Anne Frank in a new light

All too often it seems we are reminded of how the Holocaust is plunging further into history. Survivors pass away, and the historical ramifications of the Shoah change unpredictably along with global culture. It becomes harder to know how to the keep the memory of the Holocaust relevant.

No single figure has represented the tragedy of Nazi terror and the resilience of the Jewish victims of genocide better than Anne Frank. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of her birth, it is worth considering how the girl and her diaries remain vital in the Shoah legacy.

The celebrations at this time are particularly inspiring. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam has published a series of photographs that show Frank’s life before the darkness that led to her hiding and her eventual death in a Nazi camp. The images reveal a vital, playful young girl, at the beach, mugging for the camera with her dolls and friends. Our cover story chronicles the story behind those compelling pictures, now on display in New York, Berlin and Amsterdam.

The publication of previously unreleased images is the right choice at the right time for a number of reasons: First, Frank remains one of the most complex and appealing icons of the 20th century, and fresh information regarding her story helps keeps interest in the Holocaust alive.

More importantly, however, the images remind us of a sadly neglected aspect of the Shoah: the normalcy of Jewish life before Hitler.

Jews were an integral part of European culture for the better part of 2,000 years, and in Western Europe they were largely assimilated. Frank’s family was mostly secular — not very different from their non-Jewish neighbors. And Anne herself, whose family experienced financial fluctuations, defied the anti-Semitic stereotype of wealthy, religious Jews upon which the Nazis preyed. Without the Shoah, she might have become a leading light of European literature.

Sometimes the horrors of the Holocaust make Jews seem only like victims. The newly exhibited photos play a part in the recent movement to recover Jewish culture in pre-Shoah Europe. Efforts in Poland by the S.F.-based Taube Institute for Jewish Culture have been highly successful. And in Germany, the population of Jews has almost returned to pre-Shoah levels because of emigration of Jews from Russia.

In light of these surprising and encouraging developments, it is wonderful that the figure of Anne Frank can still encompass the terror and the beauty of Jewish history at the same time.