While doctors scramble for protective equipment, laid-off workers pray for their next paycheck, and over 6,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, people are cracking jokes. That’s OK. Responding to tragedy with humor is human. We need to ensure our spirits survive even as the body count rises. However, many of these virus jokes are about someone who didn’t survive: Anne Frank.
Self-isolating Twitter users are posting one-liners about how they “feel like Anne Frank,” that “Anne Frank did this for 2 years with no tv or video games. Impressive,” how “I wonder if Anne Frank was this horny” or even “Now I get why Anne Frank’s Diary was so boring.”
These jokes might seem dark and edgy, but they’re deeply inappropriate. This crisis is not the time to exploit someone who was victimized. Anne Frank was not tweeting from her parent’s house during a quarantine. She was a teenage Jewish girl who lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Instead of telecommuting from home to “flatten the curve,” she lived in a terrorist state that was determined to flatten the population.
This crisis is not the time to exploit someone who was victimized.
To avoid being gassed, Anne hid in a room concealed behind a bookcase for two years. Leaving home was not a risk to her health; it was a death sentence. When her family was discovered, Anne was sent to a concentration camp. Under conditions designed to exterminate its prisoners, she died of typhus at 15.
Since Anne’s diary has been published, her story has become symbolic of many things, most of all maintaining humanity throughout horror. Her legacy teaches us that these hard times are not a free pass to turn a teenager of the Holocaust into a talking point. However, activist groups that you’d expect to take the high road are also exploiting Anne Frank.
Never Again Action, an organization that advocates for undocumented immigrants, has been plastering Anne Frank’s face on public buildings as if she’s their hired spokesperson. Projecting an image of Anne’s face on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, they declared, “Anne Frank was killed by Typhus. Demand the release of ICE detainees.” On New York’s immigration courthouse, they broadcast her picture with the slogan: “Anne Frank died of typhus. Not a gas chamber. ICE detainees can’t social distance. Governor Cuomo, free them all.”
I support Never Again Action’s mission. I’ve protested with the group multiple times. We need to defend undocumented immigrants, as well as incarcerated folks, whose close quarters put them at high risk for infection. However, it is hypocritical to advocate for people stripped of their agency by denying Anne Frank of hers.
We cannot forget that Anne Frank was a teenager who was murdered for being Jewish. She didn’t give us license to make her the poster child for a political cause or the butt of our coronavirus jokes. She didn’t even give us permission to read her diary.
Anne Frank didn’t give us license to make her the poster child for a political cause or the butt of our coronavirus jokes. She didn’t even give us permission to read her diary.
Anne Frank did not choose to be a public figure. We need to be tender with her image. Reducing her death to talking points gives fodder for bigots. Holocaust deniers claim that Jews were not murdered in concentration camps, but rather died of diseases like typhus. Name-checking Anne Frank in a quick slogan, sans the context of planned ethnic cleansing, empowers anti-Semitic propaganda. In addition, co-opting Anne Frank as a voice against the mistreatment of immigrants can turn off potential allies, particularly those whose family were tormented by Nazis.
We must stand against the mistreatment of everyone, everywhere. But we are capable of doing so without exploiting dead Jews. Rather than name-check a murdered child, we can seek out living Holocaust survivors to become the faces against human rights abuses. Ruth Bloch, 91, survived Auschwitz and is vocal about immigrant rights. Why not enlist her as a passionate – and consenting – advocate?
COVID-19 has ignited a fight for humanity. This pandemic is not the time to dehumanize the girl who taught us to never abandon ours.