When people on social media began reacting to Justin Bieber’s comment after visiting Anne Frank’s house, my first thought was about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase. In the pilot episode of My So-Called Life, Angela’s English teacher asks the class how one would describe Anne Frank. Angela says (out loud without meaning to), “Lucky.” Everyone is taken aback, including the horrified teacher who says, “Why would you say something like that? Anne Frank is a tragic figure! She perished in the Holocaust.” Angela reluctantly responds that she considers Anne Frank lucky because she was trapped in the attic for three years with this guy she really liked.
Angela doesn’t see Anne Frank as a tragic figure. She sees her as a teenage girl like herself, one that was probably excited (amidst all the horror) to be in the attic with that boy. Later in the episode, Angela excitedly explains the book to the kind police officer who drives her home from the club: “These Nazis were gonna kill her, so whatever she’d been like with her friends or her teachers– that was just over. She was hiding. But in this other way she wasn’t. She, like, stopped hiding. She was free.”
Justin Beiber’s comment and Angela’s reaction make me think about Holocaust education and how children and teens are exposed to it. I began learning about the Holocaust as early as elementary school. We had weekly classes in Hebrew School, in which we would learn the history and hear stories. I remember listening to a teacher tell us about the last time his parents saw his grandparents. When I was 11, I read all the young adult books about the Holocaust I could get my hands on. I wrote my own stories. Everyone in my sixth grade Hebrew school class was encouraged to see Schindler’s List when it came out in theaters. Learning about the Holocaust was constant and consuming; it was more than history.
Later, I realized that not everyone had had the same education as I did. The Holocaust was relegated to a paragraph or two in our public school history books. We didn’t read Elie Wiesel’s Night until Junior year. It was difficult for me to understand that people were just learning at age 16 what had been such a presence in my education for many years.
If everyone’s Holocaust education is different, it follows that reactions to Anne Frank would vary as well, especially for young people. Angela and Justin both envisioned Anne Frank not as a tragic figure but as a teenager like themselves. Like Angela and, in a way, Justin, Anne Frank has also become a mythic figure–eternally young, frozen in time. How should one respond to Anne Frank? Is she tragic, mythic, a teenager, something else or a combination of the three? Education should include this discussion, but one thing’s for sure: I’m thankful that she was a writer.