A critique of Holocaust Universalization in honour of Anne Frank
After decades of exposure to the Nazi murder of European Jewry, through education in schools and universities, the production of countless Holocaust histories and memoirs, the wide distribution of Holocaust related films, plays, and television programs, and, the construction of Holocaust memorials and museums, including a prominent federal institution in Washington, we are now facing pressure to include all people who suffered under Hitler into what we know as the Holocaust—the deliberate, systematic, state-sponsored annihilation of Jewish Europe.
How do we explain the apparent paradox of a culture that appears to be suffering from “Jewish Holocaust fatigue,”and yet knows very little about the history of this specific event and the pivotal role played by antisemitism in its conception and execution? To answer the question, we must begin to examine the phenomenon of Holocaust education and its universalizing methods, and try to assess what exactly people have learned about the Holocaust and antisemitism over the last several decades.
Part of the answer can be found in the material used to teach the subject. One of the central texts used by teachers, parents, and professors to educate students about the Holocaust is The Diary of Anne Frank. The book has been celebrated for decades but also criticized for its universalization, and not so subtle elision, of the Jewish experience under Nazism. The Diary was first published in Dutch as Het Achterhuis [The House Behind] in 1947, translated into French and German in 1950, and into English in 1952, with a play staged on Broadway only three years later.1
Instead of discussing the long and detailed controversies over the book and its theatrical applications, I will examine several trenchant critiques of the text that deserve our renewed attention. In 1960, Bruno Bettelheim wrote a psychosocial critique of the Broadway play (1955) and Hollywood film (1959) for Harper’s Magazine, in which he focused his attention not so much on Anne’s text but upon our use of it and our reaction to it. For Bettelheim, the larger culture’s “universal and uncritical response” to The Diary reflected “our wish to forget the gas chambers,” and instead take comfort in the false belief that Jews could retreat “into an extremely private, gentle, sensitive world” despite being surrounded “by a maelstrom apt to engulf one at any moment.”2 Even more offensive was our fetishized treatment of her statement, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart,” to which the story is often reduced, when in fact Anne had written those optimistic words well before the attic had been sold out by a Dutch informant for about a dollar per person, the inhabitants deported to camps, her mother killed, and she and her sister Margot suffered abject death by typhus in Bergen Belsen in April 1945.
This “lesson” about the goodness of people, given the actual history of Anne Frank and her family, is patently false, and Bettelheim believed that it created an equally false sense of optimism, misleading readers to imagine Anne surviving the war. In fact, recent pedagogical studies of The Diary have demonstrated this exact problem. Students have been shown to characterize Anne’s diary as more “hopeful than sad,” as a story of survival, and even a love story. They appear to manifest a deep-seated resistance to the truth of her death in Bergen Belsen, which was described as “ruining” the story for one student in a classroom study.3
Bettelheim also argued that the platitude about human goodness “releases us effectively of the need to cope with the problems Auschwitz presents.”4 Writing in 1960, he did not mention antisemitism specifically, nor did he characterize the specific “problems” Auschwitz presents, but today we know that without antisemitism there would not have been a Birkenau, and yet The Diary allows its readers to disregard this reality entirely. Here, then, is a perfect example of the way students, and the larger culture, are exposed to the Holocaust and yet learn nothing in particular about the problem of antisemitism.
Lawrence Langer makes an important observation about the book in this regard. Instead of providing any actual information about the Holocaust or antisemitism, Langer argues, The Diary “enacts in its very text a designed avoidance of the very experience it is reputed to grant us some exposure to [and] thus her work helps us to transcend what we have not yet encountered, nonetheless leaving behind a film of conviction that we have.”5
In a devastating critique by Cynthia Ozick, The Diary is described as “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced . . . infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”6 Like Bettelheim and Langer, Ozick denies the value of this text as a Holocaust document. To make her point, she proceeds to reconstruct the actual fate of the Frank girls, based upon the testimony of Belsen survivors, including Anne’s schoolmate Hannah Goslar: “[Margot] fell dead to the ground from the wooden slab on which she lay, eaten by lice, and Anne, heartbroken and skeletal, naked under a bit of rag, died a day or two later.”7
Equally important to Ozick’s graphic truth-telling is her revelation of the very real dejudaization of the book, revealed by the publication in 1995 of additional diary material removed by Anne Frank’s father Otto, subsequent publishers, and translators.8 Comparing editions now reveals that Otto Frank removed Anne’s numerous references to Judaism, including those describing Yom Kippur. Additionally, the Zionism of Anne’s sister Margot as well as the Hebrew the family sung at Hanukkah were deleted from the Hackett Broadway script approved by Frank. Additions that distort Anne’s story were invented by producer Lillian Hellman, who inserted lines like “we’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer . . . There’ve always been people that’ve had to . . . sometimes one race . . . sometimes another.”9
Even worse, Otto Frank allowed the translator of the German edition, Anneliese Schütz, to either remove or revise Anne’s passages about Germans. For example, in her list of house rules, Anne writes, “‘Use of Language: It is necessary to speak softly at all times. Only the language of civilized people may be spoken, thus no German.’ The German translation reads: “Alle Kultursprachen . . . aber leise!’—‘all civilized languages . . . but softly!’”10 Schütz justified her methods of distortion and exculpation as necessary because a book “for sale in Germany . . . cannot abuse the Germans.”11
Ozick tells us that a German drama critic admitted that the theatrical version of The Diary allowed Germans to see “our own fate—the tragedy of human existence per se.”12 And so, as Alvin Rosenfeld observes, “Anne Frank has become a ready-to-hand formula for easy forgiveness,”13 and of all things, Ozick argues, a “vehicle of German communal identification.”14
One is reminded of Theodor Adorno’s discussion of a German woman who left the play in 1959 saying, “Yes, but really, at least that girl ought to have been allowed to live.”15 The fact that Adorno characterizes this remark as a “first step toward insight,” for which he appears to be grateful, illustrates the pervasive antisemitism in postwar German society and the ongoing complicity of Germans in these crimes as late as 14 years after the war.
