UCSB History 133Q
The Diary of Anne Frank versus the Critics of Education
First published in America in 1952, The Diary of Anne Frank is still the most widely read book about the Holocaust in America. In a survey conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, it was still named as the predominant source of holocaust education: the text was required reading in high school for over half the students surveyed (Flanzbaum, 1). The diary has conjured controversial arguments and debates as to whether it should be used in schools to educate students about the atrocities of the Holocaust. I hope that this paper will provide both advantages and disadvantages for the use of the diary in schools. I have come to the conclusion that the diary should be the first text a child reads about the Holocaust, but definitely not the last. I agree with scholars that Anne’s diary does not represent the majority of the victims. However, the diary sparks an interest in children so that they will want to continue learning about the Holocaust.
Scholars debate over how Anne Frank’s diary is taught in schools. The debate arises over how students are taught to relate to Anne Frank. Anne is 14 years old and is going through many of the same experiences her readers are going through. However, Alvin Rosenfeld, who wrote the essay "The Anne Frank We Remember," explains that students should be made aware of the differences between them and Anne Frank. Students should not be made to feel that they are close to Anne and can relate with her. Rosenfeld states, "In this instance, a pedagogy that stresses commonalities can only lead to misunderstandings or, at best, superficial understandings" (Reader 133D, 112). Rosenfeld is clearly not against the use of the diary in education, but he is against how the school system today has interpreted her diary as a way for students to become personal and close with her. He feels that this leads to a non-realization of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
However, many scholars refute the criticisms made by Rosenfeld. Some feel that it is the personal connection and bond with Anne’s story that educators believe spark interest in learning the Holocaust. It is through this closeness that students can view the Holocaust in a more realistic sense, rather than as an event that happened half a century ago and on a different continent. According to Victoria Barnett, "By getting to know the victims as people with faces, families, histories and personalities, the full scope of the tragedy becomes more vivid. Even today, the Diary of Anne Frank tells an immediate, personal story about what happened to the European Jews that the numbers and statistics cannot convey" (Rittner, 8). Barnett brings up a good point. If students are taught the Holocaust through numbers and statistics, the Holocaust will seem unimportant. In contrast, it is through the personal stories that students will want to learn about the tragedies of the war. The controversy arises over whether the personal connection helps students to relate to Anne or instead leads children to a superficial understanding. I am in agreement with Barnett. I believe that when stories are made personal people want to understand and learn more about the Holocaust. If children aren’t made to relate, they will not be interested in furthering their knowledge in the Holocaust.
It isn’t teachers who create the personal connection with Anne, it is Anne herself. Henri Van Praag, writer of the essay "The Diary as a Challenge to Education," points out the importance of whom Anne is writing to. Anne writes to an imaginary friend named Kitty. Praag states, "Through Kitty Anne speaks to millions of young people, as well as to adults" (Stanmeijer, 70). While reading the diary one can relate to Anne because people feel as though Anne is speaking directly to them. Through Kitty people feel they really get to know Anne. It is through her innocent writing style that brings people closer to her and sympathizes with her. Praag states, "Identification with Anne becomes possible because the reader of the diary feels a deep psychological kinship with her. It is often the case, too, that Anne arouses self-awareness in the reader, gives him the courage to be himself. Reading the diary often leads to a new discussion with parents and teachers" (Stanmeijer, 105). Therefore, it is not necessarily teachers who push students to bond with Anne, it is Anne’s diary that speaks to everyone and students want to understand Anne. Students want to comprehend Anne’s story and learn more about the war.
Another reason Anne’s diary is used as a tool in teaching the Holocaust is that children sometimes better understand the war through the eyes of another child. Anne Frank is a fourteen-year old who many other children can relate to. Her diary speaks to children in a language that is simple, basic and understandable. Sometimes adults cannot reach children because adults are often on a different intellectual level than children. According to Henri Van Praag, "Every educator knows from experience that children can often explain things to each other more successfully then adults can to children" (Stanmeijer, 70). Anne writes from a perspective that children can understand. The Diary of Anne Frank is not written in a complex language, children can read the diary without getting frustrated at the writing style. It is important when teaching students about the holocaust not to overwhelm them with difficult and in-depth analysis of the war. Anne Frank’s diary offers an introduction to the Holocaust on a level that children can understand.
