Holocaust victim Anne Frank would have been 86 years old Friday, and the occasion of her birthday prompts me to reflect on my own ethnic identity and on the anti-Semitism I have seen over the course of my life.
While the 12-year old Jewish girl was in hiding with her family behind a bookcase in Amsterdam, I was a Catholic girl sitting in a first grade classroom in Prague. While Anne was writing a diary behind the sealed windows and walls that concealed her family, I was learning some new words in English. Soon, my family would be heading to America.
There was one Jewish girl in my class in Prague. Her brother attended the adjacent boys' school and as a 6-year old, all I knew was that they were singular, but not in any way I could discern. What set them apart was that one afternoon each week, they were both excused in order to attend a religious class. They looked, talked and played just like the rest of us. So, how could we possibly know what lay ahead for them?
It wasn't until recently that my own paternal Jewish ancestors' ghosts came out from hiding. Thanks to one of my children, an enthusiastic family archivist, their identities were exhumed. A prosperous Jewish uncle? Great aunts? One was immortalized by the famous artist Gustav Klimt! I had a great deal to be proud of, and a great deal to reflect on.
In America, my schoolmates had a traditional, time-honored tease. On Jewish holidays, when half the student body was absent, one kid would invariably ask another, "What are you doing here?" It was a childish insult with a hard core of bigotry no Jewish kid was ever around to hear. My teenage neighbor once told me she was offered a babysitting job, but had to turn it down. "My mother won't let me be no scullery maid for some Jews," she explained. This, in prejudice-free USA?
Now the walk that I took as a tourist in Amsterdam through the Frank home pulled the memory back. The crushing experience of what it meant for a family that looked, talked and lived just like the rest of us became personal. How could the Franks endure what was unendurable? A look back at the closed shades, the soulless cramped spaces and a young girl's determination to record it all now vibrated with personal meaning.
Born on June 12, 1929, Anne Frank was a few years older, but of my generation. She was a sensitive and gifted writer, a European teenager who died in Bergen-Belsen of typhus along with her older sister. After the family was betrayed and their hiding space uncovered, they were shipped to various concentration camps. Tragedy does not have enough syllables to encompass what anti-Semitism has done in our world — and can still do.
Things have improved here in the United States, but there has been an alarming rise in anti-Semitism in Europe — so much so that the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution unanimously condemning it. The image of Anne Frank has become as iconic as the yellow-gold star sewn on the shirts of European Jews during those infamous days of the 20th century. At 86, she would undoubtedly be honoring the Senate resolution not to tolerate what must never be repeated: the invidious hate that threatens us all.
Photo Credit: Alamy