Author’s note: In the past few weeks, Anne Frank has been trending online again. This time, some users are saying Anne Frank benefited from white privilege. Arguments include the claim that she would have been worse off as a Black woman under the Nazi regime, that she would not have had access to the Annex as a Black woman and even that she did not face racism. Of course, while Jews are often considered white in today’s landscape, during World War II, Jews of any skin color were considered a separate, nonwhite race. The Forward is republishing this article from September 13, 2021 about a similar Anne Frank discourse that examines the social and historical forces that so often collide to boost Anne to the top of Twitter’s trending lists.
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 implying they will be burning Anne Frank’s diary to keep them warm on the land they claimed to have liberated. Courtesy of Twitter
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?
Image by Wikicommons
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.
Anne as required reading
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.
Back in 1956, an article in a journal published by the National Council of Teachers of English managed to erase with one clause the defining element of Anne’s experience: “Though not living under the grim shadow of gas chambers, the Gestapo, and death in a concentration camp,” it said, “high school boys and girls are very close to Anne’s experience.”
The sentiment exemplifies an approach teachers have taken for years. The diary’s page on SparkNotes, a website that provides study guides and cheat sheets for students, lists its main themes as “The Loneliness of Adolescence” and “Becoming a Woman,” instead of, say, “The Dangers of Fascism” or “Antisemitism.” Varsity Tutors, a major tutoring network, links sample lesson plans that use Anne’s diary to inspire students to write their own journals or use the diary for grammar exercises.
Of course, some aspects of Anne’s angst are indeed relatable for all teenagers. But to reduce her to those universal feelings removes her from her oppression, which was targeted and brutal.
What makes Anne unique, and her diary so widely-read, is that she was not a normal teenager; she was navigating the loss of all normalcy. Her diary is a complex piece of history involving long-standing antisemitic beliefs and the complex political maneuverings of the Third Reich. It’s not a coming-of-age story or a fable of good vs. evil, and to reduce it to those themes robs it of its power.
With Anne so removed from her actual life in the public’s imagination, the door was open for Black Hammer’s absurd accusation. If you only meet her as a character in a piece of classic literature taught in schools, it’s easy to forget that she died in a concentration camp, that she hid in a tiny space for two years, that she was persecuted. It’s not impossible to imagine how Black Hammer jumped to calling her a colonizer.
“Who owns Anne Frank?” author Cynthia Ozick asked in a 1997 essay in The New Yorker. Ozick exhaustively examined the ways Anne Frank has been “infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kischified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”
This process has taken place across decades of editing and rehashing. It started in the very publication of Anne’s diary by her father, who stripped away some of the details about depression and sex, as well as overt references to Judaism that might have made Anne less relatable to a 1950s-era reader. That sanitized version of the diary was then further altered by playwrights and filmmakers, whose portraits of Anne as a plucky young girl were the way most Americans encountered her for decades.
An illustration by David Polonsky from “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation.” Image by Anne Frank Fonds Basel
Later, numerous novels, such as Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” imagined Anne surviving or otherwise rewrote her story, envisioning who she would have been if she’d had a chance to grow up. Ari Folman, an Israeli filmmaker, made her even more approachable with a graphic novel adaptation of her diary, and recently an animated movie. And of course, there’s a whole world of scholarship that has developed around the diary, writing about Anne and writing about the writing about Anne.
By the time a complete version of the diary was published in 1991, with Anne’s more prickly side and original words added back in, it was too late; Anne the girl had already been swallowed by Anne the Holocaust Heroine.
All of this exegesis, whether simplifying Anne or trying to recomplicate her, reinforced her symbolic power, using her as a linchpin of Jewish identity or painting her as a martyr. Any grappling with the true meaning of Anne’s story assumes there is some deeper significance, when the diary is really just a child pondering who she would be; each argument ultimately distances her from her humanity, making it easier to use her as a pawn in a greater argument.
Had Anne lived, we would likely have criticized her — her writing, her politics, her actions — as we do with any public figure. It wouldn’t have been scandalous or unusual because she wouldn’t be a larger-than-life symbol any more than other Holocaust survivors are. Criticism of Elie Wiesel’s Zionism, for example, is frequent; it may be controversial but it’s not shocking. He’s a hero to many, but he was still human.
Anne, though, is frozen in time, enabling the discourse to decide her legacy for her. Overthought and overwritten, Anne has been removed from her lived reality and moored entirely in the theoretical realm. There, she can mean almost anything.
Anne’s shifting symbolic power
The Dutch artist T.’s image of Anne Frank in a kaffiyeh. By T.
Perhaps the most famous, and most transgressive, use of Anne’s symbolic power is an image of her photoshopped with a kaffiyeh, the symbol of Palestinian independence, draped around her neck. Originally created in 2008 by a Dutch artist known as “T.” and titled “Banned Frank,” the picture has been graffitied on streets around the world, used to promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and put on pins or T-shirts promoting other Palestinian advocacy organizations.
The image has a powerful shock value, suggesting that Israel’s government is comparable to the Nazi regime and implying that Anne would have thrown her moral authority behind Palestinians.
