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How a young Jewish girl affected an old South African man

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By: Dan laxer

 

I am embarrassed to admit, as a Jew, that I have never read the diary of Anne Frank. I always meant to. But I never had to; when I was in high school it was on the reading list in the other class, but not in my class. We had some other nonsense to read, but were not assigned the diary of Anne Frank. I finally read Elie Wiesel’s Night when I was in my 30s. I sat through Schindler’s List with a chill in my bones, and wept like a child after seeing Roberto Begnini’s La Vita e Bella (although that had more to do with the father and son story than with the Holocaust). But I still have yet to read Anne Frank’s diary. And I am chastened by the memory of Nelson Mandela.

Madiba, as he was affectionately known, spent 27 years in prison. What got him there is the subject of some fairly serious debate that surfaced on social media in the hours after his passing. But the story of his incarceration is now well-known, as are all the salient details of his life, splashed all over the Internet in the wake of his death. What is talked about most is how he survived adversity and came out on the other side a better man, full of hope and humanity. What does not get talked about is what helped him to retain his hope, where he found encouragement, and what got him through the dark times.

He read the diary of Anne Frank.

He’d read it before he went to prison. But reading books in prison, he said in a documentary about his time at Robben Island, was very different from reading them in freedom, “especially the diary of Anne Frank.” He talked of her “militant action,” by which he could  only mean her writing. Writing can sometimes be seen as an act of defiance. “What we took away from that was the invincibility of the human spirit.” The apartheid government, Mandela said, drew inspiration from Nazism. It seemed fitting, then, for Mandela to have drawn inspiration from perhaps the most famous of Holocaust victims. “We never lost hope,” he’s said, “following in the footsteps of great fighters for human rights, including Anne Frank.”

In 1994 he spoke at the opening of an Anne Frank exhibit in Johannesburg, and was awarded the Anne Frank Medal, not because he somehow managed to pull the wool over the world’s eyes, but because of his commitment to freedom, not just in South Africa, but elsewhere in the world.

No doubt “Nelson Mandela” will be listed as one of the most, if not the most, searched set of words on the Internet in 2013. And there is much to be read about him in the entanglement of fact and fiction that is the misinformation superhighway. There is plenty of vilification lumped in with the glorification. But how much of either is warranted?

People took the occasion of Mandela’s death to either praise him for his heroism, or to denounce him as a terrorist, a murderer whose actions lead to the deaths of innocents. Mandela’s history is indeed problematic: Was he the hero that history has made him out to be? Was he a Communist terrorist? Was he a PLO sympathizer, and thus an anti-Semite? Was he a friend to Israel? How could he be if he supported the Palestinian cause? And if he was no friend to Israel, could he still claim to be a friend to the Jewish people? Does one preclude the other? He claimed to be a supporter of Zionism as a legitimate nationalist movement, but he also made it clear that he would not forget Israel’s alliance with the South African apartheid government.

And then there was his embrace, both literal and figurative, of Yassir Arafat, and its implication of support for the PLO, which was indeed a legitimate source of concern for the Jewish community. There are those who can accept his characterization of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians as a form of apartheid, and there are those who indeed agree with that characterization. But there are also those who will brook no talk of Israel as an oppressor. For those people, Mandela is a villain, and will always remain so. But, again, his history is problematic. And so is Middle East politics.

Mandela’s funeral will take place on the 15th. Goodness knows that Mandela doesn’t need me to be his staunch defender. He will have his Marc Antonys, and there will be those who will shout them down. As for me, I need to find a place where his life before and after incarceration are reconciled, where his thought and action make perfect sense from the point of view of a great fighter for human rights. It is in that spirit that I wrote on Facebook, on the night of Mandela’s death, “The last night of Hanukkah comes to an end and a great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela, whose flame burned brighter for the hope and grace that saw him through the darkness, has died. What a life lived. What a light unto the world. May he rest in the peace that he earned, and may we all learn to live by his example.”

 

 

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