by Nat Bern­stein

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, Jen​er​alAssem​bly​.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.