A 1936 picture of Anne Frank with her classmates
BOERS, NAZIS AND THE ANNE FRANK HOUSE
During the early 1970’s an exhibition was posted in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, entitled Nazisme in Zuid Afrika. It ran for three consecutive summer seasons (1971 - 1974) and provided the press with a welcome Jamboree for news gathering during the information droughts that they normally experience during the vacation months. With its high density of visitors passing through the Anne House day by day the exhibition caused considerable consternation and left none who visited untouched. That is apart from the visit to the attic hiding place the Franks family used to escape their being rounded up by the Nazis and deportation to extermination camps. The visit to this attic in is deeply moving as the exact ambience of German occupied Amsterdam is precisely preserved.
Visitors moving out of the Anne Frank House through the exhibition are often sombre, reflective and passive. Confronted with South African Apartheid exemplified by a huge swastika flag has stunning reactions. For the many Israeli’s passing through the standard comment left in the visitors’ book at the desk of the exit hall repeated one after the other “Never Again”. No doubt this was prompted by the huge anti-Nazi banners and paraphernalia attached to the Nazisme in Zuid Afrika exhibition: they noticed the Nazi paraphernalia but not the substance exhibited thereunder.
But not all tourists decoupled their visit to the Attic from the implications of the Nazisme in Zuid Afrika exhibition. There were also a large number of tourists who were inflamed and reacted in a variety of ways leaving comments bland and to the point, “this is all lies”, then again “what has this got to do with Anne Frank?”, “this is communist propaganda”, “come visit South Africa and see for yourselves”, and most significantly the comment, “what has this got to do with the holocaust!”. Yet other visitors gave more robust reactions like verbal threats to trash the exhibition and burn down the building.
The internal ructions had ripple effects which soon led to something of a diplomatic storm. Disgruntled South African, British and Israeli tourists reported the exhibition to their embassies and demanded that action be taken. First to knock on the door of the Anne Frank House was the Press Secretary, Eschel Rhoodie, from the South African Embassy in The Hague. He inspected the exhibition, shook his head in amazement, and asked for an appointment to see the Director Dr. Hans van Houte who happened to be immediately available. I soon got a call from the Director Dr. Hans van Houte obliging me to see him without delay as there was a problem with the exhibition. Not knowing what it was about I was shocked to find an angry looking Eschel Rhoodie in the presence of van Houte awaiting my arrival. Hans had an intriguing glow, almost a smirk on his face as he informed me that the African Embassy was demanding the dismantling of Nazisme in Zuid Afrika immediately and in its entirety. I told Rhoodie that the decision was not up to me, and made a white lie that only Board of Trustees could take such a decision. And there was little chance of that happening. Hans backed me up. And with that an angry Rhoodie took his leave of us and walked through the exhibition scoffing from panel to panel and left the Anne Frank House never to be heard of again. During the very week of his visit he was reported in the Dutch press as having said that the only way to get people to accept a lie was to repeat it over and over again. Ostensibly he was referring to Anti-Apartheid sentiments and widespread activities as a “repetition of lies to blacken South Africa”. After his visit the Anne Frank Foundation issued a press statement on the incident and Rhoodie found he had shot himself through both feet with his ham-handed intervention. What he achieved was a perfect storm of his own lies and denials, leading to a hugely increased number of local visitors to the Anne Frank House.
But Rhoodie’s diplomatic invasion of the Anne Frank House regarding Nazisme in Zuid Afrika was not the last. The second came remarkably from the British which is more puzzling and requires some explanation. Many English speaking South Africans are British passport holders so, having no confidence in their own South African Embassy took their objection to Nazisme in Zuid Afrika to the British Embassy on the grounds that South Africa was a valued ally of the British in fighting Nazism during WW2, and that furthermore the Nazi connections of the National Party, for which the large majority of white South Africans voted for decades, were marginal and limited to a few crackpots who definitely do not wear Nazi colors on their sleeves today. Some expressed the opinion that the pro-Nazi sentiments of the De Valera Government in Ireland were more palpable and openly expressed anti-British sentiment than was the case in South Africa.
