Monday, February 19, 2007

A revised history: Otto Frank and the Dixie Chicks

A friend of mine recently sent me a copy of a New York Times editorial, dated February 13, 2007 entitled "The Courage of Others’ Convictions." (Incidentally, I attended a Dixie Chicks concert with this friend, Ellen Downes, at her request, last year). The editorial discussed how the music industry's Grammy awards to the Dixie Chicks came several years late. I share the editors beliefs that the Dixie Chicks faced an unusually un-American barrage of hatred for exercising their rights to free speech and expression. The industry's award makes me think of another period in our collective history that bears remembering: the Holocaust and the revision of history that followed.

It has always been clear that history is written by the victors. These victors are often those who never had the courage to be leaders, but rather rode waves of convenience and popularity. I was reading a New York Times article about the recent discovery of a file containing Otto Frank's increasingly desperate letters to his American friends trying to get his family out of Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Otto Frank, of course, was the father of Anne Frank, whose diary has informed generations of the individual and personal tragedies that formed together to form the tragedy of the Holocaust. The file, owned by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research remained buried in a warehouse in Jersey until a recent clerical error led to its discovery.

In the file, Frank writes to Nathan Straus, the director of the federal housing authority at the time, and a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and son of the co-owner of the Macy’s department store asking for any possible assistance to help his family reach America. If there was anyone in the world who should have been able to help, it would have been someone like Straus. He was, after all, an American, and a well connected one at that. We Americans, of course, are proud to take credit as the victors in WWII. Yet, as Frank's letters painfully demonstrate, Americans were rather complicit in failing to prevent the deaths of so many Jews during that period. Getting into the United States -- because of the State Department's polices at the time -- became a insurmountable hurdle for the people who most needed the lifeline that America might have provided. The State Department regulations changed constantly, often contradicting policies promulgated only days before. It seems clear that all of the obstacles were designed towards stemming the flow of refugees from Europe during that period.

The story, as we all know, did not end well. Near the end of the file, there was a note that “Mrs. Edith Frank died; daughters are still missing.” In the last entry in the file, a letter from a friend of Otto Frank informs that “Otto Frank said he wants to stay in Amsterdam” and no longer wants to come to the United States. Of course, after the war ended, Americans were pronounced the benevolent victors who wiped the scourge of Nazi terror from Europe. No doubt Americans deserved the praise, but the history is not that simple.

The Dixie Chicks have now received delayed recognition of the ordeal they faced after criticizing President Bush and his misguided Iraq war policy. The music industry will surely now claim the courage that the Dixie Chicks displayed for themselves, and perhaps, even belatedly, they should. But, much like Americans after WWII, the story is not a simple one. Had the United States been more open to the plight of European Jews during WWII, our history may in fact have been much different. Perhaps, even, millions of lives saved. Similarly, had the music industry -- and even our country -- been more receptive to dissent during our rush into Iraq, our history may well have been different. The horrors of WWII and the Holocaust are slowly beginning to fade from our collective memories, those from Iraq are now just beginning.

Both Otto Frank and the Dixie Chicks should remind us all that sticking to our principles and values, while seemingly impossible at times, remains the surest way to protect those ideals we cherish the most. Alas, the history that is written is never that simple.

P.S. As I write this, the genocide in Darfur continues. Please consider joining me in making a generous contribution to the effort to save lives there. You can contribute by clicking on the link below. Please consider doing so.

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