By Ruth Ellen Gruber
ROME (JTA) — An online accommodation agency I came across recently used one of the most tasteless slogans I’ve ever seen to advertise a holiday rental in Amsterdam.
“Amsterdam Stay Apartments present the Anne Frank apartment,” read a banner across the top of the apartment’s Web page. “Live like Anne Frank during your Amsterdam stay,” it promised, “with the keys to your own roof attic apartment.
“Live like Anne Frank?”
What on earth could these people have been thinking? The apartment, said the Web page, occupies the top floor of a building “just opposite the Anne Frank house” in a “lively and picturesque area known for its restaurants, night life, specialty shops and cultural attractions.”
A converted garret with a steeply sloping ceiling, it comes complete with high speed Internet, a private terrace and a full supply of bed linen. Though “ideal for two,” it can sleep up to four.
“Live like Anne Frank?”
The Web page made her sound like some bohemian celebrity, not a teenage diarist who for two long years hid with her family and friends in a cramped “secret annex” until they were betrayed to the Germans and shipped off to Nazi death camps.
Anne died in Bergen Belsen at the age of 15. The Anne Frank House is now a museum that draws as many as a million visitors a year. The “secret annex” has been preserved, and exhibits tell the tragic story that unfolded in that hidden space.
“Live like Anne Frank?“
What does it mean, this transformation of World War II terror into a market-driven synonym for trendy charm? Is it just another form of “Shoah business?” Or has Anne’s name become a talisman so abstract and disembodied that it can be cut and pasted and used without reference to the totality of its meaning? You know — Anne Frank, a pretty young girl living tucked away in a cozy attic apartment, sweetly dreaming of movie stars and confiding in her diary.
“Live like Anne Frank?”
“Commercializing Holocaust suffering (or stoicism or heroism) — through ignorance or malice — cannot be condoned,” my brother, Sam Gruber, the president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, wrote in an angry response to the apartment ad.
“Even when done in a way that is meant to celebrate the victim, such exploitation actually belittles her,” he wrote. “Maybe the apartment owner figured if Broadway, Hollywood and publishers around the world could make money selling their version of Anne Frank, ‘Why not me, too?’ After all, the Anne Frank House is a big Amsterdam tourist destination. Why shouldn’t the neighbors cash in?”
Actually, Anne Frank does enjoy protection, and by the time you read this column, the “Anne Frank Apartment” Web page already may have changed its wording or even be off-line.
I informed a friend at the Anne Frank House about the ad and he assured me that the Anne Frank Foundation, which oversees the museum, would be taking action. The foundation has legal control over the Anne Frank name, he explained. No one can name anything Anne Frank without its permission.
“This is to prevent Anne Frank from being used for commercial or touristic purposes,” he told me. “Otherwise we would have the whole neighborhood filled with Anne Frank cafes and the like.”
For many years I’ve written about how abstract ideas of Jews and Jewish culture can become commercialized commodities in European countries where few if any Jews live today. Clearly there is a correlation between the attempt to use Anne Frank to rent an apartment and the ways that Jews, Jewish symbols and Jewish stereotypes are used in other types of Jewish-themed tourist promotion.
This is particularly evident in Eastern and Central Europe, where a growing number of “Jewish-style” cafes project an increasingly standardized ambience of kugel, candlesticks, klezmer and kitsch.
I’m not as squeamish about the phenomenon as some people I know, but I do wince at the excesses. Lately I have found myself wincing more and more. Maybe it’s because there are more excesses to wince at — or maybe because the excesses are becoming, well, so excessive.
It’s complicated, though. There are still charming Jewish-style cafes, where the atmosphere is understated and attitudes are sincere. In Krakow, the proprietors of one cafe, the Klezmer Hois, even use their profits to finance a Jewish publishing house and well-stocked Jewish bookstore.
More and more, however, I see “Jewish” becoming a brand, where codified accessories and sometimes toxic cliche provide the parameters. There’s a little chain of “Anatewka” restaurants in Lodz. The Ariel cafe in Krakow sells refrigerator magnets of caricature Jewish heads. A big image of a Jew counting money stands outside the Tsimmes restaurant in Kiev.
The most recent example is a new Jewish cafe in the derelict old Jewish quarter of Lviv, Ukraine. The cafe overlooks the ruins of the Golden Rose synagogue at the edge of a vacant space where one of the city’s other main synagogues once stood.
As a cafe it is not unpleasant; its decor includes dark wood and pre-war photos that bear witness to the world destroyed. As part of its gimmickry, however, patrons are encouraged to don black hats equipped with long, fake peyes (earlocks). And no prices are written on the menu — customers are supposed to “bargain,” like Jews, over what they should pay.
It’s creepy, but as I said, it’s complicated. Jews themselves often use these very same caricatures in playful reference or self-ironic self-identification. (Think Heebster, JDub, HeBrew the Chosen Beer.)
I visited the cafe with a group of Jews from Israel, North America and several European countries. Nearly all of us professed discomfort but, in a slightly schizophrenic moment, we also almost all tried on the hats.
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com/.)