will have been well worth its curators’ efforts to mount the exhibition in the first place. But even all these many years later, the world continues to debate the specific lessons that the world’s most famous diary can best teach its readers.
The battle over Anne Frank’s legacy has usually been shaped by the tension between particularism and universality, between wanting Anne’s to be specifically a Jewish story and wanting it to be something “about” humankind itself. Otto Frank himself, Anne’s father and the family’s sole survivor, was on the univeralist side of the discussion, famously warning Meyer Levin, the author of the “first” adaptation of the diary (a three-hour radio play first broadcast in 1952 that I’ve also never heard), against making the story into a “Jewish play.” Others, including the officials who administer the Secret Annex in its latter-day guise of museum and shrine, have climbed onto that bandwagon as well. On the occasion of my sole visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam back in 1973 when I was all of twenty years old, in fact, I was shocked to discover that the exhibits on the ground floor of the main building—the Secret Annex was behind 263 Prinsengracht, not really part of it—I was shocked to find that the materials on display had nothing to do with the Shoah or with anti-Semitism at all, but were entirely about the Vietnam War and the suffering it brought to Vietnamese civilians. I had the distinct impression that the casual visitor without enough time to visit every single display case could easily have missed the fact that Anne Frank had been Jewish! I remember walking away thinking that poor Anne had been murdered again, that now even her legacy as a Jewish martyr had been compromised to the point of non-existence. And in the Anne Frank House itself!
That, of course, is not the issue in Los Angeles, where the entire exhibit is devoted to Anne and her family specifically as Shoah victims. (There are even things there I’ve never seen or even heard of before, for example a set of letters that Anne and her sister exchanged in 1940 with some American pen-pals in Iowa.) But what is troubling, and what the article in last Sunday’s Times was about, were the conclusions the exhibit draws: after devoting its entirety to Anne’s Jewishness and the price she paid for it, the exhibit then pulls back and fully universalizes the lessons to be derived from the contemplation of her story. In a series of mawkishly sentimental touch screens, Anne’s legacy is reduced to vague platitudes, each one supported by some quote or another from the diary. People should not gossip about their friends behind those friends’ backs. People should oppose bullying and attend their children’s school board meetings. People should not let their dogs soil public spaces. That’s what Anne Frank lived and died to teach, that people should clean up after their dogs in public parks? Let me quote Edward Rothstein, who scathingly reviewed the exhibit for the Times: “Isn’t it remarkable how Anne’s diary can inspire such empathetic efforts? But look how thoroughly history has been dissolved! See how horrific circumstances are distilled into effervescent platitudes! The Museum of Tolerance teases unconvincing homilies from Holocaust history, as if intolerance were the root cause of genocide, which now seems to be an international delusion. As a result, the extreme is diminished in its awfulness, the trivial becomes grotesque and, ultimately, any analogy becomes possible.”
I find those very challenging remarks. The notion that what fueled the unimaginable horrors of the Shoah was that the Germans were merely being intolerant sounds just right enough not to be totally offensive, but really is as misleading an idea as it is slightly correct. Yes, of course, Nazi anti-Semitism was a version of intolerance. But anti-Semitism is not just another kind of prejudice, but something malign and toxic within the consciousness of western civilization itself with roots so deep that it simply cannot be eradicated or uprooted by nice people wishing that it would go away. Earlier this year, I read David Nirenberg’s book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, published by W.W. Norton last February. And now there is a kind of companion volume, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism, which complements and supplements Nirenberg’s book. These are serious authors—Nirenberg is a professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago and Goldhagen, now an independent author, was an associate professor of political science at Harvard—who deserve to be taken seriously. If you’re going to wade into these waters, though, perhaps it would be best to begin by reading Rosemary Reuther’s 1996 book, Faith and Fratricide, which book had its own profound effect on me when it was first published. Together, these three books make it clear that anti-Semitism is not merely the Jewish version of other kinds of discriminatory prejudice, but something unto itself, something that is similar to other kinds of bigotry but which is also distinct from them. What prompted the Nazis to embark on their war against the Jews, therefore, was not merely that they were intolerant louts who couldn’t stand people not exactly like themselves—which is exactly what intolerance is, after all: the inability to tolerate others—but that they were seized by a mania that has existed for millennia and which, so Goldhagen, only morphs forward into different, more or less pestilential versions of itself as history progresses and the world remains unredeemed.
And that brings me to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks at the U.N. the other week. While the world was tripping all over itself in an effort to fall in love with Hassan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, and to will itself to imagine that Iran, the world’s leading exporter of terrorism and a nation led by people whose hatred for Israel knows no bounds, had somehow changed overnight into a reasonable group of allrightniks with whom we can surely come to terms if we only approach the issue fairly and generously…while the world was succumbing to the new president’s charming manner and dulcet tones, it fell to poor Benyamin Netanyahu to observe, as someone invariably does, that the emperor was not wearing any clothes, that the Iranian support for terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas continues unabated, that the Iranian leadership—both the show leaders like Rouhani and the real ones who actually set policy for Iran—that the leadership has yet to suggest even obliquely that it might be ready to abandon terror, to live in peace with all the nations of the Near East, or to renounce its self-arrogated right to pursue its own nuclear destiny in whatever way it sees fit. It fell to poor Bibi to pour so much cold water on so many people having such a good time!
And what reward did he receive? More or less the same one anyone telling people one thing when all they want is fervently to believe precisely the opposite. The New York Times itself in an article published on October 11, described Netanyahu’s stance as lonely, his voice as shrill, his aloneness as the central feature of his place on the world stage. What it really comes down to, I believe, is that Benyamin Netanyahu is a historian, not just the son of one. (His father, the late Benzion Netanyahu, was a professor of Jewish history whose specialty was the history of the Jews of Spain.) For him, I think, as for me and for many, Iran is not acting out of hostility to Israel or any great love for Israel’s enemies, but because it has become the fountainhead of anti-Semitism in the world today. That explains President Rouhani’s predecessor’s obsession with the Shoah, some part of which he appears to have inherited (albeit, at least so far, without the virulence). It explains the willingness of the leadership to speak not of their desire to bend Israeli policy to their will or to force a peaceful solution of some sort on the Palestinians and the Israelis, but of their desire to annihilate Israel and to murder its citizens. Once a nation embraces the language of Nazism, it links itself not to countries in the world who are displeased with this or that policy of the Israeli government but to the enemies of Israel from centuries past…including the twentieth. If any nation has seriously suggested that the solution to apartheid in South Africa was to “eliminate” all its white citizens, they would have been laughed off the international stage. But just days after the former president of Iran called for the elimination of Israel, he was permitted to speak as a respected world leader in the General Assembly of the United Nations.
To describe Anne Frank as a victim of intolerance is to miss the point almost entirely. She wasn’t murdered by people who didn’t care for her and her kind, she was killed because she was a Jew by people who saw the annihilation of the Jewish people as their life mission, as part of their national destiny. Benyamin Netanyahu understands that…and that is why his lonely mission is to remind the world that, historically speaking, no one—and certainly no nation—can speak blithely about the eradication of Israel and the annihilation of its citizens and retain its right to become a nuclear power. When the author of the 117th psalm suggested that the nations of the world cannot relate differently, let alone radically differently, to the God of Israel and the people of Israel, I think he had it exactly right.