As I reread Anne Frank’s diary — living just a 10-minute walk from her hiding place in Amsterdam and having first read it in an American middle school, only imagining Europe — I immediately recognize many things that were not familiar the first time around. In recounting her life before going into hiding, she describes her birthday and how her second present included various flowers and a plant — flowers are a budget-friendly staple in homes here in the Netherlands to brighten the dreary days. Her bike was stolen, also still a common occurrence; I am part of that unfortunate club. I noticed I had been out to socialize in the neighborhood where she took the ferry, now a hipster hangout with poké restaurants and candlelit beer gardens.
Even as she progresses to describe the house containing her hiding place, it is all very recognizable: Having evolved from a mixed 16th-century warehouse and living space, the description of the “typically Dutch, very steep, ankle-twisting flight of stairs” resembles the staircase I had lugged eight suitcases up when moving here a year ago. My apartment, a few canals over in a similar 16th-century building in the picturesque neighborhood of Nine Streets, is about twice the size of the space she shared with eight people in the secret annex on Prinsengracht. I hear the same chime from the Westerkerk tower that she enjoyed.
The Netherlands has adopted several measures to cope with the COVID-19 outbreak, but has not gone into full lockdown like other European countries, including Italy and my adopted country, Spain, where some of my family and friends are quarantined in Madrid. However, despite extraordinary restrictions here, I enjoy a completely different level of freedom than Jewish people did in this very same place, as Anne Frank describes how events began to unfold in May 1941.
Faced With the Coronavirus Challenge to Our Humanity, We Have Been Found Wanting
I go jogging when they were forbidden to take part in any public athletics, I shop for groceries whenever I want, I can still go out on the streets as long as I maintain social distancing. Even as cinemas and shops are closed, they are not closed to me specifically, but to everyone. In Anne’s time, there was selective exclusion that morphed into complete annihilation, reaching the point where she hid in fear for her life and the lives of those close to her, which were the only things left to lose.
As social and mainstream media are threaded with hand-wringing and self-pity, as we navigate and self-applaud our feats of adapting in this public health emergency, the concepts of privilege and freedom come to mind. This is not a novel approach. There have been illustrative pictures painted of a “dystopian” reversal of situations where European refugees flee to African shores. We are reminded to consider how toilet paper being out of stock for a few days is nothing compared to the war and famine that others suffer every day. Even in our very own neighborhoods, this crisis is indeed an inconvenience for the privileged but can mean ruin or even death for those less fortunate, including those in precarious work.
Indeed, I am not even beginning to suggest analogies to Anne Frank’s tragedy, or the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean, nor would I dare to make light of what fellow European residents in Italy and Spain are going through. Instead, I am starkly reminded of my own privilege, with the opportunity to even live abroad, to worry about economic loss and to be preoccupied with temporary travel bans keeping me from family and friends.
As an American of Irish-Italian descent having moved to the Netherlands for my Spanish partner’s job, I am called an expat or expatriate, a term with a positive or reified connotation. So are my other upper-middle-class professional peers from all over the world working here in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, people of color or from less fortunate socioeconomic backgrounds are called immigrants. And, of course, this is not exclusive to the Netherlands. The elite expat circles around the world highlight the freedom of movement and financial freedom that very few are permitted to enjoy.
This points to a truly insidious encroachment on freedom taking place. Even given recent history, minority populations in our European societies of residence face subtle societal restrictions and institutional depreciation of liberal democratic guarantees. These are not restrictions on all for the common good, but rather on a select group.
One striking parallel — and the object of my research — is the institutional and societal treatment of Muslims in Europe and how it harkens back to the Jewish question. Facing an “othering” and discrimination based on everything from their religious affiliation to ethnicity, migrant background and a myriad other identifications, they are meant to conform to supposedly mainstream and “secular” societal standards in order to belong, to “integrate” into a uniform model of citizenship that is arguably continuously evolving in diverse European societies.
They face restrictions on dress, access to the labor market, individual expression and promised freedom of religion, among others, and are the constant subject of controversial debate and scapegoating during election cycles. Slowly and increasingly, there are hints at population control and eugenics.
Amidst times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, humanity comes together — against something. As populism rises in Europe and racist and xenophobic discourses (and actions and policy) transform from taboo to commonplace, it is rather human against human. Earlier on in her confinement, Anne reflected that “Not being able to go outside upsets me more than I can say, and I’m terrified our hiding place will be discovered and that we’ll be shot.”
There has to be a middle ground between remembering our privilege and freedom when moved in times of discomfort or crisis, like being upset that we can’t go outside, and unconsciously arriving at the point where we completely deprive the freedom of others, like eliminating the “other” thanks to entrenched and arbitrary power differentials. When Anne and her family went into hiding, many Jewish families were still understandably debating the necessity of doing so and remained unaware that it may already have been too late.
In the midst of many other crisis manifestos and calls to action, this argument might be met with the question of what the actionable answer is. I find it difficult to suggest a concrete plan, but the obvious, albeit vague injunction, is to take these reminders and realizations and act upon them seriously and urgently, lest we are forced to confront them at a much more exacerbated and irrecoverable stage.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.