People who oppose the diary probably would not disagree that it is a simple and understandable read. However, one major complaint about the diary being used in schools is that Anne’s situation in hiding is not representative of the Holocaust. Many people feel that Anne was very lucky to be in hiding because she was able to live with her family and was supplied with necessities to live on, in contrast to those in ghettos or in camps, who suffered from starvation and diseases. Anne, however, did become a victim of the camps, but her diary ends with her capture in the Annex, and the more gruesome details of her story are left untold. Anne wrote in her diary, "If I just think of how we live here, I usually come to the conclusion that it is a paradise compared with how other Jews who are not in hiding must be living" (May 1st, 1943). People feel that Anne Frank's Diary gives both children and adults a misperception of what happened during the Holocaust. Lawrence Langer is appalled by the way the school system has misused the diary. He stated, "…it shelters both students and teachers from the worst, to say nothing of the unthinkable, making them feel they have encountered the Holocaust without being threatened by intolerable images" (Enzer/Enzer, 204). Langer brings up an important point, because Anne is in hiding, she is not able to view or experience the atrocities that other Jews were experiencing. Therefore, the misperception lies within the fact that Anne lived in "paradise" and children use Anne’s life in the annex to picture the Holocaust. However, Jews in hiding were the minority, and the majority of Jews tell a different story, as does Anne, when she reached Bergen-Belsen.
Langer continues to argue that the diary lacks sufficient information about the Holocaust and instead is about a young girl finding her sexuality. For this reason, he argues that her diary should not be used in a history class but in another course. He states, "Students and teachers should continue to read this unusual diary, but for the right reasons. A wrong one is to consider it a vital text about the doom of the European Jewry" (Enzer/Enzer, 205). Langer makes an interesting argument in the fact that the diary does seem to focus on Anne and puberty, and that it takes focus away from the important issue about Jews in the Holocaust. Langer continues to argue that Anne, "…never intended her diary to be concerned primarily with the plight of Jews. Less then 20 percent of its text is involved with this subject" (Enzer/Enzer, 204). It is true that Anne had not intended to write about the suffering of Jews. She even wrote in her diary that when the war was over she would write of a romance in the secret Annex. Even though her story may include her curiosity in her sexuality, I feel it does not lesson her story of a Jew in hiding during the Holocaust. It is a primary source that was written during the war that provides insight of the fears of Nazis and the constant fear of being captured.
In summary, the three main disadvantages for the diary’s use in school according to Langer are
However, Praag and Barnett, who are in favor of the diary, have brought up interesting points that it is necessary to have a personal connection to understand the holocaust. The diary explains the horrors of the war in an understandable language and the diary provides further discussion about oneself and humanity. The conclusion I have come to about the diary is that it is a simple read and it should be the first Holocaust text that a child encounters. The fact that it is not graphic allows children to develop their own images and provokes a child’s thought process. I propose that after the reading of the diary students should read another text that gives a detailed description of life in the ghettos or in the camps. I feel it is important not to overwhelm young students with a graphic description, I feel it would turn them away. Educators need to ease young students into the Holocaust and Anne’s diary is a perfect source for that. Anne’s diary has touched many people’s hearts. Many letters have been written to Otto Frank about how Anne has been and image of strength and courage in people’s lives. Anne, whether we like it or not, has become a symbol of the Holocaust and her story is unique and important for educating children about the Holocaust.
Enzer, Hyman and Solotaroff-Enzer, Sandra. Anne Frank: Reflections on Her Life and Legacy (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Flanzbaum, Hilene. The Americanization of the Holocaust (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1999).
Marcuse, "The Holocaust in German History Reader" History 133D, Fall 2001 (link).
Rittner, Carol, Anne Frank in the World: Essays and Reflections (New York and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1998).
Stanmeijer, Anne, A Tribute to Anne Frank (NY: Doubleday, 1971).