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A statue of Anne Frank in Utrecht

Making the past relevant is never straightforward, and making the Holocaust relevant is perhaps the most fraught exercise of all. At one end of the argument is the belief that the murder of around six million European Jews was such an unprecedented event it defies comparison with any other genocide, even those perpetrated by Stalin and Pol Pot. The problem with this purist view, however, is that it prevents us from taking away lessons to be learnt in the present day - which is the other side of the argument's view. Many believe that the Holocaust teaches modern societies the need for racial tolerance, to stand up for the persecuted, and so on. The protagonists of this view vary enormously in their politics and prescriptions. They range from those who see, not unreasonably, a mortal threat to Jewry in the paranoid anti-Semitic worldview of a nuclear-armed Iranian leadership, to those who, less reasonably, accuse Israel of perpetrating genocide against the Palestinians.

A new exhibition in Ely Cathedral, Cambridge, Anne Frank and You, falls into the ‘learning lessons from the Holocaust' camp. It has all the virtues and some of the faults of that genre. It is a travelling show, sponsored by the Anne Frank Trust, an organisation that has always sought to reach out to the wider community through various exhibitions, events and awards.

The story of Anne Frank is well known. A Dutch resident born to German Jewish parents, she was forced into hiding along with her family for two years in an Amsterdam attic ‘annexe'. She was eventually betrayed, deported by the Nazis and died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her story was immortalised by the post-war publication of a version of her diary, which has sold millions of copies. It inspired many imitators, including that of the young Bosnian Muslim girl Zlata Filippovic, who chronicled the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s.

The thrust of the exhibition - as indicated by its inclusion of ‘and you' - is to demonstrate how Anne Frank's story transcends the specificity of time and place to embrace the cause of all humanity. It does so by reminding us of the number of genocides that have happened since the Holocaust, including Briafra, Cambodia, Sudan (on many occasions), Bosnia, Kosovo, among others.  It also laments the prevalence of ethnic and cultural prejudice occurring even in advanced western societies. The exhibition features panels on the experiences of black people and homosexuals. Surprisingly, there is nothing about present-day anti-Semitism, though perhaps this may be taken as read. All this culminates in a poster crowded with a variety of smiling black, white, mixed race, female, male, old and young faces from various walks of life. It asks: "Which one of these is a Jew?" Answer: "All of them".

The exhibition ends with an invitation to sign "the Anne Frank Declaration", pledging that one "will stand up for what is right and speak out against what is unfair and wrong", to "try defend those who cannot defend themselves", and to "strive for a world in which our differences will make no difference - a world in which everyone is treated fairly and has an equal chance in life."

There are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, it negates the political. In their minds, the Nazis were not waging war on one little girl but on a vicious international enemy leagued for the destruction of Germany. Secondly, it places too much emphasis on external marks of recognition. Contrary to popular belief, Hitler did not emphasize blond hair and blue eyes so much as outlook, which he considered the key to racial affiliation. It was precisely because the Nazis knew that Jews came in many physical shapes, hues and sizes that they put so much on effort on identifying them, particularly if they were not conspicuously ‘semitic' (as the Ostjuden conveniently were). Thirdly, the exhibition's desire to embrace as many victims as possible - laudable as it is - dilutes its message and sometimes even subverts it. For example: a panel on knife crime develops into a general attack on the use of violence to settle disputes. On another wall a newsreel shows the use of extreme military coercion to bring Nazi tyranny to an end! In this context, the Anne Frank pledge is so broad it becomes almost meaningless. Most modern anti-Semites could easily sign it in relatively good faith.

The most questionable connection of all, I find, is made between Anne Frank's fate as a Jew and the need for toleration each other in a diverse society.  Sadly, modern anti-Semitism is not a negation of multi-culturalism, but in some respects a result of it. Perhaps the only occasion when the extreme right and extreme left sit down together in harmony is when they combine to decry the power of international Jewry (sometimes thinly disguised as ‘Zionism').  Here, diversity is not the solution, but part of the problem, because an extreme desire to respect it often means tolerating extreme intolerance. The exhibition could easily have ended with a poster containing portraits of the white extreme right-wing politician Jean Marie le Pen, the black comedian Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, an Iranian Mullahs, and assorted other extremists, with the question: "Which one of these is an anti-Semite?" Answer: "All of them."

