The Anne Frank Myth

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“When the football team Ajax”-an Amsterdam-based soccer team formerly owned by Jews [and pronounced Ayyaks]–“runs out onto the field in Utrecht, the home-team fans in the stadium greet them with a great sssssssssssssssssssssssssss sound.”

My host was responding to a question I had asked. Booing the visiting team seemed to me like a normal act of gaming opposition. I was obviously not getting the point.

“No,” she said. “They’re mimicking the sound of the gas hissing into the supposed-shower killing rooms in the concentration camps-despite the fact that Ajax has not been owned by Jews for decades.”

I was told this story, in Amsterdam, in June 1994. My semester teaching at Leiden University was ending. At a conference in May I had met one of The Netherlands’ foremost poets, who had been saved during the war, hidden by non-Jews in various hiding places-behind fireplaces, in lofts, under trap-doors in wooden farmhouse floors-on her own, apart from her parents throughout her pre- and early adolescent years. As a consequence, she had become an adult without a religious Jewish identity, and even hid from her cultural Jewish identity. When, on a trip to Boston in the 1980s, she had been approached by another tourist on the street and asked for the location of the nearest synagogue, her initial, immediate reaction was to look nervously up and down the street. Assured that there was no one in her vicinity, she suggested, in a hushed voice, that the party go to “The Police” to ask – a most common suggestion in European countries, where the police station serves as a kind of information booth for such inquiries.

That experience of lingering shame and anxiety, 40 years after the war, in a country where there was no need for either, led her to reclaim her Judaism as an adult. She studied, joined a synagogue, and began to put mezuzot on the doorposts of the rooms in her house. Whenever she acquired a new mezuza she invited friends to dinner to join in a celebration of the event. That’s how I came to be in an Amsterdam house on a balmy erev shabbat (Friday evening) in early June.

But the house had not been easy to locate. When I rang the bell, I was not certain that I was in the right place. A mezuza at the entryway would have helped–but the spot on the doorpost was empty of marks. Later that evening, I asked my host why, and she replied: “When they start marching in the streets against the Jews, that’s when I’ll put a mezuza up outside.”

I didn’t understand at first. And when I then asked if she really expected Dutch citizens to act in such a fashion, she responded with the Ajax story. She didn’t want to be singled out as a Jew, by putting up a mezuza outside, until public demonstrations made such self-revelation “necessary,” as a mark of defiant retaliation.

I thought that my host was, perhaps, exaggerating, given her youthful experiences. But as I reflected on my own observations and experiences in Leiden and elsewhere, and as I discussed these astonishing stories with other Jews there, both American and Dutch, I came to think otherwise.

Consider: I had not been in Leiden for very long before I searched out the Jewish community. Nothing was immediately visible. Not yet knowing anyone to ask, I turned to the phone book and to city guides. I found a listing in the latter and called the number. The rabbi’s wife answered; she explained the service schedule (once a month, at that time; we were, I think, speaking in Hebrew). When I set out to find the synagogue, it took me a long time to locate it. The street numbers were clear, but there were no signs, no identifying marks, readily visible. I faced an extended dark red brick wall and a locked door. It was only after walking up and down the street several times that I saw a small marker. With some astonishment, I recognized that I had already been by this corner on my way to the twice weekly open-air market and its nearby small shops; but never, in over five months, did I see anyone in the vicinity of the building.

Or this: A colleague and friend in the US, a Russian immigrant from Moscow, had a friend on the Leiden faculty and gave me his contact information. He and his wife extended very gracious hospitality. They were to be traveling at Pesah, so they arranged to have my name added to the list of participants in the communal seder at their synagogue, in The Hague (a 10-minute train ride to the south). I went to the bank to pay for the dinner and arrived erev Pesah in time for the minha-ma’ariv service. The front entrance facing the street was closed. A sign directed us to the back. There, I found a 12-foot high, black iron fence–closed and locked–policed by security guards and synagogue members. I gave my name, expecting to be located on the list and admitted. It was not enough. I gave the name of the synagogue members whose guest I was, albeit in their absence. That was also not enough. Neither was my passport. I was asked my business in The Netherlands, how long I’d been there, how long I was intending to stay, and so on. Only when I detected an Israeli accent in one of the guards and started speaking Hebrew did I establish sufficient bona fides.

