A Fringe Group Attacked Anne Frank; A Writer Reflects on How Her Story Became Central to School LessonsBreaking News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, racism, Anne Frank
Anne Frank trending on Twitter is rarely a good thing. From January to May this year, Black Hammer, which calls itself a “revolutionary organization” working for “all colonized people worldwide,” tweeted monthly statements condemning the most famous victim of the Holocaust as a “colonizer” and a “bleach demon.” In one video, Gazi Kodzo, the founder of the organization, says “Anne Frank is white, and white equals colonizer.” He later calls her a “parasite.” Another post features a photo of “The Diary of a Young Girl” next to a fire, implying it will be burned.
Most responses on Twitter adamantly objected, asking how a child who died at the hands of the Nazis could be an oppressor. But multiple Black Hammer-affiliated accounts, including the main account and regional chapters, doubled down, insisting that Anne Frank “benefitted from the looting of stolen land,” colonialism and slavery by virtue of living in Europe, and that “Anne Frank is literally amerikan propaganda used to silence colonized people on the harm yt jews are doing today to colonized people.” (The spelling errors were theirs.)
Black Hammer has not tweeted about Anne since May, and the group began to publicly hemorrhage members in early August, after Kevin Rashid Johnson of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party accused the organization of being an undercover right-wing group trying to sow division within leftist movements.
But whatever Black Hammer’s bona fides, its tweets mark something of a new paradigm in the complex history of Anne Frank across American popular culture, education and political debates. While Anne herself was in no way a colonizer, the fact that school systems, museums and public figures so often prioritize her narrative over those of people of color is troubling.
Why is Anne’s diary so ubiquitous on school syllabuses when, for example, Toni Morrison’s work frequently makes the American Library Association’s list of the Top 10 most banned and challenged books? (Anne’s diary has been challenged but not banned.) Why is her face so widely recognized and her story so fully known, when those of nonwhite children in war-torn Syria or Gaza or Afghanistan tend to disappear in a numbing flood?
Museum curators and schoolteachers have, over the years, said they believe that studying the Holocaust, and Anne’s story, evokes empathy for other oppressed groups and prevents hatred from ever again reaching the heights of the Nazi era; there is an entire section of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website connecting the Holocaust to other genocides, and this tactic is the guiding philosophy of Facing History and Ourselves, an education nonprofit that works to prevent bigotry.
But it’s not clear that this pedagogy actually has the intended impact. It’s worth noting that a bill expanding Holocaust education passed almost unanimously in the House of Representatives, and was signed into law by President Trump in 2020 — the same year he signed an executive order forbidding the teaching of critical race theory and “divisive concepts,” including depictions of sexism.
Something has gone wrong if the diary is taught widely while our current struggles with racism are verboten in schools. The Black Hammer tweets were upsetting, but perhaps they touched on something real — has Anne’s place in the culture wars changed so much? To find out, I took a deep dive into how her story has been studied, taught, rewritten — and exploited.
It’s easy to get a preachy, didactic picture of Anne from the teachers or parents urging her diary on young readers; the novelist Shalom Auslander called her the “Jewish Jesus” in a 2018 interview with the Forward, though her Judaism is not always a focus of classroom discussions.
Instead, she’s often described as a precocious young writer whose diary might inspire other fledgling writers — that’s certainly how my (non-Jewish) father framed it when he pushed me to read the book in elementary school. (I refused; his suggestion felt condescending.)
Anne’s most famous line — “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart” — makes her sound like a paragon of virtue. It simplifies her story, and by extension, the Holocaust, to something akin to a fairy tale, albeit without a happy ending — Anne is a dutiful, good girl who was mistreated by wicked people. The ending, and Anne’s death, is conveniently not part of the diary, but most readers know, or learn, the Germans lost and got their comeuppance.
The actual diary paints a different picture; Anne was neither particularly dutiful nor good, and she lived under intense persecution, not mere mistreatment. For every, “In spite of everything” line, there’s another, darker observation condemning the passivity of average Germans during World War II, or wondering if the family would have been better off dying quickly instead of hiding in misery.
Yet a cheery, prim Anne, stripped of Otherness and turned into an inspirational figure, is what most people receive via school lessons or quote collections online.