The Anne Frank and Rachel Corrie stories
US activist Rachel Corrie was brutally killed defending the rights of the Palestinians in Gaza. She would have been admired and defended by Anne Frank as a result of her universal call for justice in the face of war and terror, writes Jennifer Loewenstein
Sixty-seven years after the end of World War II, a team of researchers and cameramen from the Anne Frank House in Holland showed up at the Capitol Lakes retirement centre in Madison, Wisconsin, in the US to interview my father-in-law, Fritz Loewenstein. Fritz is the only person still living known to have been boyhood friends with Anne Frank's "secret annex" companion, Peter van Pels, known in the Diary as Peter van Damm.
The oral account Fritz gave lasted over two hours, the interviewers, including Teresien da Silva, head of collections at the Anne Frank House in the Netherlands, who travelled to Madison personally, asking probing and thorough questions about every aspect of his life before his family fled Germany in the 1930s, especially insofar as it intersected with the life of Peter van Pels.
For Fritz, this meant recalling many unwanted ghosts of his own past and what it was like for him as a Jewish schoolboy growing up under the darkening cloud of Nazism in 1930s Germany. There is no question that Anne Frank's life and death, and all who played a part in it, still capture the imagination of millions long after her senseless killing. Fritz's account of his childhood friendship with Peter will be featured prominently in new documentary footage on Anne Frank that will become available at the Anne Frank House later this year. Over a million people visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam annually to see for themselves the place where Anne lived with her family and the van Pelses in hiding from the Nazis for more than three years.
Fritz Loewenstein's father was a doctor in the German town of Osnabrueck in the 1920s and 1930s. Germany had been their family's home for generations, and they had lived successfully there, as cultured and upstanding German patriots, for decades. The Loewensteins hoped very much to be able to weather the worst of National Socialist rule, but as time passed it grew clearer and clearer to Fritz's father and mother that they would have to get their family out.
Fritz recalls his own, personal anti-Hitler campaign: washing the swastikas off the door of his father's clinic each morning. That was in the spring of 1937 as it grew increasingly difficult for Jews to leave Germany. The Loewenstein family, at least that part of it, was fortunate: they were able to get out with some of their belongings and immigrate to the United States, the first choice of many Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazi regime. They ended up in Binghamton, New York, where my husband, David Loewenstein, grew up.
Throughout the interview with the crew from the Anne Frank House, David marveled at what an iconic figure Anne Frank has become. People of all ages the world over still read Anne's remarkable Diary of her incarceration and visit the place where Anne hid from the Nazis with her family after the Germans invaded and occupied Holland. I remember reading Anne Frank's Diary when I was 12 years old, utterly absorbed in the world of this creative and eloquent child despite the fact that she and her family were caught and deported to concentration camps where everyone but Anne's father, Otto, ultimately perished.
She nevertheless remains a beacon of hope and perseverance to victims everywhere who have suffered persecution. Although some have tried to claim that Anne's life and death were uniquely Jewish experiences, fully comprehensible only to other Jews, I maintain that the source of Anne's appeal is universal. In both her life and death, Anne Frank embodies the human will and desire to live and resist some of the worst odds imaginable. We recognise in Anne a child wrestling with the circumstances of a nightmarish human condition.
On 28 August, 2012, in Israel, judge Oded Gershon issued a verdict in the civil trial of US activist Rachel Corrie. Unsurprisingly, the Israeli state and military machine exonerated itself from all responsibility for Rachel's killing. I expected this. In the nine years since she was crushed to death by a D-9 armoured Caterpillar bulldozer out doing routine -- read, illegal and unconscionable -- work destroying the landscape and the lives of tens of thousands of people from Rafah, Gaza, Rachel has been virtually unknown to the vast majority of the educated US public. Unlike Anne Frank, whose life has been immortalised by the circumstances of her death, Rachel's name, life and death have been virtually blacked out of US official history, like the news out of Palestine more generally. She remains unknown, obscured, or distorted by deliberate disinformation.
The cause Rachel died defending, and the people she stood up for -- people whose voices have yet to receive equal validation as credible and legitimate voices bearing witness to their own suffering and ruin -- are still waiting to receive the long overdue recognition they deserve as the indigenous inhabitants of historic Palestine against whom a crime of unimaginable brutality and magnitude was committed. These are the refugees and their descendants who fled, were dispossessed of their land, expelled, threatened, and killed or massacred by the invading Zionist armies determined to create the Jewish state of Israel out of historic Palestine.