As it happened, soon after the South African appearance at the Anne Frank House the British Ambassador in person put in an appearance and held a long closed meeting with Hans van Houte. When I came to work that morning the Ambassador’s official Rolls Royce, with the neat Union Jack on the bonnet, was neatly parked along the gracht. I was curious to know what this meeting was about and took a peek from time to time from my own attic office in the Anne Frank House. Eventually I got a call and had to muster before the Director. I was introduced to the Ambassador, (who tragically was murdered by Irish assassins some years later outside of the Embassy in Den Haag), and was yet again confronted by complaints lodged at his Embassy regarding Nazisme in Zuid Afrika. Interestingly he did not make too much a fuss about this exhibition and soon turned his attention to another matter: perceived Irish Nationalist sympathies of the Anne Frank. This took me entirely by surprise and I had to think backwards to find what this fuss was all about. Hans van Houte then pointed out that some weeks before the intervention I had a number of pictures posted in the Human Rights Abuses Today panel exhibit, in a separate little corner alongside Nazisme in Zuid Afrika. The Ambassador took great exception to this Irish absent insert which dealt with the treatment of Irish inmates of the Long Kesh concentration camp close to Belfast. But even more to my surprise he brought out some pictures taken by tourists and lodged with him as complaints portraying the British Foreign Minister Alec Douglas Home in a very negative light for having “sold out the people of Zimbabwe in the United Nations.” A poster published by the British Anti -Apartheid Movement was hung in the Anne Frank Human Rights Abuses Today and obviously had not gone unnoticed as was also the case with the Long Kesh exhibit. His Excellency was informed that this poster was removed some time ago and he was satisfied with that. With a warning: no vilification of Britain or British statesmen would be tolerated in the Anne Frank House. On one thing he was clear though: he threatened that British tourists would be officially warned from visiting the Anne Frank House if the Irish exhibit was not removed instantly, or ever appeared again. Hans nodded to this, I nodded back and we decided that the apparently offensive photos and information would be removed “instantly”.
Why the commotion? Basically the reason was that we had a captive audience who overwhelmingly did not intend to be confronted with Apartheid in South Africa, British colonialism in Northern Ireland, or any other atrocity against human rights that were not related to the Holocaust directly. That in itself was highly emotive. But I was also sensitive to the plea of many visitors that they brought their kinds to experience the story of a brave, innocent and beautifully spirited child Anne Frank, and not be confronted by “politics”. They paid to see the Anne Frank annex written about in books and shown in movies. They had a point: they paid for what they came for and but were then unwittingly obliged to see the Nazism in South Africa exhibition which ambushed them on the way out of the Anne Frank House. The diplomatic protests I found interesting and they left me cold. After all, the British would be so bland as to demand that a protest exhibition against Apartheid be removed without further consequences while ignoring what was going on in their own backyard, Northern Ireland. But I could not remain unmoved when I was confronted by none other than the father of Anne, the late Otto Frank.
Father Otto had an ongoing discussion with the Anne Frank Foundation regarding substantiating the message portrayed by Anne Frank’s experience and diary. Even after he was retired from the Board, he kept up his contention that politicization of the Anne Frank Foundation as portrayed in its programs was not in line of what he had in mind. Otto Frank complained vociferously to Hans van Houte about Nazisme in Zuid Afrika to no avail. Eventually Father Otto approached me directly, knowing that I was in charge of the exhibition hall, and gently told me that “nothing can compare to the Holocaust”. He was genuinely grieved by the Nazi flag being flown over Apartheid South Africa. Perceiving his arguement that the greater good lay in non-political youth work, I undertook to take down the offensive Nazi paraphernalia which I did not really go with as it was really due to the intransigence of some members of the staff of the Foundation. Nazisme in Zuid Afrika was then limited to the forced resettlements in South Africa in terms of the Bantustan policies of the Apartheid government. Strangely enough, once this was done, there were vigorous complaints from young Israeli visitors who became aggressive and amplified that there was nothing wrong with Palestinian homelands in the Holy Land. No doubt because once the Nazi packaging had been stripped from the bare facts, Israelis associated the way in which Palestinians were dealt with in likewise fashion to the indigenous population in South Africa. On the wisdom of taking down the Nazi packaging, there was no gainsaying Otto Frank, either for respect for the old man, or for the merits of his impassioned request. His view was that he wished to see the main function of the Anne Frank Foundation as a contribution to reconciliation and peace which is what Anne, his daughter wished. Anne, after all, was not a Rosa Luxembourg but a young, innocent girl for whom admiration crosses all boundaries, including political,
