There's a Reason We Keep Hearing So Much About Anne Frank Lately

From anti-Semitic soccer fans to a Halloween costume and a train named after her, disparate headlines underscore interest in the famous Holocaust victim at a time of rising populism and anti-Semitism

Recent headlines relating to Anne Frank and anti-Semitism.
AP Photo/Yad Vashem Photo Archive

In recent weeks Anne Frank’s face has been used by Italian soccer fans as an anti-Semitic slur, her image was invoked to sell a Halloween costume, and a train in Germany was named after her, the famous Holocaust victim who hid from the Nazis with seven others before being shipped off to her death at the age of 15, in 1945.

And then there’s the recent publication of a graphic-novel version of the famous diary Frank kept while in hiding, and a new Dutch play about her – which does not even mention the Jews or the Nazis.

The Holocaust and its iconic symbol Anne Frank are not new topics of international conversation. But the current wave of interest in the Holocaust – connected in part to the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States – is reflected today in disparate events invoking her name, sometimes with malice, sometimes in bad taste or with insensitivity, constituting yet another reminder of the hold Frank still has on popular imaginations, say experts.

A photograph of Anne Frank in 1932, one the photographs from an exhibit on display at the Kraushaar Gallery in New York City, July 13, 2004.

The resurgent interest in the Holocaust is also linked to anxiety over what will happen to its memory once its survivors are gone. For example, several European countries – quite late in the game, one could argue – have recently built memorials or museums related to the Holocaust. Today 117 countries around the world observe the United Nations-designated international Holocaust Memorial Day.

“We thought we had almost been cleansed of fascism and anti-Semitism and now we have this moment of anxiety of: What do we do? So we kind of reach for the Holocaust at times of popular nationalism and rising anti-Semitism as the antidote – the mirror with which to reflect and ask questions. We ask the Holocaust to do that anti-racist work, to challenge and say: look what happens when we have popular anti-Semitism,” says Prof. Tim Cole, a social and cultural historian who researches the Holocaust at the University of Bristol.

For some, these particular Anne Frank “sightings” are linked to a rise in anti-Semitism.

“The result is to undermine her iconic status as a personification of the victims of the Holocaust. Although seemingly random, these episodes are symptoms of a weakening of taboos in many places around the globe that had prohibited the return of attitudes largely repressed for many decades after World War II,” Martin Jay, a professor of intellectual history at University of California-Berkeley, tells Haaretz.

“Whether we attribute that process to the populist upsurge identified with politicians like [U.S. President Donald] Trump, [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán and [far-right French politician Marine] Le Pen, or to displaced anger at what are perceived as the sins of Zionism – there can be no doubt that anti-Semitism, expressed in ever more direct ways, is once again gaining traction,” he adds.

The references to Anne Frank also speak to the way she has been used to personalize the systematic murder of six million Jews in the heart of the 20th century, as part of the Nazis' Final Solution.

A recent example of this personalization process is the new graphic-novel version of Anne Frank’s diary that was authorized by the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. The book, which came out in September, was written by Israeli film director Ari Folman and illustrated by Israeli artist David Polonsky.

The new graphic-novel version of Anne Frank's diary, written by Israeli film director Ari Folman and illustrated by Israeli artist David Polonsky.

“We want to do something about the Holocaust and Anne Frank is about that personal desire to try and grasp onto a personal story, and take an event that can appear abstract and reduce it to one individual we can relate to,” Cole explains.

Historian Rafael Gross, an expert on Anne Frank who is an editor of an upcoming scholarly, critical edition of her diary, agrees. “It just shows that Anne Frank somehow still has this iconic power. And when people from all walks of life deal with the Holocaust, she is one of the key figures who comes to mind,” says Gross, director of the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

Anne Frank's diary was staged as a Broadway play in 1953, catapulting the diary and Anne Frank herself into a powerful posthumous symbol. There were two ways in which she was memorialized, almost from the start. For some, she was the emblem of the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis; for others, she became a more universal symbol of humanity in the face of virulent hatred and destruction.

But for Yves Kugelman of the Anne Frank Foundation, the current wave of stories related to Anne Frank is also about something more material: it's an easy way to get attention.

“People are not using her image because she is a Holocaust victim or a symbol of children suffering, but so they can gain entrance into the public space and this means media attention and commercialization,” says Kugelman. He adds that all of that detracts from what her father, Otto Frank, had hoped would be a focus on her diary as a means to bear witness to the Holocaust.

However, notes Kugelman, what has happened in many cases, including some of the recent ones, is that “Anne Frank has been totally expropriated.”

Dina Porat, chief historian for Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, says that part of the ongoing use of Anne Frank as a go-to symbol is that her diary can be interpreted in different ways.

“What led her to become universal symbol is that the diary ends before she is taken to Auschwitz and then Bergen Belsen. I don’t know what she would have written after Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, but here she writes that mankind are basically good and believes that things will end well,” Porat says. “That she had strength to write something like that in hiding made it possible for one to read the diary in the context of the Holocaust – but also not to read the Holocaust into it. In the diary there are no concentration camps, no ghettos or torture.”

Interestingly, the historian adds, when the play based on the diary was performed in Israel in the 1950s ־ at a time when every third or fourth Israeli was a Holocaust survivor – it could not end, as in other versions of the play, with Anne declaring her belief in the goodness of humanity. The survivors in the audience new better, says Porat, and the end was changed from the original, with Otto Frank saying, "I don't know, my daughter. I don't know."

In some ways, Anne Frank has been made a saint by those who adopt her as a universal symbol, says Porat, in conclusion. "She blesses all of us, for a better world and gives us the sense that everything will be okay."