In January 1978, thirty-three years after they left Warsaw for what they thought was the last time, Yad Vashem officials invited Vladka and Benjamin back to Warsaw for the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the January 19 Uprising in the Ghetto.
In the days before the ceremony, Vladka and Benjamin explored the city which had once been their home. In the old Jewish Quarter, the familiar streets of their youth were long gone, new, unfamiliar networks of broad boulevards lined with tall, alien, apartment buildings in their place. Some areas were unexpectedly hilly, as though no one had bothered to level the ruins of the Ghetto before rebuilding that quarter of the city.
The entire area, it seemed to them, had been scrubbed clean of its Jewish past. The only thing they could find which acknowledged the Jews who had lived and died in that space was the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.
The monument as Vadka would have seen it in the late 1970s. Note the apartment blocks in the background. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
“It was a powerful monument,” Vladka wrote. “Once it had stood alone in a sea of rubble but now it seemed incongruous—dwarfed by huge, faceless, apartment blocks to which it had no relation. It is as if the monument had come from another time or another world, intruding, almost by force, into the smug grey world of contemporary Polish reality.” Two frozen, wilted flowers sat beside it.
Once a prison, Pawiak, stood in the very center of the Jewish Quarter. During the war years, “it had been the setting of a particularly brutal and bloody chapter of the Warsaw Ghetto.” Standing in its place was a museum. Inside, visitors could tour former prison cells, see the material remains of Nazi torture methods, and view documents and photographs illustrating the Polish struggle against the Nazis. A section was devoted to Polish suffering under Nazi rule. But, Vladka wrote, “nowhere [was] there a photograph, a document, even a single word, to indicate that this was also a place of Jewish suffering and destruction; this despite the fact that within the walls of this terrible prison, thousands of Jews had been tortured and executed. Their lives and their deaths are totally erased, as if they had never been.”
At the site of the Umschlagplatz stood a block of houses. The only trace of the place’s past was a plaque, placed on a low brick wall, and inscribed in Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew with the sentence, “This is the place from which the Nazis sent tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths.”
The Jewish cemetery was largely the same as it had been in 1945. Empty, destroyed, abandoned, and impossible to breach. At Treblinka, Vladka and Benjamin found only “A vast, empty, snow-covered field filled with huge stones of many sizes and shapes, all pointing toward the sky.”
At the commemoration, the purpose of their trip, Vladka, Benjamin, and a few others stood in silence. There were no speeches. There were no Polish representatives. Nobody walking by showed the slightest interest in the small group congregated at the memorial.
Their past in Warsaw was, for all intents and purposes, gone.
They returned to New York.
While this trip was surely, for both Vladka and Benjamin, a traumatic one, made worse through the apparent erasure of their six years of hell, it did not disrupt their work in the United States.
In 1981, Vladka and Benjamin founded the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. Its 1983 commemoration, held in Washington DC (which she chaired) was attended by over 20,000 survivors and their families. The Gathering continues on today, acting as the umbrella organization of all Holocaust survivor groups in North America, and inspired a boom of commemorative action, books, films, curricula, and museums.
Vladka, shaking hands with President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In the year of its founding, the Gathering established the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors as a national registry to document the lives of survivors who came to the United States after World War II. Today, the Registry, located in the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center, includes over 200,000 records related to survivors and their families from around the world.
As Holocaust education became part of American curricula in the mid-1980s, Vladka worked with the American Federation of Teachers and other groups to train teachers in Holocaust education. In 1985 she, with representatives of the Jewish Labor Committee and New York’s United Federation of Teachers, founded the annual American Teachers’ Seminars on the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance. She remained director of that organization for many years. Because of her work, thousands of educators across the United States received training in Holocaust pedagogy.
Vladka received many honors for her work throughout her life, including the 1989 Morim Award of the Jewish Teachers’ Association, the 1993 Hadassah Henrietta Szold Award, the 1995 Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award, and honorary degrees from Hebrew Union College and Bar Ilan University.