Otto Frank pointed out to me that soon after the Anne Frank House was opened for tourism in the 1950s a youth program was envisaged to engender understanding between different nationalities, races and cultural groups. The program taking a different and more outspoken political form irked him for quite some time but as he retired from the Board there was not much he could do about it. The change in focus had to be understood in the context of changing times. It was the heydays of the 1968 movements and youth were interested in dealing with structural alienations in tackling autocratic and archaic social and economic hierarchies, breaking them down to create room for democratization. Solidarity was none the less a sign of the times and the international turmoil around the Vietnam War could leave no stone unturned in resistance to this ghastly catastrophe. Somehow, even though Apartheid could be seen in the same light as the American Civil Rights Movement, it received attention far out of proportion to other causes such as Vietnam, and soon became a post child of the age of youth rebellion. Soon after the Nelson Mandela victory in 1994, Anti-Apartheid came to exemplify the entire age of youth rebellion of the 1960s and 70s. Even though the Anne Frank educational program dealt with international solidarity, the occupations of universities, and particular that of the University of Amsterdam in 1969, was a precedent for all sorts of occupations that followed, and these impacting on all sectors of the Dutch establishment including the Anne Frank Foundation. There was a thwarted move by staff of the Anne Frank Foundation to depose Hans van Houte and impose “self-government” by its staff, its "workers". As I will explain lower down, the exhibition was a by-product of internal dynamics and conflict between “workers” (staff, all university educated), against the Director and Board of Trustees of the Foundation.
The Anne Frank House and South Africa 1961
But let me start where the connection between South African and the Anne Frank Foundation started. In 1960 soon after the so-called Cottesloe Declaration made by, amongst others Reverend Beyers Naude, declaring Apartheid a heresy of the Christian faith, they were scandalized and ostracized by their own Church and the South African government. Dr. Verwoerd, the then Prime Minister, and main architect of the Apartheid Social System whipped up much furor in Church circles against the dissident men of the cloth, leading to much publicity, within and outside South Africa. This caused a particular stir in the Netherlands given the close connection between the Dutch Reformed churches in both countries. It was also right up the street of the Anne Frank Foundation which organized a one-day conciliatory dialogue between Akrikaans theology students at the two mean Amsterdam Universities, and their Dutch peers. By coincidence my brother Jerry and I were members of an Afrikaans Student club under auspices of the Zuid Afrika Instituut on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam, where South African students met for regular fellowship and social functions to listen to important people suggested by the South African Embassy, listen to lectures and presentations by visiting South African professors mainly regarding the Dutch-Afrikaans language and history connection. As the Anne Frank seminar was advertised at the Instituut, we made it a point to attend with a contingent of Afrikaans theology students. At that time white South African students, and especially Afrikaans speaking, were under heavy attack following the Sharpeville massacre so any opportunity for dialogue was eagerly accepted. We were hard pressed to either condemn Apartheid or stand condemned like Dutch Nazi collaborators stood condemned once the occupation of the Netherlands by the Germans was defeated. The invitation appealed to us as an opportunity to “give our side of the story”. However, the general attitude in Afrikaans student circles did anything but make conciliatory dialogue anything but highly confrontational and aggressive.
It must be noted that it was all not uphill for South African student in Holland at the time as there was considerable solidarity among the Dutch people of the older generation who still had radical pro Boer sentiments in solidarity with a kindred people fighting a life and death war against British takeover of the South African and Free State Republics, for control over the gold mines. The genocidal tendency of British Imperialism in rounding up Boer women and children in concentration camps and the stamping out the Afrikaans language during the repressions of the post-war Milner period, made a deep moral impact in the Netherlands, especially in more nationalistic and right wing circles. Indeed the National Socialist Movement (NSB) which was formed independently of the Nazi Party in Germany saw political gain in siding with the Germans and having a go at the British to get South Africa back into a reconstructed Dutch Empire. The NSB’s intention included to unite Flemish speaking Belgium with the Netherlands, and incorporate the then Belgian Congo and the East Indies in the deal as well. With such moral support, no doubt misguided, Afrikaans students were not going to take the branding of South Africa as run by Nazis without a fight.
