What do Anne Frank, the Lazio soccer team in Italy, and a new high-speed train in Germany have in common? If I were a comedian, which my friends will assure you I am not, I would have a great punchline to this question. Unfortunately, this query is not the lead up to a joke. Over the last week, newspapers reported that Rome’s Lazio Soccer team wore jerseys decorated with Anne Frank’s face during the warm up to its game against Bologna, and Deutsche Bahn announced a plan to name a high-speed train after her. While the gestures were well-intentioned, both are inappropriate and telling of the state of Holocaust memory in present day society.
Anne Frank’s diary, published in 1952 in English as The Diary of a Young Girl, is one of the world’s most widely read books and its author one of the most recognizable victims of the Holocaust. The German-Jewish teenager’s journal has introduced countless students to the history of the Third Reich, World War Two, and the Holocaust. The popularity and prevalence of her diary in school classrooms is motivated by both the accessibility of her writing and the optimism she penned. For example, one of the most famous lines reads, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” While it has come to light that the version of her diary popularized in classrooms around the world was edited to portray a more optimistic narrative, the fact remains that Anne Frank is a pillar of Holocaust education and a symbol of what was lost when more than one million Jewish children were murdered during the Holocaust. Despite of, or perhaps because of, the fame of the diary, Ms. Frank is often the subject of Holocaust denial and racist propaganda, the latter of which provoked the Lazio soccer team to wear a picture of Ms. Frank on their jerseys.
Police were called to the Stadio Olimpico soccer stadium in Rome on October 23, 2017 to investigate antisemitic acts committed by fans during a game held the previous evening. The stadium is shared by two rival teams, Lazio and Roma. It has been alleged that hardcore Lazio fans called ultras are responsible for posting stickers around the stadium of Anne Frank wearing the rival jersey of the Roma soccer team alongside antisemitic graffiti. This is not an isolated event and speaks to a greater racist and antisemitic trend in Italy and Europe. For example, in 1998 Lazio fans held up banners from the stands reading “Auschwitz is Your Homeland. The Ovens are Your Homes” (Auschwitz, lavostra patria. I forni le vostre case). More recently soccer star Sulley Muntari made news when a referee gave a yellow card to the Ghanaian mid-fielder who plays for the Italian team Pescara when he shouted “This is my color!” at fans chanting racist comments during a match. While the international community has criticized the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) for not doing more to protect minority players from aggressive fans, the FIGC has taken aggressive action after the Anne Frank incident last week.
The FIGC held a minute of silence before all Series A, B, and C matches in the week that followed the discovery of the stickers. Passages of Ms. Frank’s diary were also read over loudspeakers. Prominent politicians including, Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and Lazio club president Claudio Lotito, issued statements condemning all antisemitic and racist acts. And, last but not least, players on the Lazio soccer team warmed up for a match while wearing shirts with Ms. Frank’s face.
While condemnation of antisemitism by leading politicians and athletes sets a positive example, there is something inappropriate about soccer players doing chest traps and sweating in a shirt with a deceased Holocaust victim’s face on it. Yes, the gesture is profound, but there are other and better ways to promote tolerance. For example, let us consider professional athletes in the US who wear pink during the month of October to raise awareness of breast cancer. There is a reason why professional athletes wear pink uniforms or accents during Breast Cancer Awareness month instead of pictures of cancer victims. Organizations and players can raise awareness without subjecting victims or using them for political fodder. Also, it is without question that no one wants to watch a linebacker wearing the image of a deceased woman brutally tackle an opponent.
There is a line between raising awareness and manipulating images of victims for political, social, or financial gain. Victims should be honored, and the decision to read passages from Ms. Frank’s diary at matches is an excellent example of how to dignify victims. Likewise, public statements by prominent Italian leaders brought attention to the issue and condemned racist, xenophobic, and antisemitic behavior. But in today’s visual culture of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like it is undeniable that the pictures of Ms. Frank’s face on soccer jerseys draws more attention than a leader’s commentary. For this reason, one could successfully argue, that although it was neglectful to play soccer wearing the image of a 15-year-old Holocaust victim, it did spread awareness. Despite this fact, the reality is Holocaust victims’ faces do not belong on soccer jerseys.
Sensationalizing the Holocaust through language or imagery, no matter the reason, is a cheap ploy for attention at worst and a sign of ignorance at best. This was the case when Detsche Bahn announced its intention to name a high-speed train after Ms. Frank. Wide spread criticism followed the press release. The company claimed to not understand why naming a German train—the key conduit to death camps for millions of Jews during the Holocaust—after a Holocaust victim would cause such outrage. Mirja Wenzel, director of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, tweeted that Detsche Bahn’s decision was “based on historical amnesia.” To be honest, I can’t decide what is worse: the leaders of a massive organization not “getting” why it is wrong to name a train after Ms. Frank, or the possibility that they chose to name the train after Ms. Frank to get media attention.
Last week’s news cycle with regard to Anne Frank elucidates a challenge facing Holocaust memory and education in the present and for the future. The Holocaust, no longer a recent phenomenon nor an isolated event, has become a hot topic catch word for political and economic exploitation. It is for this reason that Holocaust and genocide education is necessary not only to keep us aware of what is at stake when we do not learn from the past, but to teach us how to honor the victims of those killed.