But more than this: My seder hosts in absentia had celebrated their elder daughter’s bat mitzva earlier that year. Wanting to make sure each member of the synagogue, which had been so welcoming to them as Russian immigrants, personally received a written invitation, they asked for a list of members and their addresses. Their request was denied. It was only after repeated requests that they pieced together an explanation. No such list existed: members were still traumatized by the lists prepared for the Nazis, which had served to identify community members systematically and resulted in their transportation and deaths; they refused to compile such a list even 50 years later.

Again, one might think, can this be necessary, at the end of the twentieth century, and in The Netherlands of all places? In the country that gave shelter to Anne Frank and her family for so long (until they were betrayed)?

I have come to see that the answer is yes, and to see these questions in the particularly American light of what I’ve come to think of as “the Anne Frank myth.” For reasons that are still partly obscure to me, we in the United States have developed a view of the Dutch as special friends of the Jews. If asked to rank order the various European nationalities involved with the Third Reich, I warrant, would rate the Dutch at the top of the list, second, perhaps, only to the Danes, whose king put on the yellow star and whose fishermen spirited their Jews out of Denmark in the middle of the night before they were to be arrested en masse (after receiving payment).

What few American Jews know is that by a per capita ratio (as distinct from absolute numbers) relative to the size of the state’s population as a whole, more Dutch Jews were killed during the war than Jews of any other European country. What I have come to understand in reflecting on my 1994 sojourn in Leiden is that, with the possible exception of the Austrians, other Nazism-involved European countries have faced their acts more directly, more explicitly, more consciously than the Dutch. The Germans are far ahead on this score: in this light, it appears even more clearly that they have been made to carry the burden for other nations in their complicity. And the fact that the Dutch have not yet had an explicit, national conversation about lingering anti-Jewish sentiment has made it far more nefarious in its consequences. One result is that many Dutch Jews take great care, still, not to self-identify as Jews in any public way. “De no ser notados”-“not to be noticed”-the medieval Spanish expression explaining various “hiding” behaviors-is still strongly operative in The Netherlands.

At the conference where I met the poet, I also met a community college instructor, an American Jew living in Amsterdam. She was, at the time, dating a non-Jew who was studying Judaism in preparation for conversion. She, too, invited me for Friday night dinner, along with her boyfriend and another man and woman, both Dutch Jews. We spoke about music, politics, literature, the Amsterdam Jewish community, their synagogue, and Israel. When I felt that we had established enough of a base to broach the topic, I told them the poet’s stories and asked if they felt there was anti-Jewish sentiment in Holland. The discussion–it turned into a debate–grew much more heated than I could have guessed.

The boyfriend was vigorous in his agreement. The other man, who had just returned from a trip to Israel, was vehement in his dissent. The boyfriend’s father had, in fact, been a Jew; and despite his non-Jewish mother, the family had been forced to leave their home during the war. After the war, when they went to claim their property, all record of their ownership had “miraculously” disappeared. They could have taken the claim to court–they had, apparently, sufficient documentation to prove their case–but chose not to: it would have meant calling attention to themselves as Jews in a way that, according to his story, would have been uncomfortable at best, potentially dangerous at worst. He confirmed my sense that none of this was being discussed publicly, nor could it be: there was no civic sanction for such public discourse. The other man came near to screaming, at times. He felt, in no uncertain terms, that Dutch anti-Jewish prejudice was non-existent. Yet although he denied that the public conversation wa s silenced, he could not give any examples of it having taken place. He kept raising possible legal reasons for the confiscation of his friend’s family’s property. And he thought the poet should not have repeated the story about the Ajax hissing–something that took place long ago, he claimed.