Vladka Meed passed away on November 21, 2012 at 90 years of age after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
As you will remember from Part 8, Vladka and Benjamin left Poland for good upon as resurgent anti-Semitic violence made it clear that they had no future in the country of their birth. For, in the immediate post-war years, Polish Nationalists had finally achieved their dream: a Poland in which Roman Catholic ethnic Poles were the majority. But, this dream only came to fruition under Communist rule within the Soviet sphere is influence, not within the bounds of Polish self-determination. With the destruction of the Polish Nationalist underground during Operation Tempest, and the 1944 withdrawal of US and UK support for the Polish government-in-exile, the Communist regime could operate with interference from neither the West, nor the Polish Nationalist parties.
1946 ceremony memorializing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Yitzhak Zuckerman stands on the left-hand side of the speaker. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
As the 1940s rolled on, the Polish government set out to craft a narrative of the war years which downplayed the contributions of Polish Nationalists to World War II. Government officials memorialized the Jewish dead and set up monuments to their martyrdom, while persecuting Poles who had fought the Nazis as representatives of the Armja Krajowa and similar groups.
1948 unveiling of Nathan Rapaport‘s Ghetto Heroes Monument. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Memorial service at the 1948 unveiling. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Monument close-up. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In the eyes of those Poles who fought and/or supported the fight against the Nazis, this indicated nothing less than a Jewish takeover of the government, intended to suppress all memory of Polish action and oppression under Nazi rule. This led to a period of what was perhaps the worst anti-Jewish violence in the history of Polish-Jewish relations.
Between 1944 and 1947, Poles murdered between 1,500 and 2,000 Jewish survivors as they returned to their homes. Poles bombed the few remaining Jewish institutions in the country, and perpetrated pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. In Kielce, July 1946, a Polish mob attacked a communal residence set up for Holocaust survivors, murdering 42 and wounding more than 100 people. After the Pogrom, many Jewish survivors—like Vladka and Benjamin—concluded that they had no future in Poland, and left. The Jewish population of Poland shrank to under 80,000 individuals. When the government sentenced the perpetrators of the Pogrom to death, Poles protested, arguing that the Pogrom and others like it had been nothing more than Zionist plots to stimulate Jewish emigration. Anti-Semitic violence continued through the 1950s. Between 1956 and 1960, another 40,000 Jews left Poland. By the 1960s, only 30,000 Jews remained.
In 1956, an official named Mieczyslaw Moczar began to accumulate power. A member of the Polish United Workers Party and General in the Polish People’s Army, Moczar was influential in the parts of the government which controlled the police and security forces. In the 1960s, he became leader of the state-controlled veteran’s association, the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (the Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokracje, or, ZBoWiD), an organization with at least 300,000 members. At the same time, Polish political culture was moving away from the hard-line anti-Nationalist Stalinism of the 40s and 50s, to a climate more open to Polish nationalists. In this new climate, veterans of the Armja Krojowa and similar were now able to assert themselves in public. They took up government positions, many of them in the same departments which fell within Moczar’s sphere of influence, and, as the changing climate moved to the ZBoWiD, its ranks swelled as it opened membership to all veterans of Polish organizations which fought the Nazis.
Through his roles in the government, and in the ZBoWiD, Moczar built a power-base for himself made up of newly accepted and emboldened Polish nationalists and Home Army veterans. With this base, called the “Partisans,” behind him, Moczar launched a campaign to take control of the memory of the war years, pulling it from the custody of the earlier hard-line Stalinists into the hands of the Polish Nationalists. This meant pulling it away from a body which emphasized the plight of the Jews, to a body desperate for recognition of Polish action and victimhood.
The campaign began in earnest in 1966. In that year, the prestigious Wielka Encyklopedia Powszehna, the Great Universal Encyclpedia, printed an article which differentiated between Nazi labor camps, in which prisoners were worked to death, and death camps, which existed solely to exterminate prisoners, the majority of which were Jews. The state-controlled press picked up on this, and pundits from every corner of the country were incensed. They accused the Encyclopedia staff of erasing the history of Polish victimization during the War, while emphasizing suffering of the Jews. As a result of the controversy, a new article was printed, this one presenting all Nazi camps as inherently similar, and all existing to murder all victims equally.
