Dr. Rebecca Erbelding

Interview Transcript

March 21, 2019

Youngblood: Anne Frank been frequently identified as a single representative of the millions of people who suffered and died during the Holocaust, why do you think that is?

Erbelding: I think that Anne Frank’s diary was one of the first mass market testimonies that was published in the U.S., and then with the stage show and the movie, it became something that Americans saw and could identify with. You know, it’s major Hollywood celebrities in movies, and it’s also a very identifiable story and not a hard story to relate to. So, one of the criticisms of using The Diary of Anne Frank as your exclusive entree into the Holocaust is that it’s partly a Holocaust story, but it ends before she is in a camp; it ends before life gets incredibly difficult. I mean, the hiding experience is very difficult, but their experience is actually pretty great comparatively to other people in hiding. The family is together, they have multiple rooms, they have helpers who are helping them, and so it is a very palatable Holocaust, and the diary ends before they are discovered. So you get this very – and she’s a brilliant writer – so you get this amazing story of a well-spoken, very intelligent girl commenting on everything around her, it’s kind of the Holocaust with the edges shaved off, and so, it is both one of the first testimonies that people had and also an easy one to like; it doesn’t challenge you that much.

Youngblood: How has Anne Frank’s diary helped tell the story of the Holocaust in schools and to new generations who did not live through the historic events?

Erbelding: Like I said, I think it’s an entry point; it should not be the end of what you study, but it was the first Holocaust book I ever read. Then I became interested in everything that was going on around it – what is happening outside in Amsterdam, what are they so afraid of, what happens to people who don’t get to go into hiding. And so, I hope the people who read The Diary of Anne Frank then move onto those questions – why is this happening to her – because the diary itself doesn’t answer those questions. The diary itself is a way to think about Holocaust victims as individuals and it is incredibly important and powerful for that. That we think about this idea of “six million people are murdered,” each one of them was as important, had an internal life, as rich in thoughts, as complicated, as funny, as special as Anne did. And so, I think the diary really helps us get there, and then once we have that kind of empathy, hopefully, we can expand our knowledge to look at other people of different experiences and the bigger questions that the Holocaust asks of us.

Youngblood: So, do you think that there are other children’s diaries that can better tell the story of the Holocaust with the “edges?”

Erbelding: There are certainly diaries that are harsher, that are harder to understand and to stomach. There’s a really good book called Salvaged Pages by Alexandra Zapruder which is an anthology of different teenager diaries. So, she doesn’t anthologize Anne Frank but she looks at a kid who became a refugee, a kid who is in a ghetto in Poland – all of these different experiences – because there is no one diary that will capture the whole thing. I mean, that is one of the fundamental problems of the Holocaust is there is no one experience. There are millions of experiences because it all depended on where you were and when and who you were and why and what your family was like and what resources did you have, not just in terms of money and stuff, but in terms of connections to other towns or to elsewhere in the world. I mean, all of will play a factor into what your experience is like and what you are able to do. And so, there is no one story.

Youngblood: What effects would the censorship of Frank’s diary have on the legacy of Anne Frank and history of the Holocaust as a whole?

Erbelding: I think her legacy was pretty solidified before the Definitive Edition came out. And so, you already had the house being a museum, you already had organizations named after her. I mean, I had a book at one point called the Icons of the 20th Century and it was like Greta Garbo, Hollywood celebrities, and Charlie Chaplin and Anne Frank. I’m like, Anne Frank is a really interesting person to be an “icon of the 20th century,” I mean I get it, but she was a fifteen-year-old girl who lived at a time before she was an icon. I mean, it’s weird that she never experienced herself that way – I mean she certainly had aspirations of becoming a famous writer- but she never saw that happen. So, I think her status was in place. At the same time, if pulling her story from the classroom means that students won’t look at this and won’t feel some sort of kinship or connection to someone who went through this, that would be a huge loss. People need to be able to identify and realize that these are people who are kind of just like us, and have the same thoughts and feelings as we do, and, like I said, Anne Frank’s diary is fantastic for that. And so, that would be the hard caused, to me, by censorship, is students losing the ability to empathize with a Holocaust victim. And I would hope it would mean that they would replace it with something else, but if The Diary of Anne Frank is not palatable, finding something else that’s more palatable is tricky.

