In 1997, the writer Cynthia Ozick asked: “Who Owns Anne Frank?” Because this Saturday January 27th marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I ask myself a version of this same question: “Was Anne’s story uniquely Jewish or is it a universal story of youthful optimism and enduring hope in a cruel world?”
Anne Frank’s diary and story have resonated with readers across the world, and in Muslim countries. For example, in Iran, Anne Frank has been among the favorite foreign authors for women, and her message of finding hope in the face of adversity has been lauded by readers across faiths. But do we Jews pay a price in de-Judaizing the Anne Frank story?
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in 2020, playwright Tamara Micner performed her one-woman comedy, “Holocaust Brunch,” first in Manchester, England, then in Vancouver, her home town.
“In recent years,” Ms. Micner, speaking to a local reporter in Vancouver, said: “I feel there’s been increasing discussion about inherited trauma in indigenous communities and in other minority communities, such as Japanese- and Chinese-Canadian communities. For me, it’s been valuable to remember that, sadly, we as Jews are not alone in inheriting collective trauma. In fact, I also know White, Christian Canadians who have it, too. The tsuris we carry is unique in some ways, but we’re definitely in good company.”
Is the tsuris – from the Yiddish, meaning ‘trouble’ – unique in only “some ways”? Originating in the Latin, unicus, unique means “only, single, sole, alone of its kind.”
The Nazis certainly saw Jews as unici, different from all others. It is thanks to Jewish uniqueness that Nazis could scapegoat Jews so effectively as responsible for Germany’s loss in World War 1.
Launched near the time of Ms. Micner’s stage production about collective historic trauma was a Holocaust-themed play on the Anne Frank festival circuit: The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX, directed by Stan Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman’s play features exclusively LatinX actors. The adjective, LatinX, is fashionable as a gender-neutral way of describing people of Latin American origin. According to a review appearing in Canada’s Jewish Independent, having only LatinX actors in a story written by a Jewish girl about a Jewish family’s confinement in a Dutch attic (who eventually died in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland) is what makes the Zimmerman version of the posthumously published Anne Frank Diary―an adaption of the 1955 Broadway play written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett ― “unique”.
“I chose to use LatinX actors for the characters in the attic,” Mr. Zimmerman told the Jewish Independent, “after seeing a CNN report about a Jewish woman in L.A. who arranged to hide a Latina mom and her daughters after her husband was suddenly deported by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Contrary to initial media reports, we are not replacing the Nazis with ICE agents,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “I’m not saying the situation is exactly the same as the Second World War, but there are parallels – parallels that we can hopefully learn from. Only then can we live by Elie Wiesel’s famous phrase, ‘Never again.’”
While preparing his twist on the Anne Frank Broadway rendition of the play, Mr. Zimmerman was aghast, he said, upon learning that “the 15-year-old actor playing Anne told us that she did not know who Anne Frank was before auditioning for our production. As a Jew, I grew mad to learn that Anne’s diary is no longer required reading in the California school system. I decided then that it was vital to get as many student groups as possible to see this play, with this cast.”
To what extent do these novel ways of staging The Diary of Anne Frank help us to keep the meaning of Anne’s story alive? According to the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, the first 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z, published in September 2020, most respondents were unaware of basic facts about the Holocaust. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered, and over half thought the Jewish death toll was fewer than 2 million. 56 percent of U.S. Millennial and Gen Z respondents were unable to identify Auschwitz-Birkenau. Just three percent of respondents had heard of the Bergen-Belsen death camp, where Anne Frank and her sister, Margot Frank, died in 1945. And yet, The Diary is one of the most widely read books among teenagers in America and across the world, having been translated into more than 65 languages.
The world has heard of Anne Frank, the girl diarist maturing into adulthood in an attic, but what is it, precisely, that her name represents?
I have a family connection to the American Jewish writer, Meyer Levin. Levin was so involved in trying to keep the Anne Frank story Jewish, that he became sick over it. His obsession was the “particularity of Anne Frank’s suffering.” He wanted the world to realize that The Diary was far more than a caution about man’s inhumanity to man. It was about the plight of Jews throughout history―the stigma of being “chosen,” of being unique.
Levin did not want an assimilated Anne on stage representing teenagers everywhere. He would have called it “cultural appropriation,” had the term existed at the time. Levin wanted a Jewish Anne fighting age-old antisemitism.
We are left today with a motley lot of Anne Frank plays. There have been and continue to be many powerful productions of The Diary – sometimes uplifting, sometimes treacly – staged in high-schools and middle schools across the world, in urban theatre districts and in small-town local festivals. In many renditions of The Diary, the Nazi hunt for Jews seems de-odorized; in some versions, the targeting of Jews by Hitler’s armies is altogether expunged.
From the Book of Job onwards, Jews have sought to understand Jewish suffering. Suffering is, of course, universal, but there are particularities about Jewish suffering.
Anne’s diary entry of October 9th 1942 reads, in part: “Today I have nothing but dismal and depressing news to report. Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews. Miep told us about someone who’d managed to escape from there. It must be terrible in Westerbork. The people get almost nothing to eat, much less to drink, as water is available only one hour a day, and there’s only one toilet and sink for several thousand people. Men and women sleep in the same room, and women and children often have their heads shaved. Escape is almost impossible; many people look Jewish, and they’re branded by their shorn heads.”
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the particularity of Jewish suffering at the hands of Hamas terror so raw, we need to reclaim Anne’s story. “Who owns Anne Frank?” We, the Jews, do.