It is with great caution and a heavy heart that I attempt to unravel this immensely delicate topic. Anne Frank and all that her story encapsulates permeates a past much larger than any of us. A few months back, I traveled to Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank House, walking outside to face the beautiful canal that faced The Secret Annex, with such an odd sensation of wallowing sadness and sheer bewilderment. The building looked just like any other on the block; beautiful and historic, yet this particular house held a sinister distinguishing factor, which accounts for the over 1.2 million people that pay a visit to its humble walls every year. For fear of not properly illustrating this fragile fragment of history, I never imagined publishing reflections on the experience. However, given the rise in antisemitism and hate crimes throughout the world, I thought it crucial to bring to light Anne Frank’s story, which unfolds an overtly dark piece of history, but also unravels immensely important lessons. We often look to the past as a precedent. In many cases, we use it as a building block towards a better future, with constantly evolving technology and medicine. However, in other ways, it seems that humanity does not always heed the premonitions the past offers. Anne Frank’s story represents a crucial lesson surrounding humanity, love, war, and courage; serves as an emblem for the millions of Holocaust victims whose unique stories were never told; and as a reminder to all of the crippling capability of hatred. It is through commemorating Anne Frank that we must challenge all prejudice and ignorance that very much persists today.
As we ascended the incredibly steep staircase to the Secret Annex, also known as the Frank’s hiding spot for just over two years, the realness of it all settled in. The original bookcase that hid the secret door to the Annex, the photos across Anne’s bedroom, and of course the original diary in which she inscribed her most profound and ordinary thoughts. Both elements of the account are peculiar. That is, for such philosophical ideas surrounding life to arise in the diary of a young child was remarkable, as she writes, “Riches can all be lost, but that happiness in your own heart can only be veiled, and it will still bring you happiness again, as long as you live. As long as you can look fearlessly up into the heavens, as long as you know that you are pure within, and that you will still find happiness.” Despite her aptitude for writing and reflection at such a young age, more noteworthy to me was the normality in many of her experiences: fighting with Margot, her sister; loathing certain subjects at school; getting her first period; and experiencing a first kiss. I find the latter accounts, the typical accounts of any adolescent female, to be most disquieting, as after all, Anne Frank was like most young girls her age, and their diverging fates really only involved one uncommon factor: religion. Anne reveals her thoughts on religion as an arbitrary characteristic of any being. She writes, “Would anyone, either a Jew or a non-Jew, understand this about me, that I am simply a young girl badly in need of some rollicking fun?… Surely the time will come when we are people again and not just Jews.”
The stark contrast between altruism and inhumanity is certainly the most jarring element of every account. Survivors speak of the most devilish and desperate acts that most humans could not begin to fathom, yet they also speak of angelic acts carried out by fellow prisoners as well as the SS, which provided them an inkling of hope or even saved their life. Even in the most desperate of times, many found goodness. Amidst the apprehension and anxiety that came with going into hiding, the Franks decide to share their already-cramped and food-barren Annex with an additional person. Mr. Frank says, “If we can save someone, then everything else is of secondary importance.” The Frank family was not alone in a selfless act in spite of looming danger. Anne speaks of the resistance and underground movements, including several individuals working in the factory below the Annex, who constantly risked their lives to ensures the secret tenants were fed, healthy, and remained hidden. Anne writes, “There are a great number of organizations, such as ‘The Free Netherlands,’ which forge identity cards, supply money to people ‘underground,’ find hiding places for people, and work for young men in hiding, and it is amazing how much noble, unselfish work these people are doing, risking their own lives to help and save others.” The actions of these individuals were truly heroic, as it is often the privileged, those unaffected by a tragedy, who turn a blind eye to the evil surrounding them. In the case of the Holocaust, individuals turned a blind eye to the millions torn from their homes, families, belongings, and marched off to an unforsaken hell. Many turned their backs on friends for fear of their own lives. Some went out of their way to expose those in hiding, for an extra monetary reward or food stipend. The latter-most evil is was ultimately drew the Franks out of their hiding spot and on a train to Auschwitz.
