In honor of the upcoming anniversary of the Frank’s entry into hiding (July 6th), Nat Bernstein explores a recent book from Indiana University Press, Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory, and Justin Bieber’s recent visit to the Anne Frank Museum.
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for Anne Frank.
Amid facing a Michigan parent’s accusations of writing indecent material — in her own diary — and the unveiling of a sapling from her beloved chestnut tree planted in the Boston Common, Frank drew fresh attention when the Anne Frank House’s Facebook account publicized international teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber’s visit to the museum:
Yesterday night Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House, together with his friends and guards. Fans were waiting outside to see a glimpse of him. He stayed more than an hour in the museum. In our guestbook he wrote: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”
Tonight Bieber will give a concert in Arnhem in the Netherlands.
Bieber’s comments instantly went viral, repeated and disseminated in disgust and derision across news sources and social media. Expressions of revulsion at his irreverence ran rampant for days: Bieber’s self-referential reflection on his visit to the Secret Annex hit a serious nerve. His appreciation for Anne Frank’s story whittled down to the loss of a potential, virtually insignificant member of his behemothic fandom is not, perhaps, the reaction one would wish — but why do we expect anything different? Why was the response to Justin Bieber’s musings on Anne Frank such profound disappointment?
Ladies, gentlemen, and teenyboppers: It’s time to crack open Anne Frank Unbound.
Compiled out of the 2005 Mediating Anne Frank symposium organized by the Working Group on Jews, Media, and Religion of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, Anne Frank Unbound “exemplifies the Working Group’s commitment to innovative, cross-disciplinary approaches to studying phenomena at the intersection of religion and media, broadly defined” in its eclectic critique of the contemporary iconicism of the young writer and Holocaust victim. The volume is a collection of essays presented by a diverse collection of scholastic and artistic figures, addressing the representation and legacy of Anne Frank across cultures, media, and disciplines.
Anne Frank Unbound is an academic read, but a pleasurable one nonetheless. While its contributing authors share many of the same references and critiques, the diversity of writing and perspective renders the collection intriguingly repetitive rather than redundant, varied rather than scattered. Its strength lies as much in its content as in its approach: a truly interdisciplinary examination of Anne Frank’s cultural representation over the last half-century.
The collection’s perusal of subjects extends beyond the cultural outputs beckoning passive engagement with Frank’s personal and writing — plays, films, museums and monuments, educational curricula, the publication of the diary itself — to the representations and tributes created by the intended “audience” in its turn. Liora Gubkin, for example, contributes her exploration of the inclusion of Anne Frank in the American Passover seder as a “personalized Jewish religious practice” endemic to the post-World War II American expectation of “an individualized quest for spiritual meaning” in all religious practice and ritual; Leshu Torchin’s chapter on “Anne Frank’s Moving Images” delves into the burgeoning public library of Frank-inspired homemade video blogs in conversation with feature films and television series; Sally Charnow’s explication of Frank’s work as a true diarist, in which Charnow draws upon the modern gender discourse surrounding the private journals of Victorian women, is not to be missed.
Sarah R. Horowitz’s examination of visitor entries in the guest book placed in in the 2003 “Anne Frank, the Writer: An Unfinished Story” exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is directly relevant to the “Belieber” uproar:
In stark, transparent, and sometimes dramatic terms, the amalgamation of comments encapsulates how the figure of Anne Frank has been interpreted, transformed, or made to signify in the almost three-quarters of a century after her murder.
Visitors’ comments overwhelmingly identify Anne Frank with the Holocaust in its entirety. Frank did not merely endure hardships and finally die as a result of Nazi brutality; she, one of millions, stands — or stands in — for the Holocaust as a whole. To read the diary, then, even to gaze upon it, is to know the Holocaust, to encounter it intimately and personally, even though many scholars object to seeing Anne Frank this way. Lawrence Lanfer, for example, views Anne Frank’s story as a soft version of the Nazi genocide, one that allows an easy identification with the girl who has not yet encountered the concentration camp universe and whose expression of optimism leave one feeling good about humankind and the world generally.
Let us not, however, lose sight of the fact that Justin Bieber’s scribble in the Anne Frank House guest book hardly reflects this complicated commentary zeitgeist. In fact, Bieber’s reaction to touring the Secret Annex expresses a somewhat touching if egotistical connection with Anne Frank as the actual person she was and not as the simplified “stand-in” for the greater historical event that caused her tragedy. As the more nuanced critics of the “Belieber” incident readily admit, it is actually fairly likely that Anne Frank would have been a member of Bieber’s teen fandom given her real-life engrossment with pop icons of her time. Perhaps more troubling, then, is the global incensement over the star’s misguided yet sincere tribute rather than the comment itself: as evinced in each isolated chapter of Anne Frank Unbound, the global beautification of the young writer warps public understanding of both Frank herself and the catastrophe that she has come to represent. It is this very over-idealization of Anne Frank that has caused the current generation to push back against the force-fed martyrship and attempt to reclaim Anne Frank as who she truly was, as a human — rawly human — individual. “So sanctified is Anne Frank,” Edward Portnoy demonstrates in his presentation of Anne Frank in popular humor, “that the actual teenager — who was also mad about boys, movies, and clothes — vanishes, and all that remains is the girl who pondered the epochal events taking place around her.”
