Playing cat and mouse with searing history

I found our visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam this past summer to be an unforgettable experience. The story told by the house seemed to me to represent tragedy without catharsis.

In today’s New York Times Edward Rothstein reviews a permanent Anne Frank exhibit opening at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Rothstein is a formidable critic. His 2010 review of the 1001 Inventions exhibit when it set up shop at the New York Hall of Science is a classic.

Rothstein’s review today praises the Anne Frank exhibit for its presentation of the relevant history and resists the appropriation of Anne Frank in the service of liberal platitudes:

[I]n a final gallery this carefully constructed history nearly collapses. Here, touch-screens display the diary’s supposed lessons for “making the world a better place,” including “Valuing Family,” “Speaking Up” and “Appreciating Nature,” with each theme accompanied by Anne’s commentary and an example of how the principle might be applied today.

For “Assuming Responsibility,” Anne, we learn, wrote that people should “review their own behavior.” A contemporary example? “I’ll not talk behind my friends’ backs.”

What about “Speaking Up?” Anne: “Even if people are still very young, they shouldn’t be prevented from saying what they think.” And now? “I’ll take a stand against bullying.” Visitors are then asked to make pledges of their own. “I’ll start attending my child’s school board meetings,” one read during my visit. Another: “I’ll keep my dog on the leash when we walk in the town forest.”

Isn’t it remarkable how Anne’s diary can inspire such empathetic efforts?

But look how thoroughly history has been dissolved! See how horrific circumstances are distilled into effervescent platitudes! The Museum of Tolerance teases unconvincing homilies from Holocaust history, as if intolerance were the root cause of genocide, which now seems to be an international delusion. As a result, the extreme is diminished in its awfulness, the trivial becomes grotesque and, ultimately, any analogy becomes possible.

And Anne herself? A wall-size mural here recreates an early photo of her, perhaps at age 12. “This is a photograph of me as I wish I looked all the time,” Anne wrote. “Then I might still have a chance to get to Hollywood.”

We understand: her wish is granted. Her face, illuminated at night, peers out a window facing those celebrated hills. It is as if the years in hiding, the hideous deaths, the barbarity that took hold through indulgence and accommodation had never happened.

Instead, we are left with a fantasy — lessons about planting trees and shunning bullies instead of confronting tyrants and crematories.

Such a comforting displacement is a familiar characteristic of childhood. And perhaps, occasionally, of Hollywood as well.

If you are interested in the subject, Rothstein’s review is worth reading in its entirety.