It will always be in times like these, the most trying of events, in which we can truly see the good and evil in each being, and the Holocaust starkly exacerbates these opposite walks of life. Bloeme Evers-Emden, a survivor who knew Anne in the camp, writes, “From Auschwitz, I also remember that dull, terrible amazement that flooded over me when I learned that there were, apparently, people who were instructed to destroy other people, to kill, to annoy, to torment them to death. This was something that absolutely didn’t fit into my image of humanity and the world, and I was stunned. I had heard and read stories. I could remember the events of 1941 in the Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam, but you could still think of that as an excess of coincidence – a row that got out of hand, or whatever. But it turned out to be a system, not something that happened by chance.” Rachel van Amerongen-Frankfoorder, another survivor who also met Anne in the concentration camps, furthers, “The Allies must have known, after all; we understood that. And that they just let us go to hell, did nothing, and also let the trains go on running to Auschwitz, to Birkenau, continuously, even though they knew what was going on. Now we know that the war was much more important to them than the Jews. That probably answers the open question.” Despite the cruelty and lack of help from the outside world, prisoners found goodness and strength within each another. Evers-Emden writes, “The goal of the Germans was the disorganization, the disintegration or your personality. That didn’t work with us, above all because of the mutual support that the members of our group of women gave each other, and because of what we had brought with us in terms of inner strength. In retrospect, I think that it is really quite marvelous to be able to establish that that is what made the difference.” These accounts are always striking to me; starving, witnessing gruesome atrocities, encountering death at every corner, and not knowing the fate of loved ones, these individuals were able to find hope, strength, and willpower through companionship and love, which ultimately prevailed. In his work, The Footsteps of Anne Frank, Ernst Schnabel encapsulates this very distinction: “I have spoken about Otto Frank in many public speeches over the past quarter or a century, and often describe him as the polar opposite of, and counterbalance to, Adolf Hitler. Both men were born in 1889 and both fought as young men in the catastrophic Great War, and both men were proof that a single person can become an influencer of millions. One went on to wreak devastation and loss throughout Europe while the other went on to promote his daughter’s writing as a force for good.”
In the final pages of her diary, Anne makes a wish to go on living after her death, and her father, Otto Frank made this dream a reality, not only through Anne’s diary, but also through the account of survivors who knew Anne in the concentration camps. All of the survivors share the same trauma, rage, and sadness as they recount their stories about Anne and the camps, but seemingly do it for a single reason. Janny Brandes Brilleslijper writes, “I want to repeat, I have told this because I want to make it very clear to a large number of people that all discrimination – whatever form it takes – is evil and that the world can go to pieces because of it. Actually, literally, go to pieces. Discrimination against someone because of his skin color or his ears or hair, or God knows what – we can all die from that. It only takes one person to say, ‘He isn’t as good as I am because he has…’ You can fill in the rest.”
I do not wish to draw parallels from the Holocaust to current day unrest and violence throughout our world, however I do believe that the Holocaust must be used as a message for them. Hatred and discrimination are vigorous forces when we think of religious persecution, racism, sexism, and mass exodus. In North Korea, if Christians are discovered, not only are they deported to labor camps or even killed on the spot, their families to the fourth generation share their fate as well. In Africa, AIDs has claimed the lives of over fifteen million people due to religious opposition to contraception, and in other parts of the world, women die in childbirth due to religious anti-abortion laws. Look to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Sunni-Shiite divide, and the nearly 2,000 anti-Semitic reported incidents in the United States alone this year. In the United States, Americans born black have an average life expectancy seven years less than that of white Americans. In 2014, there were 44,480 hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales; of these, 37,484 were recorded as race hate crimes and 2,273 as religious hate crimes. In the United States, we still see tremendous amounts of gender discrimination and sexual assaults. In other parts of the world, femicide, the killing of a woman for her gender, claims lives of nearly seventy-thousand women each year. The level of violence affecting women in El Salvador and Honduras exceeds the combined rate of male and female homicides in some of the 40 countries with the highest murder rates in the world, such as Ecuador, Nicaragua and Tanzania. Today, more than seventy-million people are displaced from their homes. Some of the largest groups include the 6.7 million Syrian refugees; 2.7 Afghani refugees; 2.3 million South Sudanese refugees; 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar; and another one-million refugees from Somalia. How many countries have opened their doors to these people seeking asylum and how many have turned a blind eye?
Hatred and discrimination have tainted our history since the start of time. Even the most optimist of people would opine that it will persist through the end of time. This outlook is simply too dismal and grim to fathom. Through the darkest of times, Anne Frank and many holocaust survivors found goodness in people; both in their fellow prisoners and in the so-called ‘enemy’. Many persisted through the camps’ evils simply for the ability to share their stories with others, so that something so inhumane and evil would never happen again. On the eve of this New Year as we collectively make resolutions surrounding exercise, dieting, quitting smoking, and less stress, let us also resolve to bring goodness into the world; love before hatred, understanding before closemindedness, patience before assumptions, and kindness before cruelty. If everyone brought just a little bit of light into this world in the year to come, we would certainly find ourselves in a brighter, happier, love-filled place.