But this is far from the only example of Anne’s use as a symbol for the world’s oppressed. What differentiates Anne from a Syrian child? Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, asked in 2016. (His conclusion: not much.)
Prof. Sara R. Horowitz, a Holocaust scholar at York University in Toronto, noted that anti-abortion protesters sometimes rally outside the U.S. Holocaust Museum using Anne Frank’s image to protest what they call “the Holocaust of the unborn.”
“The way she’s been not only embraced, but sanctified has made her a very potent symbol to latch onto for your own cause,” said Horowitz.
But Black Hammer’s tweets represent a new, troubling twist to this trend, marking Anne as a perpetrator instead of a martyr, an object of hate instead of empathy — an approach Horowitz said she has never seen before.
Where the kaffiyeh image implies Anne would have supported the Palestinian cause, Black Hammer imagines she would have been among their oppressors. The group’s tweets cited the fact that her father, Otto, served Germany in World War I, when it colonized much of Africa, and that her older sister, Margot, supported Zionism.
That argument makes little sense, based on any straight reading of the history or the many incarnations of Anne’s story. But for those who see establishment institutions — museums, public school systems, The New York Times — as inherently oppressive, the fact that these institutions embrace Anne makes her vulnerable to this caricature. If these institutions love Anne, maybe she is more aligned with oppressive forces than with their victims.
Black Hammer was founded in 2019 by Gazi Kodzo, a YouTuber from Atlanta who is now commander in chief of the organization. Black Hammer’s site says they have raised over $90,000 this year through donations on Venmo, Cashapp and other similar financial apps, money which they say goes toward supporting colonized people, including free masks and other supplies. In August, however, members of the group began to leave, tweeting that they had been threatened and doxxed by Kodzo just for leaving the group, calling it a cult and alleging that the donated money was going toward leaders’ rent and cars.
Beyond the Anne Frank tweets, the group also attracted widespread ridicule on Twitter when they claimed to have bought a large parcel of rocky-looking land in Colorado where they were building a city for “all colonized people,” no white people allowed. However according to the local sheriff’s department, the purchase did not go through and deputies kicked them off the land.
It is difficult to assess the impact of Black Hammer’s Twitter campaign against Anne. Several of Black Hammer’s tweets over the five-month period were ratioed, meaning there were more replies than likes or retweets, a pattern generally understood to mean that the post was received negatively.
Still, replies also amplify Twitter posts, in this case boosting the visibility of Black Hammer; while there’s no record of how many followers Black Hammer’s main Twitter account had before the Anne Frank tweets, they clearly elevated their interactions. The Anne Frank posts got hundreds of quote tweets, comments and likes when their average posts often get under 10 interactions of any kind. In fact, some comments from Black Hammer affiliated accounts alleged this was the point, and that the Anne Frank tweets were purely clickbait.
One of Black Hammer’s many tweets calling Anne Frank a colonizer. Courtesy of Twitter
Alice Marwick, professor of Media and Technology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted that even trying to refute a piece of misinformation or hatred online can contribute to spreading it.
“A lot of the time, debunking information repeats the false information itself,” she said. “If all you’re looking for is publicity, to get your name out, then spreading something outrageous is a great way to do that.”
Marwick studies the way outrage helps to spread disinformation, particularly within minority groups such as Black or Latinx people. Part of the reason this tactic works, she said, is because these groups are known to spread information internally quickly. But leveraging race is also an effective tactic because race is a hot-button issue.
“When you’re trying to get attention,” she said, “a lot of the time exploiting a divide or difference of opinion is a good way to spread whatever it is you want to spread.”
The Black Hammer tweets exploit a known divide between Blacks and Jews. And Anne’s status as an icon makes her a particularly ripe target. Criticizing her is sacrilegious and angers figures of the establishment — white people, Jews, Twitter influencers — which can feel revolutionary. For the virulently anti-establishment, anger from the powerful means you must be doing something right — right?
The oppression Olympics
Even if it is a clickbait strategy, however, criticism of Anne Frank — or at least the way she is taught and spoken about — is not entirely baseless. The diary, and the Holocaust, is taught widely in a way that narratives about, say, racism in America are not. This spring, Texas passed a bill banning schools from teaching about structural racism, even as the state mandates Holocaust education.
Anne Frank is easier to teach in part because her story has been defanged via the many edits and mediations. But perhaps more importantly, as Horowitz, the York University professor, pointed out, the U.S. is a hero in the story of World War II; American soldiers liberated concentration camps, vanquishing the bad guys.
But in the history of American racism, the story is flipped. This worries the critics of curricula such the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which centers the narrative of American history on slavery and racism. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, was one of many conservatives to denounce the curriculum, saying it “fixates solely on past flaws,”— a remark which implicitly denies that those flaws are part of ongoing, present-day struggles.
“There is that simmering anger of wondering how come the Jewish people get their Holocaust talked about, and how come there isn’t a unit on American racism?” Horowitz said. “And I think that there are legitimate things that feed into this.”
She recalled the controversy when the U.S. Holocaust Museum was being planned and built in the 1980s, long before the museums of Native American and African American culture and history that now also stand on the National Mall.
