Holocaust Lessons

An exhibition on Anne Frank details the lessons we should learn from her story, but making the past relevant today is not that simple

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A statue of Anne Frank in Utrecht

Making the past relevant is never straightforward, and making the Holocaust relevant is perhaps the most fraught exercise of all. At one end of the argument is the belief that the murder of around six million European Jews was such an unprecedented event it defies comparison with any other genocide, even those perpetrated by Stalin and Pol Pot. The problem with this purist view, however, is that it prevents us from taking away lessons to be learnt in the present day – which is the other side of the argument’s view. Many believe that the Holocaust teaches modern societies the need for racial tolerance, to stand up for the persecuted, and so on. The protagonists of this view vary enormously in their politics and prescriptions. They range from those who see, not unreasonably, a mortal threat to Jewry in the paranoid anti-Semitic worldview of a nuclear-armed Iranian leadership, to those who, less reasonably, accuse Israel of perpetrating genocide against the Palestinians.

A new exhibition in Ely Cathedral, Cambridge, Anne Frank and You, falls into the ‘learning lessons from the Holocaust’ camp. It has all the virtues and some of the faults of that genre. It is a travelling show, sponsored by the Anne Frank Trust, an organisation that has always sought to reach out to the wider community through various exhibitions, events and awards.

The story of Anne Frank is well known. A Dutch resident born to German Jewish parents, she was forced into hiding along with her family for two years in an Amsterdam attic ‘annexe’. She was eventually betrayed, deported by the Nazis and died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her story was immortalised by the post-war publication of a version of her diary, which has sold millions of copies. It inspired many imitators, including that of the young Bosnian Muslim girl Zlata Filippovic, who chronicled the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

The thrust of the exhibition – as indicated by its inclusion of ‘and you’ – is to demonstrate how Anne Frank’s story transcends the specificity of time and place to embrace the cause of all humanity. It does so by reminding us of the number of genocides that have happened since the Holocaust, including Briafra, Cambodia, Sudan (on many occasions), Bosnia, Kosovo, among others.  It also laments the prevalence of ethnic and cultural prejudice occurring even in advanced western societies. The exhibition features panels on the experiences of black people and homosexuals. Surprisingly, there is nothing about present-day anti-Semitism, though perhaps this may be taken as read. All this culminates in a poster crowded with a variety of smiling black, white, mixed race, female, male, old and young faces from various walks of life. It asks: “Which one of these is a Jew?” Answer: “All of them”.

The exhibition ends with an invitation to sign “the Anne Frank Declaration”, pledging that one “will stand up for what is right and speak out against what is unfair and wrong”, to “try defend those who cannot defend themselves”, and to “strive for a world in which our differences will make no difference – a world in which everyone is treated fairly and has an equal chance in life.”

There are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, it negates the political. In their minds, the Nazis were not waging war on one little girl but on a vicious international enemy leagued for the destruction of Germany. Secondly, it places too much emphasis on external marks of recognition. Contrary to popular belief, Hitler did not emphasize blond hair and blue eyes so much as outlook, which he considered the key to racial affiliation. It was precisely because the Nazis knew that Jews came in many physical shapes, hues and sizes that they put so much on effort on identifying them, particularly if they were not conspicuously ‘semitic’ (as the Ostjuden conveniently were). Thirdly, the exhibition’s desire to embrace as many victims as possible – laudable as it is – dilutes its message and sometimes even subverts it. For example: a panel on knife crime develops into a general attack on the use of violence to settle disputes. On another wall a newsreel shows the use of extreme military coercion to bring Nazi tyranny to an end! In this context, the Anne Frank pledge is so broad it becomes almost meaningless. Most modern anti-Semites could easily sign it in relatively good faith.

The most questionable connection of all, I find, is made between Anne Frank’s fate as a Jew and the need for toleration each other in a diverse society.  Sadly, modern anti-Semitism is not a negation of multi-culturalism, but in some respects a result of it. Perhaps the only occasion when the extreme right and extreme left sit down together in harmony is when they combine to decry the power of international Jewry (sometimes thinly disguised as ‘Zionism’).  Here, diversity is not the solution, but part of the problem, because an extreme desire to respect it often means tolerating extreme intolerance. The exhibition could easily have ended with a poster containing portraits of the white extreme right-wing politician Jean Marie le Pen, the black comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, an Iranian Mullahs, and assorted other extremists, with the question: “Which one of these is an anti-Semite?” Answer: “All of them.”