“The Diary of a Young Girl” leaves readers believing this of Anne Frank: “You think, what a clever, intelligent girl that was; I wish I’d known her,” said Eva Schloss.
Schloss did. She was childhood friends with Anne. And Schloss’s widowed mother, who had lost her husband in the Holocaust, married Otto Frank, who had lost his family, including his daughter Anne.
Schloss, like Otto, was a Holocaust survivor (due to “a lot of miracles and luck”), and later became an author, peace activist, and lecturer who will speak at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop auditorium on Oct. 27.
Speaking from her adopted London, Schloss said in an interview that Otto was a “very, very wise person” whose influence was fundamental in Anne becoming “at an early, young age a wise woman” who talked about “feminism, racism, and peace — all kinds of ideas which a child that age wouldn’t normally talk about.”
This adult sophistication, leveled with childhood sweetness, is apparent in a diary that’s endeared her to readers and endured as a seminal entry point to learning about the Holocaust since it was first published in Europe in the 1940s and the U.S. in the 1950s.
“The significance of Anne Frank’s diary lies in that its publication plays a vital role in the history of Holocaust memory, or Holocaust public consciousness, in the U.S. and then globally,” Alejandro Baer, director of the U’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, said in an e-mail exchange. Since then, Baer continued, “via popular (American) culture, Anne Frank became a universal symbol. It stresses the commonality of the human experience, independently of the ethnic or religious identity of the victims.”
Nowadays, Baer continued, “in today’s cultural context where the Holocaust is all around us (in media, film, popular culture, political language, public commemorations) but not really known, the eloquent diary entries of this young girl in hiding provide clarity and immediacy that few other accounts can provide.”
Anne seemed to realize the importance of the diary, in which “the private and the public absolutely collapses into each other,” said Robert Jan van Pelt, curator of an Auschwitz exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
Van Pelt likens the “vitally important” text to a mythological allegory: “What the Anne Frank diary does is a little bit like Perseus’s shield when he has to approach the Medusa — which is the Holocaust,” van Pelt said, speaking of the Greek hero using his shield’s reflection to make his approach to the Gorgon. “It’s very difficult to confront it directly; you need to have in some way a process of initiation, and Anne Frank’s diary is a very good way to see the reflection of the Holocaust and in some way initiate yourself into it without immediately having to face the soul-destructive character of this whole event.”
Van Pelt understands the profound power of symbols. An artifact he recently received for his exhibit was so remarkable it made Page 1 of Sunday’s New York Times: a shofar, or ram’s horn instrument blown during Jewish High Holy Days and other occasions (including Rosh Hashana, which starts at sundown on Sunday), that was smuggled into Auschwitz by brave worshipers. Shofars have “a very penetrating, very raw archaic sound,” van Pelt said. “When you hear it, you feel taken back thousands of years in history.”
Van Pelt related that at a museum ceremony a rabbi said: “There are many people who said, ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ You know as far as he was concerned, when that Shofar was blown in Auschwitz, there was God.”
He and his colleagues “were almost unexpectedly overtaken by the emotional impact of this very simple artifact,” van Pelt said.
Some have the same reaction when reading Anne Frank’s diary.
But even Schloss, who lauded it as a “well-written book,” urges that readers go deeper, and darker, with books like “Night” by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate who survived Auschwitz, or even “Eva’s Story,” Schloss’s own account of “the horrors that I experienced.”
The diary tragically stops when the Frank family is found. “The very good question is, in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, if she thinks that people are still fundamentally good?” van Pelt rhetorically asked, referring to Frank’s iconic, optimistic diary entry on human nature. (“I don’t think she would have written the same thing,” Schloss said, sadly.)
The horrors have not returned, but shadows are creeping up, Schloss said. “Unfortunately, the world is again in big turmoil,” she said, mentioning strife driven by inequality, racism, refugee resentment and religious prejudice — “and it’s not just anti-Semitism,” she said. “It’s against Muslims, against Christians.”
Referring to his exhibition — “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.” — van Pelt said that the title “is not the same title we would have given 20 years ago. In that sense we are pessimistic.” In teaching about the Holocaust today, “we are in a very different position than we were 15 years ago,” van Pelt said. “Anti-Semitism has recurred; there is an urgency to the situation right now.”
Fortunately, there are ongoing educational efforts, including the excellent “Transfer of Memory” exhibit from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, as well as other events, like Schloss’ timely talk.
Among the lessons that Schloss hopes to impart when she speaks is that “The world has to learn how it happened, why it happened, and to try to live in harmony together to share the richness of our globe. It is the young people who are going to run our world in 10, 20 years, and I hope that by learning from the past that they will not make the same mistakes as our parents and grandparents did.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.