Adam Morris
October 14th, 2015
9:10 PM
Perhaps the only occasion when the extreme right and extreme left sit down together in harmony is when they combine to decry the power of international Jewry (sometimes thinly disguised as ‘Zionism'). Surely decrying Israel’s contemporary territorial ambition to destroy Palestine may be a cry against Zionist expansion but it is not a complaint against ‘the power of International Jewry’ ?

sd goh
April 20th, 2014
2:04 PM
harderwijk, if you had a relative or members of your immediate family decapitated because he or they refused to bow down to a passing Japanese soldier during their WW2 occupation of SE Asia, or had been subjected to their barbaric cruelty, sometimes gratuitously, in various sadistic forms-- from the purely commonplace to the ingenious – or had a daughter/women folk raped by soldiers (though not an uncommon practice of invading soldiers), or your lives totally disrupted because of foreign occupation, or suffered severe wartime deprivation/malnutrition and lived in constant daily terror and fear of your lives, or used as live bayonet practice, or after evisceration had your heart wolfed down as yummy sashimi (we are not talking even about the infamous Unit 731 where vivisection of humans went on) because the Oriental version of the Nazi Ubermensch thinks that being a member of the 'shido minzoku' (leading/divine race) he can kick around his fellow Asians regarded as members of the subhuman races or burakumin ….you might very well wish that Fat Man and Little Boy had been invented and used much earlier.

April 15th, 2014
9:04 AM
Are any lessons to be learned from ‘The Holocaust’? Let alone ‘the right’ ones? If so, who are “we” to be learning them? Prof. Simms’ first sentence is sufficient to demonstrate that he, for one, stands as condemned as the rest of those who care enough to spare the time to repeat what cannot be learned. “Making the past relevant” sounds almost as if ‘the past’ is not really an unknown quantity, not really “a foreign country” where “they do things differently”. Which is precisely why the term is so familiarly in vogue, of course. ‘The past’ sounds like a real place. Like ‘The Holocaust’. “The murder of six million European Jews” has inevitably become a neat historical artefact. As “9/11” is becoming. And “Dresden”. And “Hiroshima”. (Rarely is Nagasaki included anymore. For brevity.) Like ‘Death of a Salesman’, historical artefacts can safely and conveniently be academically discussed, in drawing rooms and classrooms, at parties and staff rooms, packaged as marketable commodities. Dehumanised. Precisely as “we” (who were not there) are told ‘The Final Solution’ was rationalised. But “murder”? So easy to pretend that ‘The Nazis’ (yet another dehumanising device), meaning the whole despicable lot of ‘em, simply decided one fine day (20 January 1942, to be exact) to murder other human beings. For their temerity, not of ‘being too Jewish’, but of being ‘Jews’. Is that possible? Well, no, actually, it isn’t. ‘Murder’ is defined in ‘the civilised West’ as deliberate behaviour with the intention of killing an undeserving human being. The commercial slaughter of domesticated animals is not defined as murder. As long as you know animals are not human. The routine execution of “undesirables” (such as incorrigible criminals), while lately fallen into awkward disuse, is never defined as murder and raises little fuss, where and when applied ‘elsewhere’. Especially if ‘the accused’ is ‘duly found guilty’, “on the balance of probability, beyond all reasonable doubt”. No, that’s not “murder”. That’s “justice”. There’s nothing to be learned from the belated (always much too late) realisation that it wasn’t “them” doing all those bad things. The ordinary people who were (are) involved in what “we” (who were/are never there) are now given to understand as ‘genocide’ are human beings too. Not animals. Or monsters. Not “anti-semitic Nazis”. But men and women. Fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. With children and ‘loved ones’ of their own. Just like me. And that’s what is so offensive. The idea that I could never do that. To an uncomfortable degree, the language, any language, determines what can and what cannot be said. It was never “our boys” against “their boys”. No, “our boys” are always engaged in a noble cause. “Making the world safe for democracy”, for instance. “Their boys” might suggest that the enemy is human too. Unthinkable. Literally. Language and ‘ethics’ requires that professional health care providers ‘objectify’ the ‘target demographic’. Hence the white coat, stethoscope and clinical architecture and furnishings. [In German, the customary ‘per Sie’ form of address ensures the requisite professional distance.] Heaven forfend that the subject should get emotionally involved with the object. Real bleeding people are ‘casualties’. And statistics. I don’t need the Holocaust to remind me that I am quite capable of insisting “you” get out of my way. I pretend but dare not admit that I would never declare “you” undeserving of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Until, that is, my own interests are seriously threatened. Or until I believe that to be the case. Which is why the relatives of the victim are not permitted to sit on the jury. Lest s/he should get the opportunity to act upon the attested desire for revenge. A lynch mob just looks uncivilised. The firebombing of Tokyo was conducted as part of the air raids on Japan during World War II. Strategic bombing and urban area bombing began in 1944 after the long-range B-29 entered service, first from China later the Marianas. These raids continued from 17 November 1944 until 15 August 1945. During ‘Operation Meetinghouse’ on 9–10 March 1945, said to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history, 279 B-29s dropped 1,665 tons of bombs on Tokyo. Mostly 500-pound (230 kg) E-46 cluster bombs, they released 38 napalm-carrying M-69 incendiary bomblets from 2,000–2,500 ft. Punching through thin roofing material or landing on the ground, they ignited 3–5 seconds later, throwing out a jet of flaming napalm globs. A lesser number of M-47 incendiaries was also dropped, a 100-pound (45 kg) jellied-gasoline and white phosphorus bomb that ignited on impact. In the first two hours of the raid, 226 of the attacking aircraft unloaded their bombs to overwhelm the city's fire defences. [Wikipedia] But that’s not murder. “Mais non, bien sur. C’est la guerre, n’est ce pas.” Of course, those men (well equipped, with wives, mothers, sweethearts) dutifully dropping those bombs, had every intention of killing as many people and causing as much destruction as possible. They knew their ‘targets’ way down there (out of sight, out of mind) were ‘innocent civilians’. But these were “our boys”, just doing their job. “For truth, justice and the American way.” What lesson is to be learned from ‘history’? That it could have been me in one of those planes? Or me on the ground, at the receiving end? Is war necessary? Of course, what a ridiculous question. You and I wouldn’t be here if war were unnecessary. The problem is that language invites the first person speaking, “I”, to confuse ‘necessary’ with ‘desirable’.

