This is a guest post by my historian sister, Holly Shulman, who recently presented a paper at a conference in Amsterdam. While she was there she visited the Ann Frank Museum, hosted by one of the curators, Dienke Hondius, who later asked Holly what her thoughts were about the museum. This is Holly's response.
Here is an attempt to answer your question as to why I found the Anne Frank House Museum personally disorienting.
The nub of the question is what are we doing when we remember (and commemorate) Anne Frank: something about the Jewish experience, or something about the human experience?
When I was a child the holocaust was talked about in our house, but it was not the subject of general conversation – in society, in politics, in literature – that it later became. That, of course, is the subject of Hasia Diner’s book, We Remember with Reverence and Love. Perhaps 1945-1968 (with the publication of Arthur Morse’s When Six Million Died) was a kind of limnal or marginal period of remembrance. In my house we talked about my parents’ German backgrounds, especially my mother’s. She remembered my grandmother trying to find who might still be living among her German relations, but could locate no one. Her family on both sides had arrived around 1850 as part of that general wave of German emigration to the US, and like so many Jews had steadily moved West until they reached Chicago. One of their relations sent home letters during the American Civil War that remained extant and are published as A Jewish Colonel in the Civil War. And like so many immigrants, my mother’s family kept many German ways, especially their food, but also the practice of Christmas, which was, after all, a German holiday by way of England. Many German Jewish families had Christmas meals and presents, and as the German practice was to buy a tree on Christmas Eve, so it was the custom of my grandparents and my parents.
By the late 1930s, after my mother’s family could discover no living relatives in Germany, my mother and my grandmother joined an organization to sponsor Jews trying to flee Hitler. My mother even received a letter (in German) from Albert Einstein after they tried to save two mathematicians and their son (unsuccessfully).
So I knew about the holocaust. It related to the history of my family, and I felt both gratitude and guilt that I had been born in the United States – a sentiment I think shared by virtually every American Jewish child of my age.
But reading about it as a child was not simple. There were no books, as there were by the time my daughter Rebecca was a child. By then there were a ton of memoirs and stories from survivors and children of survivors. But in the 1950s we simply and only had Anne Frank. There were no movies that I remember, or radio shows, to which we still listened. We were, as many have written, very concerned with being American, even as American a family as mine, and swept up in the universalism of the era.
The story of Anne Frank had a huge impact on me as a member of a German-Jewish upper middle class family who wanted for nothing and who were on the one hand politically and socially Jewish but on the other totally alienated from Judaism as a religion. (My father’s side was a bit more complex in its background – but that is another story for another time.) This mixture of no religion and complete Jewish identity – at least with their German Jewish past – is central I believe to any understanding of the meaning of Judaism in the post enlightenment world. Being Jewish is more than a religious belief. It is being part of a people and a history. What in Hebrew is called Am Israel, the Jewish people. As a child the holocaust was there, always there, but always distant. It was The Diary of Anne Frank that made it all real. Not the camps, of course, but the fears and the hiding and the drumbeat of threat. I remember reading the book so clearly. I must have been 10 or 11. I took it to bed with me to read at night, and after I shut off the light the fears and shadows of the book were like a fog wrapped around me, they crept inside of me and stayed somewhere in of my body. With Anne Frank I knew, I KNEW, I was Jewish and that I would remain Jewish, and that Hitler would not win. Anne Frank cemented my identity as a Jew. Reading her Diary was an act of affirmation.
As an adult I thought about her and her book less and less. I read more Jewish history. I sent my children to a Jewish nursery school and we joined a synagogue. Being Jewish became part of the daily pattern of my life, even while struggling with the notion of a God and becoming an atheist. The most recent books about Europe and fascism and the destruction of the Jews that have meant a lot to me are more like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Shadow of the Shtetl.
It is against that background that I saw that Anne Frank House – at your gracious invitation and marvelous hospitality. What I saw was an Anne Frank who is no longer a symbol of the destruction of the Jews, and of the always recycling hatred of the Jews, but a generalized emblem of victimization, of the problems of power and authoritarianism, of the results that can occur when ordinary people are too afraid to speak up.
In that light, I suppose I felt that Anne Frank now belongs to the world, but in a sense not to me. You may think this a very odd comparison, but let me contrast Anne Frank for a moment to Queen Esther. Every year Jews remember Queen Esther for saving the Jewish People, and Purim became a very important holiday in Europe because all the cycles of destruction and attempted destruction became folded into that one story. But Purim was and remains Jewish. There is no holiday celebrating Anne Frank, but all those visitors are commemorating Anne. Esther is particular, ethnic, and globally irrelevant. Anne is for everyone.
After visiting with you I felt a bit dizzy. Part of me celebrates that Anne Frank can become such a potent figure of dignity and the fight against oppression. But part of me experienced a loss – of a childhood figure who had once crept into my body as I lay in warm sheets falling asleep and told me stories that changed my life.