“I don’t think of all the misery, but of all the beauty that still remains.” – Anne Frank
Anne Frank perished 73 years ago in a Nazi slave labor camp. She was just 15 when she died. In many ways she was mature beyond her years; yet she was a young girl who had her life ahead of her. Anne Frank and over one million children are believed to have died in the Holocaust.
Her story is widely known, mainly through her diary, published in more than 60 languages. That young lady’s legacy has lived on through movies of her life, the establishment of the Anne Frank House, a charitable foundation, an education center, and a social media presence on the web. In 1999, Time Magazine named her as one of the most important people of the century.
Yet, for many of us, the Anne Frank story is something from the history books. We embrace her story and that of the Holocaust, and try to understand how something like that can happen in a civilized world. We say: “That was then, we learned and the world is different.” But is it? There are neo-Nazi groups in twenty-first century America; homegrown organizations have affiliated themselves with the Nazi name or ideology since the late 1950s. In America, we have great tolerance for freedom of speech and political thought, even when they march carrying torches, chant Nazi sayings and give the Nazi salute. Neo-Nazi membership is reportedly on the rise in some European countries. Very fine people, indeed. Not.
Sadly, history and current events provide other examples of violence, persecution and removing people based on religion, ethnicity or race. There is even a name for it: ethnic cleansing, that came into being from actions in the former region of Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleaning may not involve mass killings, although murders, rapes and other horrendous acts are part of it. In other areas of the world the intent has been genocide. We’re hardened to atrocities we see on the news and on the internet, going on in far away places: such as Iraq, Sudan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria.
A recent documentary, Big Sonia, about the life of work camp survivor Sonia Warshawski, has brought the Holocaust into our lives, at least for two hours. Sonia represents the last of the generation who survived the Nazi death machine, the same death factory that claimed the lives of Anne Frank and her sister. Sonia, at age 92, is a firecracker, outspoken and direct; and tireless, as she maintains a busy speaking schedule telling her story and inspiring others.
Despite the films and books, we can only imagine the worlds of teenage Sonia Warshawski and Anne Frank, who both hid from the Nazis but were discovered and sent to the camps. Anne Frank is believed to have died from typhus just months before the British liberated the Bergen-Belsen camp, the same camp where Sonia was. Sonia tells her story in the film, and during her speaking engagements, of how her family was found by the Nazis and their dogs, and sent to various camps where she saw her mother marched to the gas chamber. Anne Frank told the story of her life in hiding, a two year period of time, before her family and others were discovered by the Gestapo and shipped away to the camps. Imagine the constant fear, the life as you knew is gone forever, waiting day after day, praying not to be discovered. Imagine.
In 2018, does Anne Frank’s story, or Sonia’s story matter? Of course they do. The Nazis engaged in wholesale persecution of Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals, who were imprisonment in slave labor camps, or just killed. The Nazis devised mass killing centers, a systematic extermination of human life. That is the kind of evil we must never forget, and always be willing to confront, whether it is across the world or in our own backyard.
There are plenty of reasons to hate Nazis, but that’s not the point. Evil may kill people but, topple governments and try to end civilizations – but it can be defeated. This is not a blog about hate, it is one of perspective. As Sonia says, hate will destroy you. If you let it.
“I feel it is important to talk about love and healing,” Sonia said.
A year ago, I saw one of the saplings cut from the tree that stood outside of Anne Frank’s window where she was in hiding. She wrote about the tree in her diary. There are 11 saplings distributed around the world, a small connection to that young lady’s spirit. To stand before one of the saplings is a sobering experience. To imagine that young girl looking at that tree through her window, her life hanging by a secret. One day that secret was exposed, someone reported her family to the Gestapo.
“I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
A spirit that should live inside of us all.