In June 1967, days after the Six Day War, Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka, having noted that some of Poland’s Jews seemed excited about Israel’s victory in that conflict, made a speech warning of the presence of a “fifth column” in Poland.1 A little over a week later, he made a speech which containeing references to the consequences of the presence of a people with “two souls and two fatherlands” within Poland. The result, as intended, was a widespread perception of Polish Jews not as Poles (not that they every truly were viewed as Poles), but as untrustworthy “Zionist” agents. In 1968, an official named Tadeusz Walichnowski, one of the leaders of the Nationalist faction of the Polish United Workers’ Party, published a highly influential, best-selling books called Israel and West Germany.
In this book, Tadeusz Walichnowski accused the State of Israel of committing genocide under the tutelage of 1,000 former Nazis. This relationship between the Nazis and the Zionists, he argued, dated back to the pre-war years. The Zionists, he continued, needed the Holocaust to happen in order to build support for the creation of a Jewish State, and collaborated with the Nazis to make it happen. Therefore, the real victims of the Nazis were the Poles, while the Holocaust had been nothing more than a German-Jewish, I mean ”Zionist,” conspiracy against the Poles.
Ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 1968. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In March 1968, in a seemingly unrelated turn of events, the government banned a production of Adam Mickiewicz’s play Dziady, due to perceived anti-Soviet themes. Students at Warsaw University went on strike in protest, and the police—rife with Partisans—came down hard on the protesters, jailing or exiling many of them. Seizing on the moment, Moczar made his move. Taking the rage of 1966, the “fifth column” fear mongering of 1967, and the conspiracy theories of 1968, he tied them all together, and placed the blame for the student protests on Zionists.
In his framing of the situation, these Zionist agitators were representatives of an anti-Polish conspiracy in which agents, both at home and abroad, actively worked to to mutilate the memory of the war years, defame the actions of the Polish Nation, and erase wartime Polish martyrdom. Major actors in this conspiracy, he argued, included West Germany, historical institutes in Israel, and centers of “Zionist” activity in the United States—you know, like the organizations Vladka worked with while giving Holocaust lectures. Under Moczar’s leadership, police and security forces instituted a search for Polish officials of Jewish descent. Tadeusz Walichnowski created a card index of all those in Poland of Jewish descent, using a system potentially stricter than that used in the Nuremberg Laws to determine descent.
Beginning in March 1968 and continuing through 1970, across Poland Jewish employees were “unmasked” and dismissed from jobs. Afterwards, it was impossible for them to find work in Poland. Further, these Jews were only allowed to leave Poland under the condition that they give up their Polish citizenship. From there, the government gave them only one thing: an exit permit valid only for travel to Israel.2 As a result of this expulsion-in-all-but-name, another 20,000 Jews left Poland. The Partisans perceived this as “proof” of the Jews’ true, Zionist, allegiance.
The legacy of the Anti-Semitic Campaign lasted through the mid-1980s. In accounts of the war published between about 1968 and 1985, the fate of Polish Jewry during the war was presented as indistinguishable from that of the Poles. Even the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was discussed only in the context of Polish aid rendered to Jewish fighters.
By the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a new generation in Poland, one removed enough from the war that it could look back on Polish history not as something personal, but as something to be learned. Slowly, students and members of the intelligentsia became interested in Jews, Judaism, and Jewish History in Poland. The silence of the post-1968 era was replaced with a collective interest in a long-gone, multinational Poland past. This younger generation of Poles fely comfortable mourning the Jews, and Polish historians and intellectuals felt as though they were able to engage in dialogue with their Jewish and Israeli counterparts. However, this was not simply the product of a generational shift. In Ocotber 1978, Pope John Paul II, born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice, ascended from Archbishop of Krakow, to Pope. During his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow, he had been an important figure in parts of the Catholic community interested in learning about Jewish culture and history in Poland.3 As Pope, he visited Auschwitz and spoke specifically about Jewish victims of the Nazis, identifying them not as enemy nationals, but as the older brothers of the Catholic people.4 He pushed for interfaith dialogue, and remembrance of the specific Jewish experience of World War II.