Beitzel: I know that – at least with my experience with The Diary of Anne Frank – when we read it in school, we read the play version of it. So, we read the stage directions and all of that, but do you think the censorship of it, of the diary, do you think that could lead to less use of the diary in schools?

Erbelding: You know, I don’t know. I don’t know. I know that a lot of schools read Night instead, or at least high schools. In middle schools, it tends to be The Diary of Anne Frank or some version like that, or a fiction book like Number the Stars or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Now The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not a great book; I would much prefer people read Number the Stars or Anne Frank for sure, but there are alternatives. Now, we, I think, read the diary itself, but I know that a lot of schools also read the stage show. The problem with the stage show – and it’s a little bit of a problem with the diary, but it’s certainly not Anne’s fault – is that you don’t get a clear sense that she’s Jewish, or that any of this is happening because she’s Jewish.

There is a Hanukkah scene in the play, but when they wrote the play, the specifically took out her Judaism as a way to make it more appealing to audiences. And so, I also wouldn’t want students to lose the idea that this is happening because she is Jewish. It has nothing to do with how religious she it, it just has to do with: the Nazis are trying to exterminate Jews and Anne Frank is Jewish. And so, that would be a challenge for that.

Youngblood: Why do you think Frank’s diary is still being challenged today despite having widespread support and historical acclaim?

Erbelding: I think that the adults who are challenging it remember it before the Definitive Edition and were very surprised when the Definitive Edition came out and they read it for the first time. It was – not speaking for them because I am not among them – but I have to think that there was this feeling of betrayal. “There was this thing and we all loved it and it was so heartwarming, and then she has to talk about touching herself.” And “how dare she do that” as if we were meant to read it and Anne is doing this to students on purpose. It is a historical document and there are two phases of censorship before the Definitive Edition comes out. One is the phase that Anne does. You know, Anne censors her own diary; Anne rewrites it for eventual publication while she’s alive. And then, there’s Otto’s edits after the war where he takes out, not just “these” portions, but some of the criticisms of Anne’s mother because if he’s publishing the book, he wants he wants his daughter to be seen in the best light and he wants his family to be seen in the best light. So, the Definitive Edition is the most historically accurate version. Those portions were not written for middle school students because they weren’t written for anyone but Anne and the fact that her father read them later probably would have been mortifying to her. And so, I think this censorship probably was a reaction to surprise. And, I get that surprise, I understand that surprise. And I don’t think necessarily that the value in the diary comes from those portions. Obviously, generations of people read the diary and became interested in the Holocaust, became fans of Anne Frank’s writing, without those portions of the diary. And so, if it is censored to the extent that it is just replacing it with an earlier edition, sure. The historical record of who she is isn’t as complete if you go that route, but you’re not losing anything in terms of Holocaust history by taking out those portions. It’s the censoring of the diary entirely that is a huge challenge. And again, I’m not a huge fan of censorship, however, this censorship is not the Holocaust portions

Beitzel: There’s an understandable level of censorship depending on age range or topic and things like that.

Erbelding: Right. And Anne herself was censoring this, and then Otto was censoring this. And so, that parents would censor it on these grounds, and on the grounds that this part of it is important for the historic record – it’s important for historians, it’s important for people who are studying this kind of thing. Is it important for middle schoolers to know, will they empathize with her more? Probably not. I don’t think that matters as much as the portions as when she’s fighting with her mom, which is the part that I empathize the most with. When I was a teenager, it’s like I couldn’t get along with my mother either. So, the portions that were so offensive to people, Anne might not have wanted you to read it either. I get it.

Youngblood: And I think we both do too, it’s just a matter of –

Erbelding: It’s a different kind of censorship story, right? It’s not that the whole thing is subversive and hopefully the parent who complained that the whole thing is subversive – that they shouldn’t be learning about the Holocaust – but that this is not the Anne Frank that she had read.