“Anne Frank and Me”, Science and Humanity

I cried. Not just a lone tear running down my cheek, but a wet stream that went on and on, long after the actors took their final bows, and my daughter came down from the stage.

The scene was the auditorium, where my daughter’s Magnet middle school put on three one-act plays: two comedies (one written by a student in the school, and both directed by students in the school)—followed by a solemn change in mood as the students put on a powerful Holocaust play called: “Anne Frank and Me”.

“Anne Frank and Me,” was based on the novel by Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld. In this stage adaption, which apparently diverges somewhat from the novel, the protagonist is a typical 15-year-old girl named Nicole living in the US in 2011. Her affluent parents, if not actually meeting the formal definition of Holocaust deniers, certainly convey the message that the death toll of the Holocaust was exaggerated. The girl, who shows little interest in reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” for school, encounters the deniers who claim that the entire story was made up by Jewish-Zionists (see the section on DENIALS and LEGAL ACTION). Shortly afterward, Nicole meets with an accident, and most of the play takes place in the course of her “awakening”—a sleep/coma dream, where she is transposed in time to 1942 as a young Jewish girl in France and forced to see first-hand what life for Jews under the Nazi occupation was really like.

This is a very emotionally powerful play, and the drama teacher, Mr. Schik, did a phenomenal job with an outstanding cast of students in this superb rendition. Despite the use of minimal sets and props, the message clearly reverberated across the room and I was not the only one in tears. Especially compelling was the final scene in which the hero Nicole, her little sister (played by my daughter) and the mother are transported eastward across Europe to the death camps in cattle cars under unbearable conditions.

In this scene, Anne Frank herself boards the train in Amsterdam, adding an electrifying element to the historical drama. But the power in this scene is conveyed by the wonderful acting of the silent passengers, whose eyes spoke a lifetime of sorrow as they move relentlessly onwards east and to their deaths. A chilling and emotional ending to the play.

Finally, in what I see as a huge tribute to modern American society and this school in particular, I cannot fail to point out the multi-cultural composition of the cast in the play. Nothing could have made this play more powerful than to realize that the cast and lead parts were played by African American children, Asian American children, Mexican/Hispanic children, Caucasian children, and any number of mixtures of the above. Add to that, of course, the variety of religious denominations, and this becomes a truly remarkable achievement. And yes, it was not even trivial to note the multi-cultural make-up of the actors; because the acting was so compelling, the audience (at least in my case) did not even stop to consider whether a Parisian-Jewish family in 1942 would be likely to be multi-racial. This only added to the power of the play.

Despite my emotional outbreak toward the end of the performance, the Holocaust and its horrors are not new to me. I have read a considerable body of literature about the Second World War and particularly the Holocaust, including non-fiction, historical fiction and fiction. I have seen many films and plays, and I have visited Israel’s Holocaust Museum (Yad Vashem) on half a dozen occasions, as well as the newer United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. But for some reason “Anne Frank and Me” brought back a specific long-repressed memory from about 20 years ago.

It was back at the Hebrew University at the Givat Ram science campus in about 1989. I was in my third and final year of the undergraduate program—the year we finally had an opportunity to select whatever courses were of interest to us from any of the major realms of biology. I chose the majority of my courses in biochemistry and cell and molecular biology, with a smattering of microbiology, genetics and zoology. All botany and ecology were banished (no offense, for any of you who may be botanists or ecologists–just not my cup of tea…).

One of the zoology courses was really a physiology course that taught organ systems at a pretty advanced level. The lecturer, who must have been close to 70 at the time–and I might add who was extremely unpleasant but at the same time an outstanding instructor—taught us about the function of the kidney in fascinating detail.

When we were done with the kidney, he then began an introduction to the body’s mechanisms for thermoregulation, and this is something I will never forget. As a teacher, he was driven to teach us about how the body controls its temperature, and the experimental evidence that led to the current body of knowledge. At the same time, as a Holocaust survivor, he was clearly conflicted about what to do. It appears that this has been a difficult ethical issue since the Holocaust.

The reason for this, he explained to us, was that a significant amount of knowledge about thermoregulation was derived from throwing Jews and other concentration camp prisoners into baths of ice water for varying lengths of time, and later doing further experimentation and postmortem work on these human experimental victims. For those who can stomach it, Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive article about the specific Nazis who were involved in this torture. The American Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) has also aired a session about experiments and torture during the Holocaust on its science program “NOVA”, entitled “The Holocaust on Trial“.

It was difficult to concentrate in class after our instructor’s comments. At the same time, it was an incredibly important lesson. Despite high levels of formal education and training—as physicians and scientists—it was obvious that these Nazis were devoid of any semblance of humanity. So while we scientists need to continue to lobby for better science education in schools and universities, we must not forget that a well-rounded education to emphasize the significance of being human beings–capable of empathy– is equally important.