In 1983, the Polish government, now long past the anti-Semitic campaign, and operating in a new atmosphere of inquiry and dialogue, arranged an elaborate commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The government invited thousands of Jews and Jewish organizations to attend. However, Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the ZOB, called for a boycott of the proceedings, arguing that Poland’s martial law and censored press went against everything the Uprising stood for. A state-organized mass commemoration of the Uprising, therefore, could never be anything more than a propagandic farce. As a result, an unofficial memorial ceremony was organizaed, with Edelman’s blessing, to take place a few days before the government’s. Several hundred people attended. Standing before the monument, they made and listened to hurried speeches, laid flowers, and said Kaddish. And then they were dispersed by riot police.
Days later, in front of an audience of thousands, a Military Guard of Honor laid a wreath at the base of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.
1983 memorial ceremony. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
This is not where the story of the Polish relationship with Holocaust history and memory ends, but that’s where I’m going to end the the present discussion. Because, in January 1978, right before new forces took hold of the the memory of Poland’s Jewish past, Vladka and Benjamin returned.
1 The “fifth column,” for those unfamiliar with it, is a form of xenophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted rhetoric used to target minorities, immigrants, refugees, outsiders, and anyway else deemed unworthy of membership in the nation-state. As applied to Jews, it cast them as inherently untrustworthy, loyal to each other (“International Jewry”) over any state in which they resided. It led to a lot of scapegoating during the Dreyfus Affair, the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Hitler-era American nativist line that Jewish refugees were German spies. After 1948, the trope shifted to convey that Jews living anywhere outside of Israel were loyal to Israel before all else. To illustrate how this works, allow me to give you an anecdote: at a grad school happy hour I toasted “l’chaim” before downing my shot. A colleague across the table sneered at me and toasted “Free Palestine” before downing his shot. This colleague was making assumptions about my politics and loyalties as a Jewish person despite knowing nothing about me or my politics. This is fifth column thinking. And then, of course, there’s our best friend, the cab driver. This all dovetails nicely with Jewish Conspiracy, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion type shit. To provide examples of how this applies to other groups, the 45th President of the US likes to insinuate that all Hispanic immigrants represent MS-13, and that all Muslims are anti-American terrorists. This is fifth column rhetoric in action. It’s gross and highkey ethnic-cleansey. 2 Subtweeting all of Eurasia and North Africa here okay like if you hate the State of Israel and do not want it to exist, then maybe don’t kick out your Jews and/or treat them so horribly that their only choice is go to Israel as a result of international immigration policies/your fucking exit permit???? I mean, I know why, but… 3 In the late 1970s, liberal, educated classes of the Polish Catholic community began to take an interest in Jewish history in Poland. One of their organizations, the Warsaw Club, organized annual Weeks of Jewish Culture. On these Weeks, they would pay visits to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and work on restoring its tombstones, attend lectures on Jewish culture, and participate in similar activities. 4 There’s a whole clusterfuck involving a convent opening in a former Auschwitz gas chamber because Lol Memory, but that happened outside of the 1946-1983 time frame of this post, so that’s a memory clusterfuck I will not be discussing here.
Vladka and Benjamin fled the ruined city in a Polish medical wagon. They rode out, hidden beneath a sheet, wearing Red Cross armbands. Once out of Warsaw, Vladka and Benjamin made contact with some friends hiding on a large estate. Only their expertly forged false documents shielded them from German discovery.
In early January 1945, Benjamin received word through the underground that his parents were alive and looking for him. Benjamin and his parents were reunited in mid-January, and Benjamin and Vladka married shortly thereafter at his parents’ insistence.
Now married, they returned to Warsaw five months after their initial departure. They found nothing. They rubble of the ghetto–all that remained of their former lives–yielded no answers. At the Jewish cemetery, it was almost impossible to find a grave; the place was in ruins: nothing but overturned tombstones, desecrated graves, and scattered skulls as far as the eye could see.
