Anne Frank on the Reservation

A Native American Museum Hosts a Historic Exhibit

By Gabriel Sanders

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The recent discovery of a trove of letters from Otto Frank to American officials may have returned attention to the wartime plight of the Frank family, but, as an exhibition set to open in the American Southwest next month shows, Anne Frank has never really strayed far from the collective imagination — and not only for Jews.

From April 4 through May 11, New Mexico’s Bosque Redondo State Monument, a site commemorating a tragic chapter of Native American history known as The Long Walk, will host the traveling exhibition Anne Frank: A History for Today.

During the early years of the Civil War, as settlers pushed westward through the territory of New Mexico, the American army forcibly relocated some 9,000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache to Fort Sumner and the surrounding Bosque Redondo reservation, where they were held captive until 1868. Thousands died during the journey and incarceration.

“The Anne Frank exhibit,” said Mary Ann Cortese, president of the Friends of Bosque Redondo, “will help connect the tragic events at Fort Sumner to the larger context of human rights abuses that have taken place across the globe.”

While in some ways historic — Bosque Redondo is quite possibly the first Native American memory site to host an exhibition connected to the Nazi Holocaust — the joining of Native American and Jewish narratives is not entirely new. In recent decades, Native American scholars and spokespeople have often adopted the language of genocide, in some cases even the word “holocaust,” in describing the Native American experience. The sense of kinship has not been entirely one-sided. Many Jews have come to recognize in Native American history a legacy of oppression parallel to their own. And yet, the coupling has not been without its detractors. Native American scholars have been accused of being too free in their use of the language of genocide, while Holocaust scholars have been accused of being too protective of it. All the same, Bosque Redondo’s Anne Frank exhibition sheds light not only on another battle in the “memory wars,” but the long and complicated history of Jewish-Native American interaction in the Southwest, a tale that stretches back to the arrival of Spanish (and converso) settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries and continues today in the small but vibrant Jewish communities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

According to Albuquerque’s Henry Tobias, author of “A History of the Jews in New Mexico” (University of New Mexico Press, 1990), the relationship between Jews and Native Americans was historically more intimate than the ties between Native Americans and the settler community as a whole. “Jewish peddlers did a lot of trading with the Indians,” he said, pointing to the Jewish pioneer Solomon Bibo, who in the mid 1880s became the first non-Indian governor of the pueblo of Acamo. “He wasn’t the chief,” Tobias cautioned, “but he was an ambassador.”

Links between the two groups, Tobias said, are now tighter than ever. “They meet on various occasions as different kinds of tribes,” he said slyly. At the ceremonies surrounding the opening of a new Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque in 2000, Tobias recalled, one visiting Native American leader rose and said: “Your history is our history.”

Another local historian, Stanley Hordes, welcomed the drawing of parallels between Native American and Jewish histories. “Nobody has a monopoly on being victims of genocide,” said Hordes, the author of a recently-published book on New Mexico’s crypto-Jews. “What happened to the Navajos in the 1860s and what happened to the Jews in the 1930s inevitably begs that kind of comparison.”

But not all are so comfortable with the comparison. Literary critic and Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer expressed some misgivings about the upcoming exhibition, arguing that the drawing of parallels between the Holocaust and other atrocities is often problematic. “To understand a particular exploitation,” he said, “you have to examine it in its own context, not in someone else’s context. That can only lead to confusion.”

Langer also had qualms about the use of Anne Frank’s diary as shorthand for the Holocaust. “People think that if you know about Anne Frank you know the whole story,” he said. “You can read the diary and not know where she went afterward, how and where she died.” In sum, Langer said, Anne Frank’s diary has been “exploited” and “overused.”

Exhibition organizers, mindful of the potential charge of misappropriation, stressed that the Anne Frank material will be handled with care.

“What we do every time we install an exhibit,” said Hilary Eddy Stipelman, programs director of the New York-based Anne Frank Center, “is we go out to the exhibit site and lead a workshop for the people giving tours to the public and train them in how to use the material.”

And then there are scholars who have argued that some Holocaust historians have been overly vigilant when it comes to the language of genocide. Chief among these has been the notorious but influential Ward Churchill, who famously said of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack that it was a matter of chickens coming home to roost — a move for which he may yet lose his position at the University of Colorado.

In his 1997 book “A Little Matter of Genocide,” Churchill argues that historians who insist on the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust — here he singles out Deborah Lipstadt, Steven Katz and Yehuda Bauer — have “contributed to the invisibility of the victims” of history’s other genocides. These “exclusivists” become, for Churchill, a species of Holocaust denier.

In a 2005 article in New York’s Jewish Week, Lipstadt said of Churchill that he is a “third-rate scholar” who “has been turned into a rock star because of the attempt to silence him.”

To further complicate the picture, there are some Native American scholars who have refused to draw parallels between Jewish and Native American narratives because of present day Middle East strife.

“I’ve had people call me and say they would like to do some sort of collaboration looking at Jewish and Diné [Navajo] historical experiences,” said Jennifer Nez Detendale, a professor of Native American history at the University of New Mexico, “and I’ve always not wanted to do that, because of what’s going on now in the Palestinian experience.”

Arguably the most unusual commentator on the Jewish-Native American connection at work today is David Treuer, a writer of fiction and a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, whose father is a Viennese Jew who left Austria in 1938 and whose mother is an Ojibwe tribal judge. Perhaps because he straddles the Jewish-Native American divide, Treuer is able to find balance where others scholars see stark divisions.

“The Holocaust,” he said, “is unique. It’s special, if you can call it that. It has its own special brand of horror. But, if anything good can come of something like that, it is by drawing attention to other ongoing processes.”

“People talk about Native American genocide and holocaust,” he continued, “but I think it’s a bit misplaced. Just a bit. I don’t think the goal was ever to completely wipe us out. In isolated instances we were definitely wiped out. Whole tribes were wiped out, but there was no systematic effort. American Indians were very much a part of America’s foundational myths. When America thinks about itself, it thinks about itself as different from Europe largely because of us. America perceives itself as being related to Indians in some way, whereas Nazis mythologized themselves without Jews. That’s a big difference.”

Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.