This is precisely the goal of productions such as “Anne Frank and Me”.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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8 Responses to “Anne Frank and Me”, Science and Humanity

  1. KristiV says:

    In my neighborhood as a child, there was an older couple down the street from us who were both concentration camp survivors. They could be somewhat fearsome about their yard, and their Orthodox beliefs were mysterious to Jewish and non-Jewish neighbor kids alike, so we gave them wide berth. When the old man died, his son was not allowed at the graveside, because he’d married out of the faith – I know next to nothing about Orthodox Judaism, and this may have been hearsay, but I remember thinking it was cruel and wrongheaded, and saying something to that effect to my parents. They though I had no business passing adolescent judgment on Holocaust survivors, because I couldn’t understand what they’d been through or what their faith meant to them. I don’t think this lesson really sank in until I read Art Spiegelman’s graphic novels Maus I and II, part of the impetus for which is the author trying to understand why his father behaves the way he does (often in an annoying and seemingly irrational manner).

    • Steve Caplan says:

      It turns out that both in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world, children of Holocaust survivors have generally had extremely difficult lives that have been severely impacted by their parents’ ordeals. To some extent, I think it is reminiscent of one of the recurrent themes that I address in my own fiction–children of parents with psychiatric disorders. In both cases, the focus (until recently) has been very much with the patient or survivor, and tending to ignore the emotional needs of the surrounding family.

      From another angle, the impact of the Holocaust on faith seems to vary tremendously, between those who resolve to continue their belief even in the wake of all the horror, and those who (paraphrased from a Jewish adolescent character in “Anna Frank and Me”) says quite bluntly, “Pray to whom? If God is alive, he must have gone on vacation and not left anyone else in charge.”

  2. I’ve never been to either Yad Vashem or the US Holocaust Museum, but many years ago I was staying in Amsterdam near the Anne Frank House and went along to have a look. I remember it as very moving. I guess individual human stories, and real places, give a scale and face to events otherwise too large and awful to “process” easily. The other example of that for me would be Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah.

    The story of the data on human physiology derived from the inhuman Nazi experiments in the camps, whether or not one should make use of the data, and what the ethical dimensions of that (contemporary) choice are/might be, has been argued back and forth over for many years in the ethics journals. It is still something we use today to make medical students engage with ethical questions.

    Of course, the camps were not the only places where unspeakable things were done in the name of medical science. Many Universities were implicated too. Edzard Ernst, the Austrian- born Professor of Complementary Medicine in Exeter, caused a fuss at his previous University in Vienna by writing about a famous 1930s Viennese medical anatomy atlas many of whose pictures had been produced using the bodies of Nazi-executed political prisoners (it is mentioned in an interview with Ernst here).

    • Steve Caplan says:

      That’s a very interesting article–I wasn’t sure where it was going at first, but yes, the atrocities and behavior of the Austro-Germans was so wide-spread that I’m certain those opposed were in the minority.

      Although my own family was safely in N. America even before WW1, the Holocaust has had a huge impact on my own life. It probably impacted my move to Israel as a teenager and decision to serve in the army. I have never been to either Germany or Austria, and am not sure how I would feel–or whether I would even go if invited. I am a rational person and bear no ill-will toward the present generation of Austrians and Germans, but there is in me a strong “gag-reflex” that I find difficult to overcome.

      • There is a ton of stuff written about the way many professionals in 1930s Germany, to their everlasting shame, rushed to “get aboard” post-1933 in claiming their disciplines were in tune with Nazi ideology. Medicine was probably the worst, but science in general was pretty bad too, with Jewish scientists summarily dismissed and pliant Nazi sympathisers put in their places, and in charge. A good primer on it all is the chapter dealing with “racial science” in Walter Gratzer’s excellent book The Undergrowth of Science.

  3. Sent a comment but it is in the moderation queue, probably as it has >1 link

    PS Hope you’ve been having a good Passover holiday with the family, Steve.

  4. ricardipus says:

    Both of those museums you mention are now on my “things to see someday” list, so thanks for the tips.

    I’ve been to the memorial in Paris – near the Notre Dame as I recall – and like Austin, spent a few days in Amsterdam once, including a visit to the Anne Frank house. Oddly, what stayed with me most from that visit was a display in a room near the exit of the museum, where dozens and dozens and dozens of issues of her diary were laid out – numerous re-printings, and in any imaginable language (well, perhaps not any, but a lot). That, to me, drove home the universal interest in this small part of Holocaust history.

  5. Frank says:

    That’s a pretty intense story, Steve. I couldn’t imagine going along to an undergrad science lecture and hearing such a painful discussion, from such a personal perspective.

    I did have a friend who as a young child during the war was in a camp, in the Sudeten lands. When I first knew her she came across as rather odd, and infuriatingly talkative, in a babbling off-the-wall way that earned her the nickname ‘lateral thinker’. It was a while before I could see past this and came to know and like her better. She didn’t talk much of her wartime history but I think it left its mark on her.

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