What lessons Anne Frank can teach us today

World leaders make pledges ‘never to forget’ but they always do.

Miep Gies holds a new edition of The Diary of Anne Frank as she sits next to a poster-sized photo of Anne Frank at a New York news conference on March 9, 1995 [AP Photo/Paul Hurschman]
Miep Gies holds a new edition of The Diary of Anne Frank as she sits next to a poster-sized photo of Anne Frank at a New York news conference on March 9, 1995 [AP Photo/Paul Hurschman]

Inside a small room in the low light, a rectangular tin box filled with green, pink, yellow, white and blue marbles sits atop a thin stand, encased in glass.

The box looks fragile. The marbles are faded. Little wonder: they are more than 70 years old. The marbles and case belonged to Anne Frank, who gave the set to a friend and neighbour for safekeeping while she hid from Nazis in Amsterdam – never to return.  

Of course, unlike her tin of marbles, Anne didn’t grow old, but the memory of who she was, what she wrote and why she, her mother, older sister, and millions of other Jews were murdered must not fade. 

Recently, I saw those marbles on display in the secret annex where Anne, her family, and four other Jews took often silent refuge in several rooms concealed behind a bookcase above her father’s warehouse for 25 months beginning in 1942. 

It is where Anne, an effervescent teenager who loved ice-skating, wrote stories and kept a diary about her new, claustrophobic life, her constant fear, her will, her longings, her desires, her anger, her frustrations, her disappointments, her hopes, and her aspirations of becoming a journalist and a famous writer when the war was over.    

In that moment, I understood that Anne’s story, however poignant, was one of six million stories, each one requiring our attention, each one needing to be told, each one needing to be remembered, each one a lasting lesson about the simple and profound human consequences when hatred prevails over humanity.

In another room, the story of six Dutch non-Jews, the men and women who helped Anne and the others hide and survive before being found out by Gestapo officers on August 4, 1944, is also on view. 

“In that dark time of the war, we did not stand on the sidelines, but extended our hands to help others. Risking our own lives. We could not have done more,” one of “the helpers”, Miep Gies, told an interviewer in 1998.

The helpers knew, despite the mortal risks, that it was their duty to do whatever they could to keep eight Jews alive and safe for as long as they could.

“They were my friends, I could not let them be butchered by the Germans,” Victor Kugler, another helper, said after the war.

What the helpers did and why they did it must be remembered, too. It must be remembered since too many people in too many places abetted by too many political and religious leaders have chosen these days to endorse hate, rather than confront and resist it.

They have chosen to say and do nothing while too many – mostly men who wield great power and influence – choose to traffic in hatred and bigotry.

Finally, and undeniably, they have chosen to watch mute while other forgotten innocents are murdered and maimed in the profane name of ultra-nationalism, brewed together with a large, toxic measure of xenophobia.  

The year 2020 may not resemble the confluence of events, personalities and extremism that fuelled the rise of Nazism in Europe in the late 1930s. Still, the rabid fanaticism disguised as populism that was rampant then is rampant today throughout Europe and beyond.

To deny this is to deny the plain, distressing truth.

Far-right nationalists who promise to defend the “homeland” against “invasion” by Muslims and African asylum seekers have swept across Europe like a virulent, disfiguring pandemic. 

Propelled by overtly racist and anti-Semitic tropes, still more have been elected to scores of parliaments, including the European Parliament. 

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban told supporters after his re-election for a third term in 2018 that his victory was an “opportunity [for Hungarians] to defend themselves and to defend Hungary”.

Emboldened by success, Orban doesn’t use code to camouflage the meaning and intent of his ugly, but all too familiar, rhetoric. He and his legion of disciples consider “a Europe with a mixed population and no sense of identity” a real threat and aim to purify white “Christian” Hungary of the unwelcome “others” in their midst.  

Apart from a few wrist-slapping tsk-tsks, the reaction by Europe’s “liberal democracies” to Orban’s self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” has been predictably wanting. 

It is the same limp response that the leaders of the same “liberal democracies” have offered in reply to United States President Donald Trump’s and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s routine, authoritarian-saturated spasms of hate and bigotry.

They yawned while Trump tore migrant children from their parents and locked them in cages. They yawned when Trump called a regiment of tiki-torch-wielding neo-Nazis “very fine people”. They yawned when Trump described El Salvador, Haiti and Africa as “s***holes”. They yawned when Bolsonaro said a fellow lawmaker in Congress was too ugly to rape. They yawned when Bolsonaro told a reporter “you have a terribly homosexual face”. They yawned when Bolsonaro said of Brazil’s 900,000-strong Indigenous community: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians”.

Instead, the leaders of “liberal democracies” have literally embraced Trump and Bolsonaro as “valued trading partners” and strategic, geopolitical allies.

The leaders of “liberal democracies” make solemn pledges to “never forget”, but they always do. 

So, when our “dark time” demanded that they “not stand on the sidelines”, that’s what they did. When our “dark time” demanded that they defend tolerance and understanding, they chose complicity and appeasement. When our “dark time” demanded a blunt, unequivocal rejection of hate and bigotry, they opted for palatable, diplomatic niceties.  

On January 27, 200 survivors of the Holocaust gathered in southern Poland to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. (Nine out of 10 children, women and men murdered there were Jewish.)

They warned that history has a lethal habit of repeating itself. This happens inexorably – step by inevitable step. It starts with hateful words that translate into hateful laws that make legal hateful acts.

That is what happened in the 1930s and it is happening now.

That means another doomed child may soon have to give up her tin of marbles. We just do not know her name.    

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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