November 8, 2017
Over the past two weeks, the memory of Anne Frank, a global symbol of Jewish perseverance in the face of hate, was twice evoked in an unsettling fashion—first in Rome, then in Berlin.
In the Italian capital, a rivalry between two soccer clubs grew uglier when it was discovered that hardcore Lazio fans, known as “Ultras,” had plastered stickers of Anne Frank wearing a Roma jersey, and graffitied antisemitic slogans like “Roma fans are Jews” in the Stadio Olimpico, a venue the teams share. Lazio’s right-wing fans, who have a history of bigotry (especially antisemitism) and inciting violence, were barred from sitting in their usual section of the stadium because they had taunted members of another intra-divisional team with racist chants during a win in early October. As a result, the Lazio Ultras had to sit in a part of the stadium typically frequented by Roma fans, which apparently inspired them to act out. The antisemitic vandalism was discovered the next day by the stadium’s custodial staff. Police have identified—and banned—over a dozen fans responsible for the antisemitic act.
Widespread condemnation of the perpetrators followed. Ruth Dureghello, head of Rome’s Jewish community—one of the oldest in the Diaspora—shared an image of the antisemitic Anne Frank stickers on social media, adding the message: “Kick antisemitism out of the stadiums.”
Questa non è una curva, questo non è calcio, questo non è sport. Fuori gli antisemiti dagli stadi. pic.twitter.com/Q1uJnDQ7Cl— Ruth Dureghello (@dureghello) October 23, 2017
Italy’s leaders echoed Dureghello’s outrage. President Sergio Mattarella called the incident “unacceptable” and “alarming for our country,” while Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said: "Anne Frank doesn't represent a people or an ethnic group. We are all Anne Frank when faced with the unthinkable."
Nicola Zingaretti, president of the Lazio region, was leading a group of 120 historians on a tour of the Treblinka death camp site in Poland when he learned the news, Reuters reported.
However, as Lisa Billig, AJC's representative in Rome, has pointed out in multiple media interviews over the past week, the problem concerns not only all of Italy but all of Europe.
“This incident cannot and should not be blamed on the Lazio team itself: the ‘Ultras’—the minority of violent, politicized extremists of both the Left and the Right, exist as part of the fan population of every team.”
The soccer arena reflects a climate of broken taboos, says Billig. “What we’re seeing are degraded values and widespread ignorance of a section of each country's society.”
Responding to the incident, the president of the Lazio soccer team, accompanied by some players, deposited a wreath at Rome’s main synagogue and announced he would lead a group of 200 teenage students on an annual to visit to Auschwitz. Lazio players also donned shirts during warm-ups that week with an image of Anne Frank on them as a public condemnation of antisemitism.
The Italian soccer federation announced that for the next week a particular passage from Anne Frank’s diary would be read over a loudspeaker before games in a number of professional youth leagues, followed by a moment of silence, to promote Holocaust awareness. That passage, from July 15, 1944—just eight months before the German-Jewish diarist died at age 15 at Bergen-Belsen—reads: “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”
Despite these efforts, there have been multiple reports (The Independent, The Washington Post) of Lazio fans, as well as fans from other Italian clubs, singing fascist songs and making fascist gestures even while the memory of Anne Frank was being invoked to combat unspeakable hate.
Billig believes that what is needed to combat the rising tide of antisemitism expressed by the Ultras and others is to bolster educational efforts, and in particular to revamp history textbooks by mentioning the manifold cultural, economic, and patriotic Jewish contributions to Italian and European civilization over 2 millenniums, and integrate them into national histories.
Said Billig, “Italians and Europeans in general are not aware of the integral part their fellow Jewish citizens played through the centuries. While the history of the Shoah needs to be taught more effectively, so does the historical and social context in which it took place.”
A German Train Controversy Signals a Larger Problem
The next week, about 1,000 miles north, in the German capital, Anne Frank’s name—and a debate over her memory—made headlines again. Germany’s state rail operator, Deutsche Bahn—whose Nazi-era predecessor Deutsche Reichsbahn transported millions of Jews to their deaths at concentration camps—is planning to name one of its high-speed trains after Anne Frank.
In September, Deutsche Bahn conducted a survey of nearly 20,000 people, asking them to suggest people for whom their new cars should be named. They received responses with more than 2,500 different names. A jury narrowed the list to 25, which, in addition to Anne Frank, included Karl Marx, Hannah Arendt, and Albert Einstein, who was himself forced to flee Nazi Germany.
Deidre Berger, Director of AJC Berlin, said that the plan to name a Deutsche Bahn train after Anne Frank stirred up quite a bit of controversy in Germany, but not enough. She called it a missed opportunity. “To name a train in her honor lacks all feeling for an appropriate way to deal with the past,” she said. “What it shows is the difficulty Germany has today in expressing pride in its very rich culture. There is much to be proud of—and yet the shadow of the past does take over the present.”
According to The New York Times, Deutsche Bahn is “now engaged in an ‘internal discussion’ about the concerns raised, in consultation with Jewish organizations.”
Berger believes the situation presents an opportunity for the Deutsche Bahn to fully and finally acknowledge the role of the Reichsbahn, its predecessor organization, in enabling the Holocaust, a responsibility Berger believes it has yet to fulfill. The company only very late decided to participate in the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future—an educational organization and compensation fund set up by the German government in 2000 that helps World War II-era slave and forced laborers. The rail company’s refusal to give financial support to a well-regarded exhibition, “Train of Memory,” led to the closure of the exhibition in 2013. Berger suggests that it would be appropriate for train stations in Germany to install permanent exhibitions inside the stations to recount the role of the state-operated railway company in enabling deportations of Jews to concentration camps, thereby honoring the memory of those who died during the Shoah.
Said Berger, “We certainly, as AJC, call on the German train company to use this as an opportunity to review policies in general about acknowledging the past, and to come up with a program to begin in some way to make amends to the victims, and to publicly acknowledge its role.”