Anne Frank was locked inside an apartment for months, hiding from danger. She had limited food and water. She did not see her friends. Thousands of people in her city were dying. Recently, in commemoration of Yom HaShoah, many people posted on social media saying that this situation sounds very familiar. In quarantine, we too are stuck inside, hiding from danger. We too, have limited resources. We too can’t meet up with friends or extended family in person. We too watch the news with horror as the death rate from COVID-19 rises each day. However, that comparison is completely inaccurate. With these posts, in only four simple sentences, we unintentionally erase the horrors that Anne Frank and the rest of European Jewry faced in the 1940s. We belittle the fear they felt each day as they watched their loved ones being murdered, wondering when their time would come. We diminish the absolute lack of control that the Jews had during the Holocaust.
These posts are usually made in response to people complaining about quarantine on Twitter and Instagram. For example, one popular post depicts a crying SpongeBob with the words, “Celebrities crying on Twitter on their 3rd day in quarantine in their 40 million dollar mansion” above a picture of an unphased character from the same show with the words, “Anne Frank on her 457th day in the attic counting the flies.” The point of this meme seems harmless: it underscores that life in quarantine could be far worse. But there is another, more hidden and subtle message here: Anne Frank lived through the same thing you are. Is that really true
While some argue that any exposure of teens to information about the Holocaust is positive and educational, this opinion has dangerous ramifications. Without proper exposure, the horrors of the Holocaust can quickly be diminished. Instead of understanding the gravity of six million deaths in a classroom, museum or book, teenagers can play a video game that makes it cool and heroic to be a prisoner in World War II. In 2018, a study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Against Germany found that 66 percent of American millennials did not know what Auschwitz, a major Nazi death camp, was. Imagine if that 66 percent found the SpongeBob meme on Twitter. To them, the Holocaust is just the butt of a joke.
Holocaust survivors are disturbed by the way younger generations are minimizing the horrors of the Holocaust with memes. Survivor Robert Brajer is 82 years old; he is in the high-risk group for COVID-19, yet he remarked, “I don’t think we can compare the Holocaust to this virus. We are sitting at home with our families. But, in the Holocaust, we were separated, and our lives were always on the line.” Françoise Max is a survivor who hid from the Nazis in France. During these past two months, she has only been outside three times. But she also believes that these two crises are totally different. Max said, “It is not comparable at all. One is a bug that is killing people and the other was a group of people who decided to annihilate a specific group. Today, it is my choice whether to put myself at risk or not. If I stay home, I am not afraid. During the Holocaust, though, I was fearful every time we moved. There was absolutely no choice.”
It is important to note that not all posts related to the Holocaust are offensive. People are posting words of inspiration from Anne Frank’s Diary, like “I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.” The critical difference between these uplifting words and a Twitter post stating, “I feel like the modern-day Anne Frank except Hitler is the Coronavirus and my diary is Twitter” is that the former does not draw a comparison. Frank’s words inspire us but do not equate the two situations Anne Frank’s words can help calm Americans during this time of panic. It can remind people that they should always be counting their blessings.
Natan Sharansky, a Russian refusenik in the 1970s and 1980s who is now an Israeli politician, has been spreading similar messages of hope throughout the past few weeks. Sharansky shares his story of being enslaved in the USSR, but instead of comparing our situation to his, Sharansky shares words of hope and courage to the Jewish nation. He speaks about the importance of maintaining Jewish unity, even if we are not physically together.
The current situation is undoubtedly an extremely difficult time for so many. Loved ones are lost to COVID-19 every day. People are being laid off at rapid rates. It is extremely difficult to be home alone for months with no human contact. I do not believe that the majority of people posting Holocaust memes are anti-Semitic or intentionally diminishing the significance of the Holocaust. They are simply finding a time in history to which they can relate.
That being said, social media posts are not always taken as intended. Although a poster may have one intention, that is not always clear once a picture is uploaded to the internet. While it may seem comforting to relate one’s quarantine experience to a heroine like Anne Frank, it is important to understand that each additional post adds to a huge collection that minimizes the gravity of the Holocaust, until there is almost nothing left to remember.