“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly, changing the world. How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make a contribution toward introducing justice straightaway.” — Anne Frank
I was 13 years old when I first read these moving words in Anne Frank’s diary. Even at that young age, I was acutely aware of how fortunate I was to live in a country that seeks justice for all, and just how painful, frustrating and frightening life must have been for Anne at my age.
Ten years later, after graduating from college, I had the good fortune to travel to Europe where a stop in Amsterdam took me to the Anne Frank House. As I climbed the narrow steps toward the “secret annex,” I was overwhelmed, sensing the fear and anxiety that Anne and her family must have experienced every time they heard footsteps or voices in the stairwell. “Will this be the day we are discovered?” I consciously tried to tread lightly, even though more than 50 years had passed. It was my private homage to Anne, the young girl I felt so close to years earlier.
Anne Frank’s birthday was June 12. Had there never been a Holocaust, she might be celebrating with 85 candles. Had things been different … Had more bystanders resisted … Had they known how terrible it would get … We can only imagine all the ways Anne might have championed justice, respect and love.
Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most powerful memoirs of the Holocaust, translated into more than 70 languages with more than 30 million copies sold around the globe. Twenty-four years later, her words and her experience still have a profound effect on the choices I make. For many young people she is their first, if not their only, exposure to the Holocaust. And yet in the recent Anti-Defamation League monumental study on anti-Semitism, known as the ADL Global 100, we learned that while 54 percent of our global population is aware of the Holocaust, only one-third is both aware of it and believes it has been accurately described by history.
Consisting of interviews with over 53,000 respondents in 96 languages, the survey gathered data representing 88.4 percent of the world’s adult population. Among the most striking results, two out of every three people surveyed had either never heard of the Holocaust or did not believe the historical accounts were accurate. How can this be? I was particularly distressed to learn that Holocaust awareness is lower among younger demographics; only 48 percent of the under-35 group surveyed was aware. With all of the ways our world has increased access to information through the Internet, how is it possible to be unaware?
Despite the popularity of Anne Frank’s diary, the release of such films as “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist,” and the tireless efforts of dozens of organizations dedicated to Holocaust education, clearly there is more work to be done. True to Anne’s call to action, I decided to make my contribution toward justice through service to others. And though I am saddened by the ADL Global 100 results, the survey has bolstered my commitment and enthusiasm.
Studying the Holocaust is not merely about looking back on history’s injustices but to provide relevance to our society today. Young people should understand it as a significant event in human history, recognize the complexity of individual choices, and define the role and responsibility of the individual to uphold the principles of morality. Learning about the Holocaust — through Anne’s diary or the stories of survivors, partisans or members of the Resistance — young people can explore the pitfalls of silence, apathy and indifference to the oppression of others. One reason I became an educator was to help students develop an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping in any society, especially their own.
ADL’s Global 100 reports that 22 percent of Americans and 30 percent of the global population believe that Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust. To those respondents, I emphatically disagree. I’m not Jewish. We all need to talk more about it.
Holocaust education is a conversation about what is happening to all of us, to humankind, as we continue to work to build a world without hate. We have made and should celebrate our progress, yet never grow complacent. For inspiration, I return to Anne Frank’s thoughtful words: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”
ADL will host “Echoes and Reflections,” a free community conversation on the lessons of the Holocaust, at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 19 in San Francisco. To register, go to www.sfechoes.eventbrite.com.
Melia Dunn recently completed service in the Peace Corps and is the director of education for ADL’s Central Pacific region.