They remained in the deserted city for a short time before moving to Lodz. They tried to build a life there, but realized that they had no future in the country of their birth as Polish anti-Jewish violence rose in the post-war years.1 So, they set out for the United States. Following the circuitous route typical of Jewish refugees in the larger 1933-1950 period, Vladka and Benjamin finally arrived in New York City on May 24, 1946.
Benjamin launched a business in the fur industry, and later opened a successful import-export business. Vladka meanwhile, worked as a writer for the Jewish Daily Forward. In 1948, they had a daughter named Anna, now Dr. Anna Meed Scherzer, and in 1950, they had a son named Steven, now Dr. Steven Meed. Vladka and Benjamin attained their American citizenship in the early 1950s, and formally changed their names to Benjamin and Vladka Meed.
In the late 1940s, Vladka began the work that would dominate the rest of her life. She had seen the Holocaust, seen her world before and after, and she was adamant that no one ever forget what had befallen her people.
She traveled across the United States, lecturing on her war-time experiences in partnership with such organizations as the Jewish Labor Committee and the International Rescue Committee.
Over the course of the next 30-odd years, Vladka and Benjamin would become influential voices in the realms of Holocaust education and commemoration. For example, Vladka led an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to create a Holocaust memorial in Battery Park in the 1960s, and helped to found the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization in 1962.
In 1978, Yad Vashem officials reached out to Vladka and Benjamin to invite them to a memorial service in Warsaw. They accepted, and, through Yad Vashem, received two visas allowing them to return to Poland for four days each. During these four days, they were to find in their former home a radically different relationship with the Holocaust than the one Vladka and Benjamin had dedicated their lives to building in the United States.
I am not here to tell you why it’s disrespectful to play Pokémon Go at the Holocaust Museum or wherever. Frankly, if you need to be told why, you’re too far-gone for anything I say to have any impact. So let’s just skip past my pearl-clutching and moral assessments and move on to meaning; what does it mean to play Pokémon Go in spaces with commemorative meanings assigned to them?
Before I go any further, and for those of you out of the loop (like my mom, who thought this game involved following clues to people dressed like Pokémon), Pokémon Go is a cell phone game which, using the mobile device’s camera and GPS, allows players to catch, train, and battle Pokémon in the physical environment, transformed within the augmented reality of gameplay.
Oh hey look, there’s a Squirtle chilling in my office with my freshly processed papers.
Once a Pokémon is spotted, the player has to throw a Pokéball within the game and make a successful catch. And if the player catches all the Pokémon lurking in their immediate vicinity, they have to get up, and walk around their city, town, or local park to find more. If a player wants to buy supplies or battle with other players, they have to walk to a PokéStop or a Pokémon Gym, typically located at identifiable landmarks like monuments, local strip clubs, and some dude’s converted church house (no but actually).
I’ve thought a lot of about different spaces where gameplay could be perceived as tacky or inappropriate, and I’m going to focus on three sites: Auschwitz, where 1,100,000 Jews and 200,000 Romani, gay men and women, people with mental and physical disabilities, Resistance members, dissidents, and POWs were tortured, abused, executed, and tossed into the ovens; Tuol Sleng (previously known as Security Prison 21/S-21), a former high school used by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime as a prison, torture and execution center; and the September 11 Memorial and Museum, the site of death for nearly 3,000 people, and the grave of those whose remains were never identified.
Installation at the September 11 Memorial and Museum between the footprints of the towers. Behind this wall is the
Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, where unidentified human remains are stored. Image courtesy of the September 11 Memorial and Museum.
The women’s barracks at Auschwitz. Image courtesy of Yad Veshem.
The Khmer Rouge photographed every S-21 incoming prisoner, and here are a fraction of those images on display at
the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Image courtesy of said museum.
NOTE: The images I chose to represent Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng are comparatively tame. I could have chosen much more disturbing ones, but I find those extremely triggering, and I have no desire to spring that on anyone.
I choose these three because these are inarguably sites of human suffering, murder, and/or torture. That legacy cannot be assigned; it’s intangible. These sites are not in any way spatially divorced from the horrors they commemorate.