“People said, ‘Why are you focusing on that instead of focusing on American racism?’” Horowitz said. “Enfolded in that is an idea not of comparative genocides, which can be fruitful, but competitive genocides, competitive atrocities, competitive sufferings. That only one group or one cluster of people can be the real victims.”
It shouldn’t be an either-or conundrum, she said, pointing out that a lot of current Holocaust education seeks to use World War II as a jumping-off point to better recognize the horrors of racism and hatred today, and to help people empathize with other victims of violence.
Yet many Jews and Holocaust educators disagree, balking at most comparisons of the Holocaust to other instances of violence and oppression — the U.S. Holocaust Museum has even put out an official statement condemning the use of Holocaust analogies.
And even when Anne’s story is used for comparison instead of competition, her symbolic power presents a nearly impossible-to-meet bench mark for suffering. If nothing can ever be as bad as the Holocaust, then every other atrocity must be of lesser importance — which is, perhaps, how one might get to thinking of Anne as furthering oppression rather than being a victim of it.
Anne Frank and Jewish identity
While Ashkenazi Jews are broadly considered white today, Anne and her family were clearly considered Other according to Nazi philosophies. Jewish immigrants to the U.S. were also not considered white at least through the first half of the 20th century.
But Anne may have first “become” white far before Ashkenazi Jews more generally assimilated. Her Jewishness, and even her hatred for her German oppressors, was downplayed by her father and the writers who adapted her diary to the stage and screen. They wanted to make her more relatable to a post-war era European audience still tainted by antisemitism — and wanted the diary to sell in Germany — so they edited out expressions of faith and references to Yom Kippur.
Today, however, Anne’s image is impacted by the tense debate about how Jews fit into the broader discussion of white privilege and structural racism, particularly in the context of Horowitz’s idea of competitive genocides. Horowitz’s idea feels especially relevant after the most recent conflagration between Israel and Gaza; numerous social media posts called all Israeli Jews colonizers by virtue of their birth and nationality, and the horrors of the Holocaust were frequently compared to Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
Black Hammer’s accusation against Anne comes from this same frame of mind, Horowitz said, and “reflects certain kinds of alliances or intersectionality that are being asserted in some political quarters.”
“The atrocities committed against African Americans are layered onto the genocide of Native peoples in America and that’s then layered upon the suffering of Palestinians, and that becomes one kind of political bloc,” she said. “And if that’s a political bloc, then Anne Frank can’t be a part of it — because she’s white, she’s European.”
Black Hammer explaining why they believe Anne Frank is a colonizer, partway down in a thread. Courtesy of Twitter
Prof. Pamela Nadell, who teaches Jewish studies at American University, made a similar argument: Anne Frank’s legacy is distorted by shifts in Jewish identity and conflict writ large, even when the judgments about her are anachronistic.
“When you hear that Anne Frank is a colonist, what you are hearing are contemporary arguments about Jews and Zionists and Israelis, and the current charges about Jews being settler-colonists,” she said.
This leaves Anne in the same complex place as many of today’s Jews, who often benefit from white privilege in some quarters while facing antisemitism in others. Anne died at the hands of Nazis, yet can she — or at least her story— still benefit from some forms of white privilege?
How can you hate Anne Frank?
In their 2012 book, “Anne Frank: Unbound,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Shandler collected essays from scholars and thinkers about Anne’s evolution. “Anne Frank became intellectual property, to be protected not merely for commercial reasons, but even more so for moral reasons,” they wrote in the introduction.
This moral authority may be why criticizing her feels so transgressive — and powerful. “The more reverence accorded to Anne Frank, the greater target she has become for irreverence,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Shandler observed. As Anne became imbued with power, criticizing her felt like punching up.
In a way, it is. As she has been made into a tool, what looks like a strike at Anne is actually directed toward whoever is wielding her symbolic power, which is often an institution simultaneously being accused of systematically suppressing other stories.
Why do we learn about Hitler in high school, but not King Leopold II of Belgium, who colonized huge swathes of Africa, or the United Fruit Company’s banana republics in South America? Why did Texas public schools only begin to teach that slavery caused the Civil War in 2018?
Jews are also not well served by the way Anne has been taught as a relic of the past — a horrible story but one that has been solved, tied up neatly. In a searing National Affairs piece last year, Ruth Wisse, a professor emerita of Yiddish literature at Harvard, wrote that the Holocaust education we have today “conceals rather than confronts anti-Jewish aggression,” presenting antisemitism as a horrible anomaly that arose and died with the Nazi regime.
Yet antisemitic conspiracy theories today proliferate on social media. The FBI recently reported that Jews were the targets of 57.5% of all religiously-motivated hate crimes in the U.S. in 2020, though Jews comprise 2% of the national population.
We say Holocaust education helps us understand and prevent other forms of hate, but it seems as though it can’t even prevent the same antisemitism Anne suffered. “Never again,” echoes every school unit on Holocaust education, every museum exhibit and government leader’s speech. That very phrase ignores the fact that the hatred never stopped.