At the beginning of this calendar year, I shared with you my experience in teaching Anne Frank’s Diary in our Confirmation Academy (Quest Noar). Our students were engaged and insightful as we worked our way through the famous “day book.” I also shared with you my hope that I would have an opportunity to teach the Anne Frank story at the college level. Luckily, that opportunity arrived quickly in the form of a Graduate Seminar in Gratz College’s “Summer Institute.”
This week, I ran a seminar for 9 students, mostly school teachers working on their Masters degrees on “Anne Frank: A History.” Our texts included a critical edition of the Diary based on Anne’s two manuscripts as well as her “loose pages” and her father’s edited version which formed the basis for the Standard English language edition. We also studied Anne’s life before the attic and the last 8 months of her life following her arrest including her time at Westerbork, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen where she died in March 1945 at the age of 15.
The first goal of the class was to place Anne on the landscape of the Holocaust and to understand the larger forces which shaped and ended her life. Second, we considered the merit of recent criticism by scholars and others of Holocaust literature which urges both deprioritizing the study of Anne Frank and re-Judaizing her. Third, we looked at Anne Frank’s life in its specificity. In part, that was achieved by looking at a number of other Holocaust diaries written both by young people and by adults – religious, Zionist, Hebrew, Polish, Hungarian, hidden and ghetto based. Additionally, we considered the diary as a genre comparing it to memoirs, autobiographies, blogs and other self-reports. We also took up the vexing problem of the “high kill rate” of Dutch Jews (collaboration versus local Nazi zeal) and the remarkable number of “Righteous Gentiles” among the Dutch people.
In terms of outcomes, I believe we were better able to see Anne as part of a displaced, secularizing German Jewish community in Holland. Second, we placed Anne in a specific construct of “young womanhood” and her relationship with her Diary as privileged and sexualized in a normal fashion. Third, by looking at her whole life and not just her time in hiding we were able to understand her as a victim of the final stage of the Final Solution, the last period of the Holocaust which resulted in her brutal death in a German concentration camp and not as a spoiled teenager in a well-stocked hiding place.
Working with teachers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina and Illinois was a true privilege. Yet again, I was a witness to dedication to thoughtful Holocaust education by remarkable teachers, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have made it their life work to teach the next generation of students about the Holocaust. I am confident they will continue to do a great job and when the topic of Anne Frank comes up, they will teach with passion, knowledge and purposefulness.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.