I don’t think the game has been released in Cambodia (yet) so my use of Tuol Sleng is hypothetical. But it has been released in Poland and the US and yes, people have and are playing Pokémon Go at Auschwitz and at the September 11 Memorial and Museum.
Here someone plays the game one of the two September 11 Memorial Pools, which lie in the footprints of the two towers. Image courtesy of Time Magazine.
So again I had to ask myself, what does this mean?
Screen-cap of the Auschwitz gameplay. Image courtesy of the NYMag twitter.
Pokémon Go’s gameplay allows users to assert augmented reality over their surroundings. They engage as people on the game board of Pokémon Go, not as people taking in the meaning of the space around them. The game takes what exists, and projects itself over it. Thus, in these spaces I’m discussing, that is no longer a room where a Khmer Rouge official tortured a librarian, or where Jews were forced to huddle together like cattle before the slaughter,or where unidentified human remains still lie, but simply wallpaper; just the setting of a game.
Superimposed Pokémon lurking outside the entrance to Auschwitz. Image courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
To play Pokémon Go at these sites is to divorce them of all meaning, wrest them away from the hideous pasts they and all visitors must bear witness to. And I guess I lied; I have to extend moral judgement here, because that act?-is pretty profane.
At a site like the Vietnam War Memorial*, it’s a much more ambiguous relationship. This is a memorial to lives lost on a battlefield across the sea. It’s meaningful because we, as a society, have made it meaningful. People bring to it their grief and trauma and memories, and in doing so imbue it with meaning. Or to put differently, the meaning of the Vietnam War Memorial is a constructed, but it’s a meaningful, important construct.
It is a symbolic site of mourning which means different things to each of the millions of people who visit it. One person could see playing Pokémon Go at the Vietnam Memorial as a horrific insult to fallen soldiers and veterans suffering from trauma, while another could see at as a tribute to a fun-loving grandfather, or never-met uncle. Because it is not on the site of death, the meanings of augmented reality gameplay at the Vietnam Memorial are too fractured for me to be able to make any definitive statements about them.
There’s a lot more to say here. About playing this and other augmented reality games at sites like cemeteries, war memorials, monuments, museums, art installations, gentrifying spaces; about space, interaction, memory, and human geography. I have really just begun to scratch the surface, and I welcome contributions.
*I used the Vietnam War Memorial as an example here, but this discussion can apply to any number of cemeteries or memorials or monuments located away from the site of death, or violence.
It was not a funeral, the Dean of Leicester, David Monteith, reminded the congregation of his cathedral, which had been transformed into a grove of foliage and white roses – and the reminder about Richard III was very much needed.
Every pew was filled with guests in military uniforms, black or navy suits, academic gowns, decorations and honours, chains of office, silver white boar badges, white rose brooches and fabulous hats.
The guests included the Duke of Gloucester, Sophie Countess of Wessex, and the Duke of Norfolk, whose responsibilities include royal funerals. The music included a fanfare and new setting of the national anthem by the master of the Queen’s music, Judith Weir. Read more.
This is a fascinating demonstration of the power of memory and the place of a collective past within British national identity.
I’ll say more later as I’m technically at work right now, but look at this symbolism, look at this display; look at how painstakingly this ceremony constructs a continuum between the present Britain and the legendary (so to speak) past.
As of this writing, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has sold over one million copies, and holds a place on several bestseller lists. The film adaptation of the book has made over two hundred million dollars in the domestic and foreign market. The book and the movie tell the story of two terminally ill American teenagers, and both contain a scene where the protagonists, Hazel and Augustus, share a kiss in the Anne Frank House. John Green made the following statement regarding the scene:
“Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants—she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable—but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people. And so I wanted him to go with a sort of expectation of her heroism and be sort of dashed.”
