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Annemarie Toebosch, director of Dutch and Flemish studies, gave the following address at the Beth Tikvah Congregation's Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Observance event April 6, 2021.
Good evening, I am honored to be invited to speak to you on Yom HaShoah by my dear friend Taron, Rabbi Tachman, whom I met over 25 years ago when I was a new immigrant here from the Netherlands.
I want to start by giving a land acknowledgment. I am speaking from my home in Ann Arbor, MI, on the land of the Meskawi Nation and the Anishinaabe, and I am speaking to you, a congregation on the land of the Kickapoo tribe, the Miami tribe, and the Sioux. And both of us, in Schaumburg and in Ann Arbor are on the lands of the Potowatomi and of the Peoria tribe. I want to thank these peoples for their stewardship of these lands, and I want to thank Mark Charles, the only indigenous candidate for US president this past year and the first native candidate in over a generation, for teaching us to make land acknowledgments.
Land acknowledgments are still unusual in public addresses in the United States, but they seem particularly fitting on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Land acknowledgments are about remembrance and truth-telling. They are about acknowledging that there are histories of oppression that predate our own experience. They link us through time to form communities especially when people are displaced, something that is central to Jewish life. As my teaching assistant Daniel Guttenberg said this week: Memory is what Judaism is about; it is essential to the Jewish people.
Land acknowledgments are also a form of repair, just like Holocaust Remembrance is a form of repair, not just for the people whose lives were brutally taken, but also for the people whose lives are still impacted today, from generation to generation. Holocaust education in general, as well as education about colonialism, are forms of repair and this is what I would like to talk about tonight: the repair that my students and I engage in together in my Anne Frank in Context course, one of the largest Holocaust courses at the University of Michigan.
Anne Frank in Context was first developed as a Dutch Studies course by my predecessor Dr. Ton Broos in the U-M Dutch program in 1993, 50 years after Anne was writing in what we call in Dutch, the “Achterhuis”, the “behind-house”, or annex, in Amsterdam. I redeveloped the course in the past decade to be a Judaic Studies course with a focus on memory and the intersections of Nazism and colonialism. Holocaust scholar Michael Rothberg from UCLA, who was invited to speak in my department last week, coined the term multidirectional memory, the idea that memories of Holocaust and decolonization do not compete but instead inform and strengthen one another.
Anne Frank in Context explains that Hitler did not appear out of thin air in 1933, and that the Final Solution was not caused by Germany’s defeat in WWI, or by Germany’s recession. Instead, the Holocaust developed out of millennia of antisemitism in Europe and half a millennium of Europe making it normal and acceptable to dehumanize people across this planet and create carefully crafted racial hierarchies to justify the stealing and looting of land, the selling and enslavement of human bodies, and genocide.
In the course, students from all backgrounds, and all levels of background knowledge about the Holocaust, learn to connect the dots. They learn that the house where Anne Frank hid and wrote her famous Diary was built in 1635 in Amsterdam’s canal belt, at the start of a great colonial terror machine, which, 15 years earlier, had already sold the very first African people in Virginia with a signature from Maurice of Orange, the ancestor of the current Dutch king. And by the time the original “Anne Frank” canal house was built, the center of this terror machine, the Dutch East India Company, or VOC, had already committed its first genocide, the genocide of the Bandanese people in the Dutch Indies. Later, Dutch colonialism would exterminate native peoples in the Americas. And right when the house was built, the Dutch took over Elmina Castle, the indescribable and infamous slave castle of the transatlantic slave trade, which housed a Christian church on top.
The racial ranking systems that were used to justify all of these human rights violations, transported to the United States, would later inspire the Nazis. Dutch systems of “superior” and “inferior” people specifically moved seamlessly into South Africa’s apartheid in the 20th century, apartheid being a Dutch and Afrikaans word that means segregation. Dutch history is a history steeped in racial segregation then, and it is no accident that the Jewish-Dutch were left largely unprotected during the Holocaust. The hiding experience of Anne Frank and her family were the exception, not the rule. The Netherlands had one of the largest resistance movement of any Nazi-occupied nation, but also, as explained by Yad Vashem, a small and ineffective amount of rescue of Jews. In other words, the Netherlands was fighting the German occupation, not the Holocaust.
But the Netherlands did not learn from this history to say “never again”. Immediately following WWII, from 1945 to 1949, Dutch white supremacy re-established its colonial mission to commit it final round of atrocities in Indonesia. Some of these crimes were perpetrated by captured Dutch Nazis who had served in Hitler’s Waffen SS. And while this may sound shocking, a country still living among the ruins of a fascist occupation “sub-contracting” Nazis right after WWII, it is in fact predictable: Colonialism IS racism and fascism.
And this is one main reason that I teach colonial history in a Holocaust course. White supremacy both reinvents itself and stays the same. Since its invention, it has moved across time and space with one constant: staying faithful to its foundation of maintaining white Christian power. And over time, it has hooked itself onto the much older form of hatred: antisemitism. We need our young people to recognize this. We need them not to be confused when they see American white supremacists come together who both wave confederate flags and wear t-shirts with the words “6MWE”.
And confusion is around every corner. I see it in my class. With more and more students taking the course who are not Judaic Studies majors or students with Holocaust family histories, most students only know some sound bites about Anne Frank and the Holocaust. And because of the topic’s extreme nature, it is often hard to make it real. The topic of the Holocaust is, to many students, unrelatable. It feels much longer ago to many students than it actually is, and it feels so extreme that they think it will be unlikely to repeat itself. This is a dangerous supposition. To make this topic real then, I have found that effective learning comes when students can tie the topic to things they already know, such as anti-Black racism. That, and Anne Frank’s own powerful story, form the power of this course.