Until Israel acknowledges, offers reparation, and honours international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and until the Israeli state can publicly apologise for the enormous historic injustice committed against the indigenous people of Palestine, the wound it has created will continue to fester and spread, as it already has, across the Middle East and into the four corners of the world, casting modern-day Israel into the role of a pariah state. Its status as such has been increasingly recognised, even by western powers that understand Israel can continue to act with impunity only as long as it remains under the protective umbrella of US military power.
Rachel was a resilient, articulate and defiant 23-year-old college student who went to Gaza with others members of the International Solidarity Movement to bear witness to Israel's ruthless and deliberate objective of erasing, to the best of its ability, anything that remained of a coherent Palestinian national life, history and culture. Because Rachel stood up for the voiceless victims on the wrong side of US-Israeli Middle East policy, her name and legacy have been blacked out of official historical records like classified information. She exists in whispers only, a shadow in the halls of power and in the mainstream media where the official version of modern political-historical events are authorised and spun and where US support and complicity in Israel's regional hegemonic goals help sustain the necessary illusion of Israel's overall benevolence.
If our nation's authorities have managed so far to relegate Rachel to the dustbin of American history, a white American girl from an upstanding family of Christian origin whom nobody would have deliberately stopped to search at an airport, or questioned at a checkpoint beyond the Mexican border, and if official America has so far successfully committed to the black hole of US foreign affairs the life and death of a courageous white heroine who nevertheless chose to fight for justice on the "wrong" side of American policy, what does this say about the overall status and credibility of Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims trying to make their voices heard or to get their cases re-opened and examined by a government unconditionally supporting its Israeli client while busy slaughtering civilians and "suspects" with manned aircraft and pilotless drones in its own overseas battlegrounds?
How many Palestinian Rachels have left diaries and records of the abuses their people have suffered at the hands of colonial and imperial powers and their supplicants over the last century?
The occupation, ethnic cleansing, dispossession, fragmentation and wholesale colonisation of Palestine have been essentially reclassified and defined in language used to render legitimate the tactics and goals of modern Israel. Its overtly racist framework and raison d'être and the methodologies used to perpetuate policies in order to maintain the Jewish majority of the state have been recast, in the US and Israeli narratives, as the necessary social and political preconditions all Palestinians must accept before "peace" talks can begin again. In plain English, only a total capitulation of sovereignty over the land, including sacred religious sites, and the renunciation of Palestinian nationhood will satisfy Israel's leadership, which has the audacity to insist that the Palestinian leadership "come to the negotiating table without preconditions."
Transfer, ethnic cleansing, the silencing of all protest, the right to resist the illegal expropriation of land and resources, a collective denunciation of Palestinian spiritual and historical legacies, and the geographical fracturing of any remaining indigenous lands such that any territorial contiguity or unified national policies are no longer possible have become the "rational" and indispensable preconditions for the survival of the Jewish state. The Israeli "neighbourhoods" in "Judea and Samaria" that are "developing" as a result of "natural growth" serve as one example of life on Israel's terms, just as the "separation barrier" functions to guarantee the "security" and "well-being" of the Jewish-Israeli public.
With the exception of a heavily monitored border between Egypt and Gaza in the city of Rafah, the boundaries of Israel have been redrawn so that what remains of Palestine is entirely encircled, monitored and controlled by Israel and its US backer.
Had she lived, Rachel would likely have gone on to document with precision what this meant in real terms for the people of Gaza day after day. As it is, too few organisations and individuals have systematically described the totality of these policies on the lives of a million-and-a-half Gazans -- before and after the Israeli "disengagement," Hamas's 2006 election victory, the total blockade of Gaza (only acknowledged officially after the "civil war" of 2007), Operation Cast Lead, and the repercussions of the Arab Spring for Palestinians across the region.
Rachel saw for herself how the destruction of Palestine was being engineered and implemented in the Gaza Strip. With clear eyes, keen perception and a conscience too rare in today's world, Rachel described in her diary and in letters to her mother the unspeakable misery Israel's routine procedures had on even the most trivial aspects of Gazan life: everyone and everything was affected by the checkpoints, settlements and settler roads, the curfews and the closures. No one could escape the soldiers with their guns, bombs and tanks. No one could avoid the sadistic and gratuitous actions and their consequences that resulted directly from carefully crafted strategies intended to inflict pain and permanent psychological damage on the lives of children and adults alike. No one could flee the arbitrary humiliations endured day after day; the water shortages and electricity blackouts; the shortages of food, medicines, and the materials to allow the construction of buildings and repair of roads; the ever-present awareness of one's virtual imprisonment -- all of which defined Gaza long before it entered the consciousness of activists or the pages of the alternative western news media.