April 13th, 2014
2:04 AM
Perhaps another aspect would be that of emphasis. It has only been in the last few decades that other groups who suffered have been accorded anything near equality with the Jews. Thus, it comes across not so much as a stand against crimes against Humanity as whole but more a vehicle for promoting the vested interests of one select group by and large, until very recently at the expense of say homosexuals or Gypsies or even political prisoners who died at during the Holocaust. This was particularly clear at post-war trials, when advocates (almost without exception) ignored the persecution of gays, as one example and in the main where concerned with "their own". Hardly, the basis for making a stand against all humanity when some members were air-brushed out of the picture while others were given center stage. The effect of this has been that it has delimited the emphasis of the Holocaust as a crime against Humanity precisely because until very recently it has been advanced primarily as a crime against the Jews, with the rest being more or less tag-a longs of small account. Today through-out the West in particular, is a whole new generation growing up who are aware that people just like them, homosexual, pacifists, humanitarians, anti-fascists, ethnic minorities, disabled, Gypsies and so the list goes on, were murdered by the Nazis. And that for the best part of the last 70 years or so (until very recently) they have been ranked as not-worth-a-mentioning, as being of secondary importance often on the pretext that they were murdered in lesser numbers as though that makes a difference. Giving proof to the Orwellian observation that all animals are equal but some are more equal than others! The sham has been to promote the Holocaust as a lesson to all humanity while at the same time, until very,very recently it had of itself a significant part of that humanity air-brushed from out of its own image. And you ask why it has failed to have the impact it should have had in more modern times? The more cynical might even claim that it was deliberately hijacked to protect one group and was from the beginning not particularly concerned will all, as it claimed to be. The Ely exhibition goes some way towards addressing this but not in the straight-forward honest way that is required. But it more or less follows the pattern of expanding or re-casting the Jewish emphasis, in an attempt to make it applicable to all humanity. To now do that which it was claiming to do all along. But that is not enough. All of these organisations have to address the collective short-comings of themselves so as to strengthen the lessons of the Holocaust. They, and this is not particular to the Anne Frank UK Trust have to explain why they failed (and for so long) to be inclusive of all those who were the victims of the Holocaust –– then and only then they might themselves discover in examination of their own actions why the lessons of the Holocaust have failed on so many fronts for so long. And too why declarations about intent not to be intolerant in the future will do nothing to alter that.

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