Reconsidering What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Page from Nathan Englander's What we Talk about when We Talk About Anne FrankIn the past, a number of literary texts on Jewish topics contributed to Jewish culture in various ways. Some documented and revitalized oral history and folk tales in an attempt to save them from oblivion (e.g. Martin Buber’s Tale of the Hasidim); others made Jewish topics palatable to the majority society (e.g. Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family); and still others helped to build a Jewish community around shared experiences of ritual, emigration and persecution (e.g. Friedrich Torberg’s Tante Jolesch or The Decline of the West in Anecdotes).

Nathan Englander, one of the most sophisticated and provocative current writers, shares none of these intentions. His latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, is a collection of eight short stories loosely bound together under the title of (and a quote from) the first story, arising from a heated conversation about genocide; it refers to Anne Frank not as a historical figure, but as a metonym of victimhood. Accordingly, the stories reflect on the effect of Jewish themes, such as religion, the Holocaust and Israel, on modern Jewish identities. The author’s perspective is from within – he was born in 1970 to an Orthodox-Jewish family in New York – and critical. His gripping, intimate theatre-like episodes are fraught with tense dialog questioning the validity of Jewish cultural practice:  continue reading


Farewell letter, ink on paper

In the archive of the Jewish Museum Berlin, there is a moving letter that Marianne Joachim wrote to her in-laws on 4 March 1943. That same day at the Berlin Plötzensee detention center, the young woman was executed.

Farewell letter from Marianne Joachim

Farewell letter from Marianne Joachim née Prager (1921 – 1943)
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

What had happened? Marianne and Heinz Joachim supposedly joined a resistance group in 1941 led by Herbert Baum. A Jew and communist, Baum had been gathering like-minded friends around him since 1933 to generate resistance against the politics of National Socialism. On 18 May 1942, the group attempted to set fire to the anti-Soviet exhibit “The Soviet Paradise” in Berlin’s Lustgarten. Among the members jailed in short order and sentenced to death were Marianne and Heinz Joachim.

We learn from her letter that finding out that her husband had already been executed on 18 August 1942 in Berlin Plötzensee was the “heaviest stroke of fate” for Marianne. Her greatest concern was for her parents, Jenny and Georg Prager. They were deported in March 1943 to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt where they were killed. Marianne’s sister, Ilse, was able to escape on one of the last Kindertransports to England. Heinz Joachim’s father Alfons, died at the end of 1944 at the concentration camp Sachsenhausen. His mother, Anna, did not have a Jewish background and therefore survived the National Socialist period, as did his brothers.  continue reading


No Revolvers in the Jewish Museum

drawing of a Revolver“Weapons and Dignity” is the title of the chronicle of an object in the recently published 25th anniversary brochure of the German Historical Museum. It is about a revolver that was offered as a donation to the Jewish Museum, met with great interest there, but finally found its way into the collection of the German Historical Museum. Why?

The story: a woman in Berlin during the National Socialist era, fearing for her life because she was ‘half-Jewish,’ obtained a revolver so that, should she be threatened with deportation, she could end her life instead. She survived the era of persecution and kept the revolver as a souvenir, eventually giving it to a neighbor. He in turn made contact with the Museum when he was to be required by changes in the law regulating weapons possession to register the weapon or surrender it to authorities. For an institution like the Jewish Museum Berlin, where biographical narratives play an important role in the collections and in the permanent exhibition, this revolver would have been a very welcome ‘strong’ object, given the immediacy of its provenance.  continue reading