The last few years have seen the breaking of silences around several national war-time exploits and post-war practices, from supposedly-neutral Swiss banks to Austrian art thefts to French Vichy collaboration to American industrial involvement. The picture in The Netherlands is not simple. The nation was melded in the seventeenth century out of ten provinces, in part by translating the Bible from provincial languages into the lingua franca that is employed over an extensive area by people speaking different and mutually unintelligible tongues in order to of the dominant Holland province. The new translation was read weekly in church, thereby creating a common national language. But even this single language has entailed highly localized elements until recently (and there are, still, local languages, such as Frisian).

A Dutch language dictionary published in Amsterdam in the 1950s contains many words that are Hebrew in origin, absorbed from the Jewish population that was so interwoven into Amsterdam commercial life; the parents and grandparents of the community college teacher’s guests and their friends used those words in their daily, spoken language–and they would not necessarily be known or understood by Dutch from other parts of the country. Another new acquaintance told of traveling, some 20 years after World War II, back to the town in which he had grown up, going to a particular pastry shop remembered fondly from his childhood, and asking for a particular sweet known in Dutch by the rough equivalent to “the Jew candy.” He thought nothing of it; for him, at this point in his life, it was just a name for a sweet. But, he said, the proprietor looked at him in shock and said, “We no longer call it by that name.”

Dutch literature also plays a role in this complex picture. In the last 2030 years or so, more and more novelists have been writing about the experiences of Dutch Jews and non-Jews during the war years, among them Harry Mulisch is a Dutch author. Along with W.F. Hermans and Gerard Reve, he is considered one of the “Great Three” of Dutch postwar literature. He has written novels, plays, essays, poems, and philosophical reflections. in The Assault(1982) and Last Call(1985); Marga Minco in The Fall (1983) and others; the posthumous publication of Etty Hillesum’s diary (first published in 1981 as An Interrupted Life) and Letters from Westerbork (1982; she died at Auschwitz). These and other books have won Dutch literature prizes and become best-sellers. And so it would be hard to make the argument that the Dutch are mute, today, on the effects of the war. But in exploring wartime events and acts, these historicize the problem, thereby distancing it from any contemporary condition. What is still publicly verboten is a discussion of common, everyday anti-Jewish sentiment lingering in the general atmosphere (much as there is “everyday racism,” in the argument of Dutch social scientists Teun van Dijk and Philomena Essed). And it is supported, it seems to me, by an American Jewish silence, lulled by Sunday School

In England during the 18th cent.
….. Click the link for more information. histories of the seventeenth-century role of the Dutch state in sheltering Jews. When H. M. Sachar notes, “The citizens of the powerful little Dutch province had firsthand knowledge, after all, of the rigors of persecution; they were themselves in the process of struggling loose from the Spanish Inquisition (The Course of Modern Jewish History [New York: Dell, 1958], p. 44), it reinforces that view. This is followed often by acknowledging the ability of an Isaac da Costa Atias to be elected President of the National Assembly in 1798, and the remarkable account of the Frank family’s support in hiding by former employees and neighbors. Yet that is not the whole story.

The Jewish Museum in Amsterdam and its synagogues have been renovated. The Tourist Bureaus now carry, among other information, a brochure advertising visits to the museum at Westerbork, the concentration camp to which Amsterdam’s Jews were initially sent. And yet, the myth holds. Yes, Anne Frank’s family was betrayed; but the structure of her diary–the weight of text given to the minute details of daily life inside, including the minutiae of food and supplies delivered by friendly faces–suggests that the traitor was the exception to the vast numbers of Dutch citizens who helped their Jewish compatriots.

It is not easy to make silences speak, especially those that are undergirded by public consensus. This is the very ground for the creation and perpetuation of collective myths. Public, societal myths block further exploration of what lies above or below or behind, reorienting the inquirer to what comes after, to the accepted narrative. How many other Dutch Jews, without advanced degrees and national standing, of both war-time and second (if not also third) generations, are still “in hiding,” publicly, about their Jewish identity? How does the American “Anne Frank myth” assist in prolonging their shame?

DVORA YANOW is Associate Professor of Public Administration at California State University, Hayward, where she teaches courses in public policy and organizational studies and writes about the ways myths, metaphors, and built spaces communicate policy and organizational meanings.

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