It would not be until 1991 that Germans would have the opportunity to discover the original content of Anne’s diary.
Cynthia Ozick describes Otto Frank in what are thought to be stereotypically German Jewish terms: secular, assimilated, and bourgeois, but also accommodating, even deferential in relation to gentiles and especially toward Germans. She interprets his primary role in distorting The Diary of Anne Frank as the result of his “social need to please his environment and not to offend it.”16 It has always been, and remains today, safer for Jews to avoid confronting gentiles about their antisemitism, and this reality, Ozick argues, is what led him to “speak of goodness rather than destruction,” and to allow The Diary to be “accommodated to expressions like ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ diluting and befogging specific historical events and their motives.”17
Furthermore, the memorial he chose to honour his daughter was the Anne Frank Foundation18 and International Youth Center, both located in Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Ozick argues that this memorial, dedicated to the humanistic goal of bringing young people across the globe into contact with one another, “nevertheless washed away into do-gooder abstraction the explicit urge to rage that had devoured his daughter.”19
Here, she is referring to Anne’s diary entry from 3 May 1944: “There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.”20 Obviously, our choice to ignore these words and fetishize their very opposite, and then to present our choice as the epitome of Anne Frank and her experience, says more about the problematic needs of post-Holocaust Western culture than anything else. One can see how truly deceitful this cultural fetish is when the lines immediately following Anne’s comments about human goodness read: “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions.”21
Our misuse of her words is actually perverse, as suggested by Griselda Pollock, in that we make the victim herself provide bystanders (and even perpetrators) “with comfort in our distress at encountering her suffering.”22
The primary approach of Holocaust education has been to universalize (and, in some cases, to Christianize) the experience of Jewish suffering in an attempt to make the subject matter accessible and meaningful to non-Jews. This was perceived as necessary after the war due to the antisemitic nature of postwar Western culture. There was a general hope that non-Jews would somehow imbibe that antisemitism was wrong from reading these stories and eventually from a curriculum that focused on the general evils of discrimination and racism and that promoted a doctrine of universal human rights.
Today, Holocaust education forms the basis for a new type of civic education. Increasingly, young people are learning about war and genocide in a comparative framework and the new civic values of peaceful reconciliation and human rights. In countries like Canada and the United States this curriculum presents an opportunity to celebrate ourselves in the form of the American Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and our Allied role in liberating Europe from Hitler. This is precisely the conclusion presented in the permanent exhibit of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and it is the basis for the conception of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
There is no doubt that Holocaust education has had a positive influence on Western society. It has helped to create our contemporary concern with fighting racism and promoting human rights and has helped generate our current interest in the historical and contemporary problems of genocide and war crimes. The problem, however, is that Holocaust education has not produced a corresponding concern about, or awareness of, antisemitism. Rather, what we have produced in contemporary Western culture is a general conviction, to use Langer’s term, that we have learned the “lessons of the Holocaust” when in fact few people outside the academic field know anything in particular about the Nazi Final Solution, its systematic destruction of Jewish Europe, and the nature and history of the antisemitism responsible for this catastrophe, which continues to evolve and is now in fact a global phenomenon.
Given this problematic reality, one wonders if Cynthia Ozick is correct when she suggests at the end of her critique of The Diary of Anne Frank that it may have been better for Anne’s diary to have been lost, and thereby “saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.”23
1 As of 2001, the book had been translated into fifty-five languages and sold over twenty million copies.
2 Bruno Bettelheim, “The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank,” Harper’s Magazine (November 1960), 45-50: 45.
3 See Karen Spector and Stephanie Jones, “Constructing Anne Frank: Critical Literacy and the Holocaust in Eighth-Grade English,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 51:1 (September 2007): 36-48.
4 Bettelheim, 47.
5 Lawrence Langer, “Anne Frank Revisited,” in Using and Abusing the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 16-29: 20-21.
6 Cynthia Ozick, “Who Owns Anne Frank,” in Quarrel & Quandary(New York: Vintage, 2000), 74-102: 77.
7 Ibid., 79.
8 This is in addition to Otto Frank’s removal of material that embarrassed the family, including Anne’s discussion of the Frank marriage, and material that would have been outside the bounds of decency in the 1950s, such as her discussion of contraceptives, female genitalia, and lesbianism.
9 Ozick, 95.
10 Ibid., 90.
12 Ibid., 98.
13 Alvin Rosenfeld, “Popularization and Memory: The Case of Anne Frank,” in Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World, edited by Peter Hayes (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 243-278: 271.
14 Ozick, 98-99.
15 Theodor Adorno, “What Does Coming to Terms with the Past Mean?” in Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective, edited by Geoffrey Hartman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 114-129: 127.
16 Ozick, 85.
17 Ibid., 86.
18 Today the Anne Frank Foundation fights discrimination against minorities in Europe, with a specific focus on protecting the rights of Turks and immigrants.
19 Ozick, 86.
20 Ibid., 85.
21 Martha Ravits, “To Work in the World: Anne Frank and American Literary History,” Women’s Studies (1997), 1-30: 16.
22 Griselda Pollock, “Stilled Life: Traumatic Knowing, Political Violence, and the Dying of Anne Frank,” Mortality 12 (May 2007), 124-141: 139.
23 Ozick, 102.
A larger version of this essay was presented at Yale University in 2009.