Rachel's death occurred during a time of great violence during the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) and -- in the United States -- just days before the Bush administration began its war on Iraq. The timing and pretexts used to justify more land theft and natural-resource appropriation could not have been better. America's "war on terror" was about to peak with the beginning of the "shock and awe" campaign over Baghdad. The then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, had skillfully linked his administration's policies to the psychopathic US obsession with "terror" and "terrorists" initially concocted by conservative and neo-conservative politicians and corporations devising ways to expand and consolidate US hegemony over a region saturated with oil and natural gas resources.
It required very little effort to portray Palestinians as partisans of the "other" in the "clash of civilisations;" like the mercurial and fanatical members of Al-Qaeda, Palestinians were portrayed as part of the vanguard of the war against the West and its "freedoms". They led the war against Israel and the Jews and provided ready ammunition for anyone who might suggest that theirs was a struggle for freedom and self-determination much like the struggles of other colonised peoples determined to live on their own land and rule themselves. To have suggested that the Palestinian cause was just and an inspirational popular resistance movement carried forward by an oppressed, exploited and weak David against a monstrous and cruel Goliath to gain freedom and independence was to invite vehement and vicious attacks upon oneself and others who dared to speak this truth.
The violent context of the Second Intifada exacerbated the most racist and sanctimonious assertions by those who claimed that Israel was defending itself against terrorist-infidels and that Sharon's crusade was a necessary and vital component of the United States' battle against evil. Little, if any, effort was put into US reporting from the Palestinian side because it was understood -- part of the accepted canon -- that Israel was fighting for its survival.
Like many who bear witness to criminal regimes that oppress, dispossess and kill people under their rule, Rachel was deeply troubled by what she had been witnessing in Gaza -- in a landscape that defied description. On the day she was crushed to death, Rachel stood between a bulldozer and a family home to protest one of the infinite number of indignities and crimes hurled like grenades at a population of overwhelmingly poor and defenseless refugees trying each day to find new ways of surviving without going mad. According to the Israeli courts, Rachel's death was a "regrettable accident". Rachel had put herself into a dangerous situation in the middle of a war zone. She was to blame. The victim was responsible for her own murder; the stateless, poor and dispossessed were to blame for their status as refugees and for their relentlessly miserable treatment, imprisonment, dehumanisation and occupation.
Rachel left a diary, letters and a legacy of courage and steadfastness that mirrored the courageousness and determination of the people around her. She refused to move when the bulldozer came closer, and, after a certain point, she was trapped and unable to escape. Her death, like her life, reflected the outrage of a young woman who knew she was too weak to prevent the demolition of homes and the creation of a "closed military zone" in an area earmarked for destruction long before she had arrived in Rafah.
In another age, Rachel's diary would be the iconic classic of a young woman living a great adventure and one determined to survive and fight for what she believed was right. In another time, Rachel's story would be read by school children around the world and millions of people would visit the place where she stood alone facing an armoured bulldozer to say with her body, "this has to stop!"
In our day, she is an unknown martyr in the annals of official history. Her courage has been decried and condemned, her name sullied and vilified. But I believe that Anne Frank would have admired Rachel. She would have recognised the universal call for justice in the face of war and terror, the dangers inherent in the dehumanisation of an entire people and the brutal occupation of their land. She would have verified the violence that a silent and indifferent world bestows upon the victims of nations bloated with power and a righteous sense of their God-given destiny, nations determined to avenge their past, and licensed to kill.
Equally, I believe she would have been mortified by the way her own Diary and the death she was subjected to have been used as moral justifications for the actions of a state defined by blood and soil, and by the way her own popularity has been buoyed by an ideology she would most probably have found repugnant and contrary to the lessons she herself had learned and the horror she had experienced. I believe Anne Frank would have agreed with Rachel's mother, Cindy, who -- when asked if she thought Rachel should have moved away from the bulldozer -- replied, "I don't think that Rachel should have moved. I think we should all have been standing there with her."
The writer is faculty associate of Middle East Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US.