There is no record of any connections with the Afrikaner organizations and the NSB. The posture of the NSB changed once the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and placed the NSB in charge of local government in all of the Netherlands under German supervision. The NSB then played no small part in isolating and setting up the Jewish people in Amsterdam and other cities for “deportation” by German troops and excelled in hunting down Jewish families who went into hiding and handing these over to the Gestapo. In the Netherlands collaboration with the Nazi occupation was more widespread than in any other German occupied country. After the war the issue of collaboration became a highly emotive issue and Dutch citizens were being fingered as collaborators during the war well into the 1960s. Add to this the South African Apartheid issue we had a cauldron for a toxic mix of emotions which boiled over during the Anne Frank dialogue on the Cottesloe Declaration. The South African students slammed the Dutch for misplaced guilt for their own collaboration with the Nazis, hammering home the point that in the Netherlands collaboration with the Germans was worse than anywhere else. A South African exile of Indian origin at the dialogue unwittingly lit the fuse exploding this dangerous cauldron of toxic verbal gases. After his input to the meeting and the reactions that followed as well as counter reactions degenerated in a free-for-all close to coming to physical blows.The fracas was also reported in the Dutch press.
The Indian compatriot’s input explained why Apartheid was prototype Nazism. The response was that he was reminded that he could accept a standing offer made even before the National Party came into power, to accept a free passage to India where “coolies” were discriminated against worse than they were in South Africa.
The meeting at the Anne Frank on the Cottesloe Declaration shook me up. There were more such incidents. The odium poured on white Africans in a way was prejudice in reverse, but understandable. I also felt considerable unease about being a “coward”, and leaving South Africa and especially my family to stew in what was widely believed abroad as a coming out and out race war. But things are always perceived differently from abroad. All the same I left my studies in Amsterdam and returned to South Africa in 1964. Enrolled at the University of Cape Town I joined a student welfare organization, SHAWCO. The African Resistance Movement (ARM) were engaging in violent means against the Apartheid state. One of the reactions of the state’s security police was to scapegoat “foreign influences”. I had a visit from the security police and warned off any connections with the ARM. Not soon after John Harris, a member of the ARM exploded a bomb in Johannesburg station. Self- preservation seemed to be my watchword as I realized that with the friendships developing even around SHAWCO, a charity organization, could railroad me right into what the security police were warning me. I decided to move to a city Klerksdorp in the Northwest province (in those days called Western Transvaal) where I would take a trainee mine engineers, get breathing space from the intensely oppressive campus of the UCT. During my studies at the Witwatersrand Technical College I was often in touch with Rev Beyers Naude. His office in Braamfontein was just around the corner from where the Technical College was situated. Out of the blue one day, doing nothing more dangerous than supervising blasting of rock underground at Vaal Reefs Gold Mine, I was again visited by the Security Police. Ostensibly this had to do with my friendship with Beyers Naude. Then, after becoming involved in a human interest project in Klerksdorp in assisting elderly black folks slip the loop of being tripped up for administrative “violations” and “deported” to a homeland I was arrested for interrogation and released after a week of detention. Not knowing what the Security Police were after, I scuttled out of Africa to complete my economics at the University of Amsterdam.
Soon after my enrolment at the University of Amsterdam there appeared a most unusual article in a Dutch magazine. It argued that the high rate of infant mortality in the resettled areas for blacks being evicted from “white South Africa” was due to the fact that black people had to “be taught proper diets and to eat meat”. This was such an outrageous proposition that no one could take it seriously. However my fellow students at the University implored me to write a rebuttal to the magazine. This I did, with a remarkable outcome. Two weeks after the publication of my response I was called into the South African Embassy. I got the shock of my life to be told to lay off any further political activities and to return to South Africa. My passport was withdrawn.
Angry about this I jumped in at the deep end and motivated a good number of my fellow students to engage in the South African situation from an anti-imperialist point of view. This group met once a week and at first functioned in the confines of the university and the student movement. The group called Pluto was requested by the Socialist Youth based in Amsterdam, to assist in bolstering numbers at a protest action somewhere in the rural backlands of Holland. A swimming tournament was taking in progress and the plan was to picket the event because a South African team was involved. The local youth of this backlands village Bodegraven, then set upon the protesters and scenes followed which were quite shocking. Flags and banners were seized, burned and danced around by crazed youth. Some of the protesters fled into a Church and were dragged out and assaulted.