Moreover, it is hard to create one connected classroom culture in a Holocaust course. Students have very different experiences with persecution. Learning about this topic through the lens of Dutch culture and history, which by and large nobody knows about, creates one shared learning experience for all. Judaic studies students who have taken Holocaust courses before, Jewish students, Black students, White students, Muslim students, they are all learning something new together, a new context to place this complex topic in. And it is at this point of togetherness that students bridge the divides between their cultures.
In the process of this type of comparative study, memories are preserved and learned from, including the memory of Holocaust victims like Anne Frank, and the memories of Holocaust survivors. Two Dutch survivors who always join the class, Mr. and Mrs. Bonnewit, were very young children in hiding. Students learn from their visit what age meant in the Holocaust, the age to have built your own memories, or not. Students consider how memory is constructed when survivors have limited Holocaust memories of their own. With the oldest Holocaust survivors passing on, it is now the youngest survivors whose memories will be with us.
Another survivor who visits the course every year is Dr. Irene Butter, in a day titled “witnessing”. She was in my class this morning, in fact. It is a day few students in this course will forget. Dr. Butter knew Anne Frank in Amsterdam and survived Bergen-Belsen where she had brief contact with Anne. Students watch footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen together with her in class in the documentary Night Will Fall. Through the experience, students feel the weight, both of hearing first-hand witness accounts and of their own responsibilities in becoming secondary witnesses to the Holocaust. They watch Dr. Butter watch them see footage of the camp that she survived.
The day that follows this day in class is a day on Holocaust denial. When students come to this class (in Zoom or in person), my teaching assistants and I stage a walkout in protest. Students receive the following message. [slide is below] Many things happen when we walk out and leave the class alone. In one semester, students discussed their histories of protest, in another they bought sidewalk chalk and wrote messages of hope around the campus. Some students agree with our walkout, others don’t. Some think we should always engage with those who deny the Holocaust, to try and educate, and build bridges. Others don’t. All of them consider the power of truth and protest.
And this is the moment where we consider the weight of the Diary of Anne Frank, the most-read account of the Holocaust, in the most translations, with the most adaptations in film and song and play and dance and art, the most taught, the most accessible to children, the most beloved, the most relatable as a human and a teenage story, the most disarmingly genuine, but also!! the most exploited and instrumentalized, the most whitewashed and simplified as just a book of hope while it is as much a book of despair.
We learn that in its most extreme form, the Diary of Anne Frank is abused by Holocaust deniers as supposed “evidence” that the Holocaust never happened: “The ink and paper were from after 1945”, “the Diary was made up and written by a team of people.” In less extreme versions, as for example in Japan, the Diary has a history of having been disconnected from its Holocaust context and reduced to a story of puberty. After the introduction of the Diary in Japan in 1960, menstruation came to be called “Anne’s Day” and a Japanese feminine hygiene company launched “the Anne Tampon”, production of which stopped when the Anne Frank Fonds in Switzerland objected.
In the Netherlands, the country that legally owns the physical Diary itself (more accurately, “diaries”), Anne Frank and her story have not only become the nation’s prime tourist attraction but also the mechanism behind which the country hides it collective guilt: “We rescued Anne Frank”, while in reality the nation stood by as 75 or 80% (in different accounts) of its Jewish population was killed, a much higher number than in any surrounding occupied nation.
In the end, as a class, we feel the need together to read the Diary of Anne Frank as a call to action, much like the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., both of them human rights documents, two historic figures born in the same year, who call us to action through time and space to work toward a more just future. And Anne asks us to consider her words. While she wrote private diaries, she also rewrote them with the express plan of publication. We want to read Anne Frank because she asks us to be read, and we want her to guide our future.
Both in the US and in the Netherlands, this future feels acute. You know the situation in this country. As I talk to you, the Netherlands is three weeks past its national elections, in the process of forming a new coalition government after the preceding government collapsed over institutional racism. More Dutch citizens voted in this election for antisemitic, white nationalist and xenophobic parties than ever before.
I want to end with Anne Frank’s own voice then, as she speaks to us, on May 22, 1944, a few months before being rounded up and deported. She speaks of her fears that the Netherlands will drive her out after the war. I will first speak her own, true, words, in Dutch, her second language and the language she had conquered to become her own, before I give you the English translation:
Er wordt in de ondergrondse kringen over gemopmeld dat Duitse joden, die naar Nederland geëmigreerd zijn en nu in Polen zitten, niet meer naar Nederland terug mogen komen... En als dit vreselijke inderdaad waarheid zou worden, dan zal het armzalige restje joden uit Nederland weggaan. Wij ook, wij zullen weer verder trekken met ons bundeltje, uit dit mooie land dat ons zo hartelijk onderdak heeft aangeboden en ons nu de rug toekeert. (Frank, 22 mei 1944, dagboek 3)
It's being murmured in underground circles that the German Jews who emigrated to Holland and who are now in Poland will not be allowed to return here… And if this terrible threat should actually come true, then the pitiful little collection of the Jews that remain in Holland will have to leave. We, too, shall have to move on again with our little bundles, and leave this beautiful country, which offered us such a warm welcome and which now turns its back on us. (Frank, 05/22/1944, translator Pomerans, diary 3)
It is important to keep teaching young people what is involved in never turning our backs on people. It is important to teach them to look our histories squarely in the face, in the voices of the oppressed, to honor their memories and so we can begin to repair past wrongs.
George Erasmus, indigenous leader, via Mark Charles: "Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created." (https://www.indianz.com/News/2015/04/28/mark-charles-our-common-memory.asp)