No, Justin Bieber, Anne Frank is not for you

By Emma Barnett, April 26, 2013
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Everyone I know recalls a film, book or photograph that introduced them to the horrors of the Holocaust.

For me, it was Anne Frank's diary. I was 10 when my parents took me to the Franks' hiding place in Amsterdam.

Until then, I had been only vaguely aware that something bad had happened to lots of Jews in the war. I hadn't grasped the scale, or how industrialised this extermination was - nor that it affected girls my age, guilty simply of being Jewish and of the wrong generation.

Consequently, I feel very protective of Anne and her account. It is my entry-point to unspeakable horrors. My husband feels the same way about Esther Hautzig's The Endless Steppe, the first book to explain to him some of what his grandfather, who survived and escaped a Siberian labour camp, endured.

This is not how to make it relevant to the ‘kids’

And this is why teen idol Justin Bieber's self-referential comments in the Anne Frank House's guest book angered me last week.

He wrote: "Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber." In case you aren't down with the kids, "belieber" is the term for his devoted fans - the majority of whom are teen or pre-teen girls.

In response, I wrote for the Telegraph that Justin Bieber does not get to second-guess Anne Frank - nobody does. His fans reacted furiously on Twitter. But I was also taken on by several journalists telling me Bieber had unwittingly done good for expanding the knowledge of young people who increasingly don't bother to understand the Holocaust.

Well, I don't buy that positive shine on his egocentric comment for one moment. Yes, he may have prompted a few thousand Google searches for "Anne Frank" - but how many will now really read her diary and actually engage with the full horrors of the Holocaust? The Facebook and Twitter generation - of which I am firmly a part - cannot concentrate easily. Countless studies have shown that the "digerati" find it incredibly hard to focus on anything properly in this era of information being published in real time.

I struggle properly to read to the end of an article, unless I stop, breathe and take a moment to rewire my brain to a slower mode. And this is precisely why I loathe all attempts by people to tell me to stop treating Anne in such a reverent fashion. "She was just a teenage girl and probably would have been a 'belieber'", wailed one fellow commentator, as we thrashed this out.

That's not the conversation we should be having about Anne Frank - the Anne Frank who met her end in the grimmest situation in the world and eloquently represented the millions of children who also needlessly died in the Holocaust, through her beloved diary.

And so begins the conversation about how we should talk about the Holocaust, as the years slip by and it becomes less real and seemingly less relevant.

The digital generation need to be stopped in their tracks actually to take stock of something seriously. Take it from me. We aren't even able to suitably process the dire human rights abuses happening in Syria today.

Bieber's throwaway comment, regardless of how he meant it, feeds directly into my fear of any attempt to normalise and trivialise the Holocaust. The Holocaust, unlike most other events in this world, does not need celebrity endorsements to make it real or interesting. This is not the way to make it relevant to the "kids". And those who believe that it is are patronising both children and teachers - many of whom are battling to keep this part of history very much alive.

Yes, there is a worry about the fact that the next generation will not be able to meet a Holocaust survivor and hear his or her story - which is probably the most effective way for people to understand what happened in Europe only a few decades ago.

But these concentration camps still exist and teachers and children alike can visit them. This is why I believe so strongly in the work that the Holocaust Educational Trust does with its trips.

We cannot and should not let celebrities, cartoonists, politicians and comedians casually trivialise the Holocaust. This is not the way to teach people about the only attempt the world has ever seen to systematically wipe out an entire people, "beliebers" or not.

Emma Barnett is women's editor of the Telegraph

Last updated: 10:45am, April 26 2013