Dear Kitty (as Anne Frank never wrote),
“I’m soo sick of being stuck in hiding, because my dad keeps telling me to turn down the volume on my Justin Bieber CD. If only I could get out to go and see him on tour…”
Clearly, Anne– the teenage diarist forced into hiding by the Nazis, who eventually died at Bergen Belsen – had more serious considerations than the average 21st century western teenager. In her diary, perhaps one of the most well-known examples of Holocaust-era testimony, she wrote of an everyday existence blighted by fear, death and hatred.
How tragic, knowing what became of her, to read her words: “Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles.”
Yet those who have read Anne’s diary will recall that, for all that her life was unlike many young people then and since, she was in many ways a typical teenager – frustrated by her mother, confused about boys. She could be petulant, she could be irrational. In another life, it’s not a stretch to imagine she might have been – as Bieber claimed this week – a fan of some fairly atrocious music. One of the many tragedies of her story is that she never got the chance to be embarrassed by her teenage passions.
Bieber is facing opprobrium for writing in the Anne Frank House guestbook that “Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”
The correct response to a tale of persecution – to wonder whether the victim would have liked your latest video? Not to most of us, attuned to the sensitivities of discussing the Holocaust. As Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, noted, his message left her “a bit lost for words”.
Gillian Walnes, co-founder of the Anne Frank Trust UK, issued a sterner rebuke. “This is a place where Anne Frank spent two years,” she said. “Now 70 years later a pop singer is trying to hijack this for his own self-aggrandisement.”
She has a point, not least that Justin Bieber didn’t reach stratospheric levels of success without being a shameless self-publicist. If his visit had been purely a visit – rather than, at least in part, a publicity stunt – we wouldn’t even have heard about it.
Of course it trivialises the Holocaust to talk about whether one of its most famous victims would have been a fan of a singer with ridiculous hair; far more crucial to reflect on the piles of human hair, seized by the Nazis from their helpless victims, preserved at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Of course the legacy of a girl who died before her 16th birthday for no other reason than being born a Jew, deserves more than contemplation as to how she would have spent her weekends if they’d been hers to spend.
Yet look on almost every news site around today. Yes, there are headlines about Bieber. But there are also headlines about Anne Frank, and the Holocaust – articles that his mostly tween fanbase would be unlikely to peruse without Bieber’s photograph accompanying them. Anne is even a trending topic on Twitter.
And it matters. It matters because in 2009 a survey revealed that one in 20 British kids thought Hitler was a football coach, and because in a decade, there won’t even be survivors left to talk to them at schools, or grandparents around to share their memories. It matters because when Baroness Thatcher died, the interest of a confused generation was piqued mainly by a tweet from Harry Styles. It matters because children listen far more to their role-models than they do to well-meaning teachers.
We can lament that as a sign of a generation brought up on reality TV and 140 characters of trash, or we can see it as an opportunity, and look to these “stars”, with their poor spelling and ignorant remarks, and recruit them to spread the word about important issues. They’ll do it if it gives them good publicity; teachers and organisations should seize on that.
We’ll never know whether Anne Frank would have been a “belieber” and, if we had the chance, I’d hope it wouldn’t be the first question we’d put to her. But if even one 14-year-old asks his parents or teachers today about why she lived in an attic, or reads her moving diary, then we’ll have Justin Bieber and his ridiculous remark to thank.