Comment: Who does Anne Frank belong to?

Invoking the legacy of the Holocaust icon can touch a sensitive nerve, but we shouldn't be afraid to talk about her.

Anne Frank in 1940, while at 6. Montessorischool, Niersstraat 41-43, Amsterdam (photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Anne Frank in 1940, while at 6. Montessorischool, Niersstraat 41-43, Amsterdam
(photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
More than 70 years later, Anne Frank is still one of the most iconic faces of the Holocaust.
The diary of the murdered 15-year old remains an international bestseller, and is taught in classrooms around the globe.
And still, we argue about her legacy. What is acceptable and what is not? When can we mention her and when is she off limits? What can we say about her and what can’t we? Frank’s name has been bandied about with some frequency in recent days, in connection with some jarring news stories throughout the world.
Just this week, the German railway company Deutsche Bahn announced plans to name a new high-speed train after Frank. The decision caused some outcry, in particular over the insensitivity behind linking Frank to a train, the symbol of deportation for millions of Holocaust victims.
The Anne Frank House said while the decision was likely made with “good intentions...
the combination is painful for the people who experienced these deportations, and causes fresh pain to those who still bear the consequences of those times within them.”
The railway company said it is now holding an internal discussion on the decision, which it said it made thoughtfully: “Aware of the historical responsibility we bear, we made a deliberate decision to help keep Anne Frank’s memory alive.”
Frank was the center of another controversy over the past week, when she became the symbol of European soccer rivalries. First, a team in Italy plastered stickers on a stadium depicting Frank wearing the rival team’s jersey. The next day, Italy’s sports minister announced that a passage from Frank’s diary would be read aloud at all professional, amateur and youth soccer matches in the country. Then, just a week later, stickers of Anne Frank in a different team’s soccer jersey surfaced in Germany as well.
And a few weeks ago, a Halloween costume of Frank popped up on an online site, describing her as a World War II hero and an inspiration, adding, “We can always learn from the struggles of history.”
The company quickly pulled the costume and noted that it wasn’t intended for Halloween usage.
Clearly the legacy of Frank is a sensitive one. Using her name or photo for crass commercialization, or sports rivalries, or obviously antisemitic intentions is repulsive and should be condemned.
But not all awkward usages of Anne Frank are created equal. While it is clear that now, perhaps more than ever, the world is in dire need of Holocaust education, maybe stories like these can help fuel that need.
The discussion we have after these incidents, the thoughtful considerations and the much-needed boost to consciousness and education surrounding the Holocaust should be a positive thing.
In 2013, a 19-year old Justin Bieber visited The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
Signing the guest book, Bieber wrote that he hoped the young Frank “would have been a belieber,” a word used to describe his fans. While the pop star was criticized for his seeming insensitivity, few praised the teen for taking time out of his trip to visit a museum about her life – a museum in which Bieber read about how Frank hung posters of her favorite movie stars on the wall – much like his fans do today.
And policing Anne Frank improprieties with more Anne Frank may turn out to be ill-advised. After all, when her diary passage was read out at games in Italy last week, it was met by chants and singing by angry fans. Members of the targeted team wore shirts with her face on them, with the phrase “no to antisemitism” written on them. Is a well-intentioned Anne Frank T-shirt not still tacky? While even the best of intentions can go awry, intentions do matter. And attempts to honor – and much more importantly, remember – victims of the Holocaust should be lauded. Educational institutions should step in with advice, and countries across Europe should take a hard look at their school curriculums.
Frank has allowed millions of schoolchildren around the globe to connect to the atrocities of the Holocaust on a human level. That work should be, as always, carefully continued.
JTA contributed to this report.