Portnoy cites satirical New Yorker publications, internet memes, and episodes of animated contemporary crank comedies South Park and Robot Chicken to illustrate his point, locating in each example the catalytic discomfort with the idyllic, emblematic portrayal of Anne Frank that the writers and comedians share with their audience:
What might at first appear to be a comic assault on Anne Frank’s life and work is, rather, an attack on works of contemporary mass media targeting a teenage demographic. The moral integrity of Anne Frank is a foil for vacuous American teen culture, which is characterized as ignorant, self-involved, and superficial, obsessed with fashionable trends in clothing and music, and incapable of imagining history without recourse to the clichés of popular film genres. The comedy and its incisive cultural critique rely on an audience fluent in the popular culture that is under attack as well as sufficiently aware of Anne’s life and work to recognize the disparity between this icon of morality and their own frivolity.
[…] Unlike humor that arises during or just after a tragedy, jokes about Anne Frank have appeared decades after her murder. They do not respond to her tragedy, or the Holocaust itself, but rather to the popularization of Anne Frank through the publication of her diary, performance of her life story on stage and screen, and opening of the Anne Frank House. A generation raised on official presentations of Anne’s story and reverential way in which one is supposed to respond to it pushes back with irreverence. Apparently “immune to ethical judgment,” art and humor find their moral center in an irreverence that reenergizes fatigued icons for a new generation.
Consider the backlash triggered by Bieber’s comment — celebrities and comedians coming forward in a mix of outrage and bemusement, defending Anne Frank against Bieber’s narcissism through use of vaguely crude Holocaust humor: “If I could make one birthday wish,” tweeted Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys, “it would be that all children who were killed at death camps could hear #believeacoustic. :(“; “I agree with Justin Bieber,” added British comedian Ricky Gervais, “Anne Frank would’ve loved his stuff. It’s perfect for being played really really quietly so no one can hear it.” Comedian Jenn Dodd quickly posted a video of herself as Anne Frank responding to Justin Bieber on her sketch comedy site, JeneralAssembly.com: “I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt and listen to your album,” Dodd addresses the camera in a thick Heidi accent and black wig. “I mean hey, maybe if I hadn’t been locked in an attic with seven other people, mice, and two cats with fleas for over two years without seeing the light of day, while constantly fearing for my life, I would have enjoyed the depths and complexities of your lyrics…” She continues to recite the words to Bieber’s hit single “Boyfriend,” pausing to ask blankly, “What’s ‘swag’?”
The message from Dodd and her fellow critics is clear: not only do they find Bieber and his music overstated and soulless, but they want to make the world aware of the fact that between the two figures, Frank is the genuine talent. As Portnoy points out, however, such responses are as much a rebellion against the culture generated around the young writer as they are poking fun at the living teenage celebrity. They, too, use Anne Frank as the symbol for the entire tragedy of the Holocaust, but in self-aware defiance of the generally accepted sanctity necessary in the invocation of her name. If you’re going to ignore the taboo, they seem to say, at least do it outright.
“The greatest challenge for readers of the diary today,” declares Briggite Sion’s submission on Anne Frank as the paradigmatic icon of human rights, “may not be defending Anne’s life and work from attack; rather, it may be engaging her individual history and personal vision free of the redemptive values with which she has been burdened by others.” The Mediating Anne Frank colloquium serves perhaps as the start of a recognized movement to reclaim Frank from the shrine, from the pedestal, from the cross. In Anne Frank Unbound, the critiques and interpretations of contemporary writers, comedians, artists, scholars, and laypeople are brought forward and appraised with equal legitimacy. It is a brief and worthwhile anthology, a provocative turning point in the discourse surrounding Holocaust representation worldwide, and an excellent resource in moments of cultural controversy — the current Bieber fiasco proving no exception.
Folks, let’s all give Justin Bieber a break. Think about it this way: a pampered teenage superstar has two days in Amsterdam, one of them completely consumed by the concert he carries out for his international audience under what must be a tremendous amount of pressure. He spends his one free day in a cosmopolitan city with endless attractions visiting the Anne Frank House. Troubling as some facets of the culture around Anne Frank undoubtedly are, clearly that culture got something really, really right.
Pick up a copy of Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory here.Nat Bernstein is a Jewish Book Council intern and a graduate of Hampshire College
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.