Here, Green makes it clear that he reads Anne Frank’s death as being from an illness like “most people,” like his protagonist. In doing so, he erases the circumstances under which she contracted typhus. “Most people” are not Ashkenazic Jewish teenage girls who contracted typhus in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This fundamental erasure of the context of her death allowed him, those involved in the cinematic adaptation, and yes, a large portion of his readership, to accept the use of Anne Frank and her death as a prop in this American YA love story. Indeed, when further called on the issue, Green stated:
“I’ve been getting this question a lot. I can’t speak for the movie, obviously, as I didn’t make it, but as for the book: The Fault in Our Stars was the first non-documentary feature film to be granted access to the Anne Frank House precisely because the House’s board of directors and curators liked that scene in the novel a great deal. (A spokesperson recently said, ‘In the book it is a moving and sensitively handled scene.’) Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, had this to say: ‘The kissing scene in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ in the annex of the Anne Frank House is not offensive or against who Anne Frank was. What Anne communicated in her diary was hope. She celebrated life and she celebrated hope.’ Obviously, the Anne Frank House and the ADL do not have a monopoly on Anne’s life or her legacy, but their opinions are important to me.”
I take issue with this response. Here, Green is divesting himself of responsibility for the scene, and communicating to his critics that he is not to blame, because the Anne Frank House board of directors, curators, and a Holocaust survivor approved of it. In other words, he is drawing these peoples’ assumed authority to silence criticism, and to avoid taking responsibility for the filmed version of a scene he created.
The Anne Frank House, for all the wonderful work it does, is a museum. Like all museums, it must work to attract and reach out to potential patrons. In other words, museums have to advertise because they require patrons and revenues to exist. Therefore, I read the official approval of the Anne Frank House simply as a targeted attempt to reach out to and attract a pool of untapped, younger patrons. They chose to support the filming of a sympathetic romantic scene about terminally ill teenagers in their institution to reach out to young people. While that is a sound business decision, I would argue that it’s hardly an ethical one for the Anne Frank House, an institution devoted, as per their website, to:
“the preservation of the place where Anne Frank went into hiding during the Second World War, and to bringing the life story of Anne Frank to the attention of as many people as possible worldwide with the aim of raising awareness of the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination and the importance of freedom, equal rights and democracy,”
to support the filming of this scene. For, in Green’s own words, that scene had nothing to do with the context of Anne Frank’s death, and therefore, it did nothing to bring Anne Frank’s story to life. And it hardly raises awareness of contemporary European anti-Semitism.
As for the ADL, I very much agree with Mr. Foxman’s assessment of Anne Frank. However, what she celebrated in her life and her writings have little to do with what she has come to mean in within public memory of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Her narrative has been used by nations and educational systems to the extent that for many, she is the Holocaust; she is the face of the Holocaust. But what we inherit from her isn’t the experience of the Holocaust. That experience and her death at Bergen Belsen take place outside the pages of her diary. Readers are never forced to experience the Holocaust through her eyes; they are able to embrace the tragedy of the Holocaust through her story while remaining removed from its experiential realities. Thus, Anne Frank becomes the Holocaust without forcing anyone to experience it. Her name can be invoked to summon tragedy, without forcing anyone to feel it.
While Anne Frank may be the face of the Holocaust of European Jewry, the memory of the experiential reality of the Holocaust is male. The way we conceptualize and remember the concentration camp experience is constructed by male narratives. More Jewish men survived the Holocaust than Jewish women. Due to attitudes towards education in the interwar period, more male Jewish survivors had the education and literary capital needed to craft enduring narratives of their experiences than did female Jewish survivors. There are three foundational male Holocaust survival narratives: Night by Elie Wiesel, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and Maus by Art Spiegelman about his father’s Holocaust experience. Never have I seen those three men and their narratives used as a joke, or a meme, or a cheap narrative device, or as self-promotion by an American pop star.
These men are revered, and their narratives taken extremely seriously. And none of them, none of them have been used in a prop in a story about terminally ill gentile American teenagers. They survived, in perhaps the type of heroic arc a John Green protagonist would yearn for. Yet Augustus doesn’t look to them. He doesn’t share a kiss with his girlfriend at Auschwitz. He shared a kiss with her in the Anne Frank House.
