Saturday, July 27, 2013

Knowing Anne Frank (D’var Torah for Eikev)

When you first walk in the house, the stairs are very, very steep. The house is surprisingly small, dark, and almost completely empty. You aren’t sure what you were expecting. But it’s so bare. There is no furniture. Then you start to see things on the walls: the place on the wall where the Franks measured the growth of Anne and Margot; the clippings of movie stars that Anne pasted on the wall of her room with glue; and suddenly it becomes very, very real. They really were here, for two long years, never leaving, never going outside, keeping quiet all day so no one would hear them, hiding, trying to save their lives against all odds.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands, and while in Amsterdam, I had the privilege of visiting the Anne Frank House, as it is now called. It is the narrow building that held the offices of Anne’s father, Otto, on the first two floors, and above was the secret annex that housed the Franks and four others as they hid. It is now a “living museum,” a very simple place, but with a line hundreds deep waiting to get in at any moment of the day. One million visitors go there a year. Why?

The researcher and reporter in me wanted to interview people in line and find out why they were there. I didn’t, but I wish I had, and I hope I have a chance to do so someday. There were families with children in tow, school groups of teenagers, young people, older people, tourists and locals, all there to see this terrible piece of history. I don’t really understand why so many were willing to stand in line for an hour to see this place, but they were.  They waited with little complaint, even though the line was long and the day was hot. They entered quietly, reverently. They looked at the displays, at Anne’s words written on the walls. They watched the videos, testimonies from those who were there, helpers, friends of the Frank’s. And at the end, they viewed the horrible, neatly typed  yellow cards, one for each Frank family member, noting the date of their arrival at a concentration camp.

There is something about the small details that I found the most painful.  The growth chart. The clippings pasted to the walls. The stairs leading to Peter’s attic room where Anne had her first kiss. The bookcase that blocked the stairs to the secret annex, thick books on its shelves.  The blue and white porcelain toilet. The red and white checked diary lovingly placed on a black cushion and encased in glass. Samples of Anne’s neatly handwritten pages. The yellow cards.

What’s unique about the Anne Frank House is that it represents a very personal story. It’s not a large, impersonal  accounting of Hitler or the Third Reich or the Holocaust, but instead a very small story, a particular story, about a young woman and her family, and how they tried their best to survive during a terrible time in human history. I think the fact that it is just a tiny sliver of the whole makes it understandable, able to be comprehended. The whole is much too big and horrible for our brains to comprehend.

This week’s parshah, Eikev, along with many other verses in the Torah, implores us to help the vulnerable in our world. It says in chapter 10, verses 18 and 19: G-d upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

In a commentary by Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald  on, Rabbi Gruenwald says that the Torah gives us two reasons for caring about and having empathy with others:  the first reason is we should do it  to emulate G-d, and the second reason,  because we as a nation know what it means to be oppressed.  Rabbi Gruenwald asks: given that we have these two good reasons, why do we so often fail to meet these ideals? Why is it so hard to help the stranger?

Rabbi Gruenwald posits that the choice of words in this verse gives us a hint. It doesn’t say befriend the poor, but rather it says befriend the stranger. He says : “we have trouble identifying or empathizing with those who are far away, and who live lives so different from our own.”  The Torah realized this, and therefore set out this commandment from G-d to correct this inclination.

This, I think, is why one million people a year line up to see the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  People have trouble empathizing with 6 million Jewish strangers, and 5 million others, who were killed in the Holocaust. But they don’t have trouble empathizing with one young girl who shares her very ordinary daily life and longings with us through her diary. In this way, Anne is no longer  a stranger, and people are able to befriend her, to know her, and in this way, to understand the larger story.

Shabbat Shalom.

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