Who is Anne Frank? The answers kindle a debate in her native Holland

Lilian Farahani and Benjamin de Wilde portraying Anne Frank and Zef Bunga at the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam, March 5, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — Decades after her death at a Nazi concentration camp, Anne Frank’s restless spirit in heaven finally finds a soulmate in Zef Bunga, an Albanian teenager who was murdered in a revenge killing.

Anne, whose world-famous diary recounts her two years in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam with her family, falls in love with the Muslim boy. They kiss and they commiserate and bond over the injustice of their early deaths — Zef in the 1990s in Tirana, Anne in 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp.

This original take on the Anne Frank story is the plot line of a 2015 opera for children titled “Anne and Zef.” Critical of the Nazi genocide as it is of Albanian revenge killings, the show was performed last month at the National Holocaust Museum here by singers and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.

Based on a 2009 play of the same name, the “Anne and Zef” opera is a recent addition to a growing but controversial slew of artworks and essays that examine the Anne Frank icon outside of her historical context.

As witnesses to the Holocaust leave this world, proponents of such adaptations say they are necessary to keep the message and memory of the genocide relevant and accessible to future generations. Yet opponents argue that such projects blur historical accuracy, obfuscating, diluting and ultimately cheapening the memory of the Holocaust.

After decades where she was largely thought of as the quintessential Jewish victim of the Holocaust, “in the past 20 years Anne Frank has come to symbolize the victim of all of the world’s evils,” said David Barnouw, author of the 2012 book “The Anne Frank Phenomenon.” Barnouw is a former researcher at the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

The debate on whether Frank’s story should be viewed and taught as a particular case of the genocide against the Jews or more generally as a story of a child victim of war is as old as the diary itself, which has been translated into dozens of languages since its publication in 1947. A 1955 Broadway play and the 1958 Hollywood version were dogged by accusations that their creators had made her story less Jewish and more universal.

But amid rising levels of anti-Semitic hatred in Europe and on social networks, appropriations of the Anne Frank symbol have rekindled the debate among scholars and activists.

“Everyone took Anne Frank for their own beliefs, and with Zef it’s just the same: ‘Yeah, we’re all victims,’ etc.,” Barnouw said, adding that he does “not feel comfortable with this” but despite his objections, “this is the general perception today.”

The creeping decontextualization of the Anne Frank story is the main theme of a 2014 Dutch documentary featuring interviews with dozens of the roughly 1 million people who each year stand in line for hours to enter the Anne Frank House — the Amsterdam museum that was set up at her family’s former hiding place.

In the film, titled “In Line for Anne,” an activist for African-American rights from Texas, Omowale Luthuli-Allen, compares Anne’s experience to that of blacks living under segregation.

“We’ve lived like that,” he says. “In a way we have lived Anne Frank’s life.”

Augustine Sosa, a gay man from Paraguay, says his “life is very similar to that of Anne Frank.”

A tearful Beatrix Marthe, an Austrian woman in her 30s, tells the filmmakers that she is crying not only for Anne but also for her grandfather, a soldier who fought in Adolf Hitler’s army. Other interviewees include Tibetan monks who say Anne is the ultimate symbol for their quest for independence from China.

An eccentrically dressed British mother explains that she brought her teenage daughter to the museum so she would feel more comfortable wearing flamboyant clothes even though it makes her “excluded.”

Such interpretations are part of what makes the “reception of the Anne Frank story after the war a sad affair,” said Yves Kugelmann, a volunteer board member of the Anne Frank Foundation, which Anne’s father, Otto, founded in Basel in the 1960s and the designated heir to the family’s archive, including the diary.

“The bottom line is that the broad public’s knowledge about her is inaccurate, decontextualized and therefore easy to distort,” Kugelmann said. “She’s become an iconized saint instead of a real Jewish girl who was in hiding from the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators.”

He added that Anne Frank has been “transformed into a kind of kitsch and everybody uses her for anything.”

But the use of Anne Frank as a symbol for causes unrelated with her life and death can amplify the lessons of her diary and the Holocaust, according to Ernst van Bemmel van Gent, an Amsterdam lawyer with Jewish roots who visited the Holocaust museum for the first time to catch the “Anne and Zef” opera.

“Seeing it here, next to a room commemorating the victims, adds another dimension to my understanding of the Holocaust,” van Gent told JTA.

The play and opera “break from taboos on representing the Holocaust” because they present it “not as unique, but together with other forms of violence,” according to Cock Dieleman and Veronika Zangl, Dutch theater scholars who analyzed the play in a 2015 essay.

The opera is a relatively a mild example of how Anne Frank’s memory is used by artists and activists.

A more controversial case is the reproduction in Amsterdam of images of Anne Frank wearing a kaffiyeh, the checkered shawl favored by pro-Palestinian activists. Postcards and T-shirts bearing the image, which was first circulated on social networks and adopted by activists seeking a boycott on Israel, were sold for years despite protests by Dutch Jews who said it suggested an equivalence between Israel and Nazi Germany.

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam also objected to the image because it is “deeply hurtful, even in 2016,” the institution’s director, Ronald Leopold, told JTA last year at a symposium about the iconization of Anne Frank. The conference, featuring prominent scholars, was an attempt to understand what Anne Frank will mean to future generations.

In 2006, the Arab European League, a radical Belgium-based Muslim rights group, posted on its website a caricature of Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler. A Dutch appeals court in 2010 fined the organization for hate speech and ordered the offensive caricature removed, but it had spread on social media, where it circulates today.

And last year the Anne Frank Foundation criticized an escape room-style game in a southern Netherlands town made to look like Anne’s hiding place in Amsterdam.

A more mainstream attempt at recontextualization came in a New York Times op-ed from August 2016 titled “Anne Frank Today Is a Syrian Girl.” Columnist Nicholas Kristof likened U.S. reluctance to admit refugees from Syria to the refusal to take in most European Jews fleeing Nazism.

Anne Frank “is the holy trinity of symbolism: the child, the young woman, the Jew,” said Eyal Boers, an Israeli filmmaker and director of the 2009 Dutch-language documentary “The Classmates of Anne Frank.” “It’s not surprising that she is so attractive as an icon.”

But that power, he added, means that the Anne Frank story and its elements — including Anne’s Jewish identity — “will ultimately transcend any attempt to twist it.”