Anne Frank is not a prop. She is not a symbol, she is not a teenager who happened to die of an illness, and she is not one of the canonical Jewish male survivors. She is one of many millions of Jewish women and girls who were industrially murdered like livestock, incinerated, and left in an unmarked grave. That is the story of the Holocaust of European Jewry, and that is the story of the persecution and murder of all Europeans (the disabled, Romani, Irish Travelers, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists) who failed to fit into Nazi racial and ideological constructs.
The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opened to visitors one month ago. I’ve been watching the responses, reading the critiques; it’s been fairly weird for me—not because I had a loved one murdered in the attacks, but because I was a Special Collections Intern at that museum for ten months in 2010. I digitized photographs, wrote profiles for the memorial exhibit, updated metadata, measured and photographed objects in our collection, digitized ephemera, sat in on meetings with victims’ families, and sat in a location which allowed me to eavesdrop on exhibitions meetings. I learned about the narrative they were constructing, and why they were doing it that way. (“We’re just telling the story,” one member of the Exhibitions team told me, “and the story is a complicated one, with parts that many think should not be included in this museum. But we have to include them—it would be dishonest not to.”)
Victims’ families are unhappy with the layout of the museum, the extremely literal nature of some of the pieces on display (the half destroyed ambulance, for instance), and the fact that they were not contacted to approve aspects of the memorial exhibit. And pretty much everyone is unhappy with the gift shop. First I want to address the criticisms regarding the victims’ families and loved ones.
Between the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, there are approximately 3,000 dead. That is 3,000 people, each with mothers, fathers, spouses, significant others, brothers, sisters, friends, mentors, nieces, nephews, and children. And with each and every one of those people is the remembrance of a life suddenly and tragically cut short. And that, I think, cuts to the core of this issue: remembrance.
Memorial museums are, of course, about memory. They are institutions constructed to capture, maintain, and give narrative to a memory. As a historian, I think the concept of intentionally constructing a historic narrative as national canon is horrifying (I’m a melodramatic academic; I regret nothing), but as a public historian, I understand the necessity of creating that narrative. To have the responsibility of being the people to invent, construct, or cement that memory, that narrative? That’s no easy task, and it’s a task which will always be flawed because history by nature defies a singular narrative. And, in my very humble opinion, the September 11 Memorial and Museum is staffed by dedicated, responsible museum professionals and public historians who understand the importance of honesty and clarity, and who understand the gravity of what they are doing; they’re not just creating and opening a museum, but they are constructing a memory.
The memory they’re creating and commemorating will live beyond the memories of those who remember 9/11, and those who intimately remember the people murdered on that day. Therefore, I feel comfortable saying that the criticism—controversy, even—surrounding the set-up, layout, and narrative of the museum is a matter of personal remembrance versus constructed collective memory. I obviously begrudge no one their anger over the manner in which their loved one’s murder is remembered, but I do have to ask: could this base issue of memory vs. remembrance have been avoided at all? Is that even an option in the context of mass commemoration? I’m going to leave this one open ended.
And then, of course, there is the gift shop, not to mention that $24 entry fee (from which victims’ families are exempt). I’ve seen a lot of talk about how sickening it is to walk into this sacred space only to see a gift shop selling expensive jewelry, tchotchkes, and refrigerator magnets. And I agree, it is distasteful, and for a grieving family member already distraught over the nature of the memory constructed by the institution, it’s a slap in the face. However, there is one glaring issue that criticisms of the gift shop continuously neglect to address: the fact that this museum receives no government funding for its operational costs.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum must pay for insurance, maintenance, on-site climate control, off-site storage, off site-storage climate control, the preservation of everything from 13-year-old receipts to damaged steel beams, the JFK storage hangar, staff salaries, the rent for the office space, et cetera, et cetera. The museum has extremely high ongoing costs; former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated that these expenses come to a figure of at least $60 million annually. That money has to come from somewhere, and one of those somewheres, unfortunately, is the gift shop.
While the shop’s wares may be a sickening site to grieving patrons, I would argue that it is more sickening that the American government—which launched an oil war over 9/11—refuses to fund the institution dedicated to its memory.