This fracas was carried extensively by television and shocked the Dutch public. In the post-war period nothing like this had before been witnessed where the issue of race played such a central role. It was reminiscent of a street razzia by hooligans in Germany when Jews were dragged out of their homes and beaten up.
The next day I was called by Dr. Hans van Houte of the Anne Frank Foundation and asked to take on a part time job as head of archives and exhibitions. This took me by surprise. After speaking about his offer he intimated that Oom Beyers Naude had spoken about me and heard that I was a de-facto exile in Holland and would need support. I graciously accepted the honor.
I was introduced to the staff the very same day the offer was accepted and realized that things were not quite as rosy as it appeared at first sight. There were about 17 full time staff members all focusing on different areas of youth work. The most prominent focus area in which 4 staff members were working was dealing with drugs education. There was no real coordination between projects and many of the staff seemed disgruntled in one way or another wanting things to change. It became clear to me that there was a hidden agenda among some staff had it in for the Director, Hans van Houte and wanted him out. It became clear to me also that the subject of the exhibition space was a burning issue. One suggestion was “Nazisme in Zuid Afrika”. As I was appointed as archivist in charge of diusplay material and exhibitions, I was probed on my opinion, was cautious in my response but conditionally agreed that it was a good idea. If the exhibition could be substantive and show up features of South Africa’s colonial past, like the very idea of “native reserves”, I was all for it. Dealing with the actual overt manifestation of racism such as separate amenities, pass laws etcetera, I pointed out that these were not necessarily related to Nazi ideology, but we had this in many post-colonial environments such as Jim Crow laws in the US, the treatments of the Moari in New Zealand, Palestinians in Israel, Aborigines in Australia, in short, reserves for and discrimination of indigenous people in settler colonial environments being quite widespread and not necessary of Nazi vintage.
It was then agreed that they, the staff members involved, would do the dressing up of the proposed exhibition and I would take charge of dealing with the text and photographic sections with Connie Braam, who was on the full time staff of what had become of our initial group Pluto, then called the Anti-Apartheid Beweging Nederland. And so the exhibition was put up.
As described earlier on, the packaging of the exhibition with wild banners hanging meters long from the ceiling became my problem. After the appeal from father Otto Frank I acceded and had the banners removed. I had a long discussion with the Hans van Houte and he agreed, but he warned me that there may be problems in the staff meeting with some who would object to “outside interference” by especially old man Otto Frank.
Indeed. At the very first staff meeting the cookie of contradictions between staff, Director and Board of Trustees crumbled. The question was “who gave permission for the banners to be removed?” Hans van Houte said that he did, after I suggested the action to him. Then the fuse was lit, Hans was a dictator, authoritarian, and disrespectful to collective decision making, in those days of the heady 1960s social movements was tantamount to heresy. They placed a motion of no-confidence in van Houte. I was still an unknown quantity in the internal combustion equation and sprang a surprise at a subsequent meeting turning the tables in favor of van Houte, siding with Trustees of the Foundation who were present. Result? The staff members all got fired!
Soon after this fracas Hans van Houte resigned. A new director was appointed by the trustees who happened to be the first chairperson of the Anti-Apartheid Beweging Nederland, Dr. Piet van Andel. Van Andel was a respected liberation theologian and a perfect choice to continue in the foot spoors of Hans van Houte. The relationship between the Anne Frank Foundation and the Anti-Apartheid Beweging Nederland was close for a number of years following. I was the first general secretary of the AABN, and continued my part-time employment with the Anne Frank Foundation. Piet van Andel had to resign due to health problems not many years after his appointment and was succeeded by Bauco van der Wal, who was promoted internally from social worker to Director.
My relationship with the Anne Frank Foundation came to an end in 1980, when I was arrested at Jan Smuts Airport (Johannesburg) related to underground activities and jailed under the infamous Terrorism Act. The activities which culminated in my arrest were unrelated to the Anne Frank Foundation. No doubt the Anne Frank Exhibition was one of the gripes that could have counted against me but that certainly would have backfired on the regime!
16th October 2012.