A Legacy of Two Martyrs
By Jennifer Loewenstein
30 August 2012
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 center in Madison, Wisconsin to interview my father-in-law, Fritz Loewenstein. Fritz is the only known person still living who had been boyhood friends with Anne Frank’s “secret annex” companion, Peter van Pels (known in the Diary as Peter van Damm).
The oral historical 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 traveled to Madison personally – asked probing and thorough questions about every aspect of his life before his family fled Germany, especially insofar as it intersected with 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 and systematic 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 annually to see for themselves the place where Anne lived with her family and the van Pelses in hiding for more than three years.
Fritz Loewenstein’s father was a doctor in Osnabrueck in the 1920s and 1930s. Germany had been their family’s home for generations and they had lived successfully there, cultured and upstanding German patriots, for decades. TheLoewensteins hoped very much to weather the worst of the National Socialist rule, but as time passed it grew 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 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’sDiary when I was twelve, 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 believe 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 recognize in Anne a child wrestling with the circumstances of a nightmarish human condition.
On August 28th, 2012 in Israel, Judge Oded Gershon issued the verdict in the civil trial of Rachel Corrie. Unsurprisingly, however, 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 armored Caterpillar bulldozer out doing routine – illegal and unconscionable – work destroying the landscape and the lives of tens of thousands of people from Rafah, Gaza, Rachel Corrie is still virtually unknown to the vast majority of the educated US public. Unlike Anne Frank, whose life has been immortalized 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 generally. Both remain 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 receivethe long overdue recognition they deserve as the indigenous inhabitants of historic Palestine against whom a crime of unimaginable brutality and magnitude was committed. Until Israel acknowledges, offers reparation, and honors International Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Until the Israeli State can publicly apologize 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 recognized, 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 Corrie was a resilient, articulate, and defiant 23-year-old college student who went to Gaza with other members of the International Solidarity Movement to bear witness to Israel’s ruthless and deliberate destruction 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 is authorized and spun; where US support and complicity in Israel’s regional hegemonic goals help sustain the necessary illusion of Israel’s overall benevolence.
If official America has so far successfully committed to the dustbin 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 tell us about the overall status and credibility of Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims trying to get their voices heard and their cases re-opened? How many Palestinian Rachels have left diaries that will never be read? What school will require its students to read the hundreds of personal accounts 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 Anne Frank’s and Rachel Corrie’s trapped in today’s US military arenas must be censored out of our consciousness. Their words threaten to expose the abominable policies of the United States and its allies. How many people, young and old, will die in drone attacks against civilians, never having had the chance to ask why they have been condemned to such a hell?
The occupation, ethnic cleansing, dispossession, fragmentation, and wholesale colonization of Palestine have been essentially reclassified in language used to render legitimate the tactics and goals of modern Israel. Its overtly racist framework and raison d’etre, and the methodologies used to perpetuate policies that will maintain the Jewish majority of the state, have been carefully redefined 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 would satisfy Israel’s leadership, which has the audacity to insist that the Palestinian leadership “come to the negotiating table without preconditions” — Netanyahu’s offer of a non-viable “statelet” notwithstanding.
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 Corrie would describe in her diary and in letters to her mother the unspeakable misery Israel’s routine procedures had from the most trivial to the most significant aspects of Gazan life: everyone and everything was affected by the checkpoints, settlements and settler roads, the curfews and closures.
No one – then or today – can live a life free of the soldiers with their guns, their guard towers, walls, and fences; of the barbed wire, motion sensors, and the futuristic “crossings” that suck the humanity out of the beings that enter them, commanding them with remote controlled voices; turning them into lifeless spare parts on a new age assembly line. No one can avoid the Orwellian surveillance technologies that infiltrate the lives of the inhabitants of Gaza, or that float like the ethereal white blimp above the Gaza Strip gathering “intelligence” on every aspect of the on-going lives below; no one can predict when the tanks and armored personnel carriers or the helicopter gunships and F-16s will invade or appear instantaneously, as if out of nowhere, to incinerate people identified as “suspects” in a matter of seconds. No one can avoid the sadistic and gratuitous actions that result from carefully crafted strategies intended to humiliate, dehumanize, inflict pain, fear, and permanent psychological damage on the lives of children and adults alike. The water and food shortages; the daily electricity blackouts; the open sewage and dangerously inadequate infrastructure; the shortages of food, medicines, and the materials to rebuild the world that is literally crumbling into dust and debris all around them define the average day for Gaza’s unpeople.
Rachel Corrie’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 II 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. 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. .
The violent context of the Second Intifada exacerbated the most racist and sanctimonious assertions by those who claimed 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. To portray the Palestinian cause as a just and necessary struggle for freedom, independence, and self-determination was as unheard of when Rachel lived in Gaza as it is today, inviting the most vicious attacks and outrageous accusations.
Like many who bear witness to criminal regimes that oppress, dispossess, and kill people under their rule, Rachel Corrie 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; for their relentlessly miserable treatment; their imprisonment, dehumanization, 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’d ever arrived in Rafah.
In another age, Rachel’s diary would be the iconic classic of a young woman living a great adventure; 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 armored 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 Corrie. She would have recognized the universal call for justice in the face of war and terror, the dangers inherent in the dehumanization 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 were used as moral justifications for the actions of a state defined by blood and soil, and by the way her own popularity was buoyed by an ideology she would most probably have found repugnant and contrary to the lessons she herself had learned and the horror she 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.”
Jennifer Loewenstein is a faculty associate in Middle East Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has lived and worked extensively in Lebanon, Israel, and occupied Palestine and has traveled throughout the Middle East. She is a human rights activist and a freelance journalist and can be reached at: email@example.com