Our Restricted Liberties: Anne Frank, RFK Jr, and Everyday Ignorance

In an another anti-vaccine rant at a Washington rally last Sunday, activist Robert Kennedy Jr again compared our temporary loss of freedoms from Covid-19 restrictions to Nazi behaviour in World War II. He went so far as to claim that, “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did,” drawing ire and condemnation on numerous fronts including from his own wife. Having previously shared a video of Dr. Anthony Fauci with a Hitler moustache, Kennedy further claimed that the Chief Medical Advisor to the President was orchestrating fascism. The world rightly cringed.

I can’t imagine how anyone could think the misery of a Holocaust victim was equal to being asked today to mask up, keep the distance, or vaccinate themselves against an infectious disease in the hopes of saving others. But there you have our modern discourse. This time, the apology came fairly quickly after the damage was done. Perhaps that was the goal to amplify the megaphone.

I have thought about Anne Frank and her family a lot lately, ever since my wife and I moved to Amsterdam three years ago for a five-year job stint, especially the last two years as we stick it out along with everyone else in various degrees of lockdown. The last six weeks in the Netherlands have been particularly onerous, with only essential shops open. Small companies are going broke. Students are losing their years. Mental health is being tested. Currently, we are in 3G – that is, everyone must show an entry pass for indoor eating and entertainment, based on proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test result. Not for a moment, however, have I thought my restricted liberty was comparable to what Anne and millions of others endured during the war.

The Franks weren’t Dutch as one might assume, but German from Frankfurt, who fled their homeland after Hitler’s diktat for Jewish citizens became clear. The Frank family – Otto, his wife Edith, and daughters Margot and Anne – arrived in Amsterdam in 1933 to a modern housing estate in the Rivierenbuurt, about 3 kilometres south of Otto’s Opekta Works office on the Prinsengracht in the Jordaan district of central Amsterdam. But although he fought in the Imperial German Army during World War I, not even Otto was safe. Forced into hiding in 1942 and subject to deportation at any time, Anne’s father made the fateful decision to hide his family and four others in the secret attic annex of his pectin supply company office. Most come to see the hiding spot. All but Otto perished.

There is no plaque outside their Merwedeplein home, although the front window has a mini shrine and the park outside a simple statue of Anne. Few tourists come to see where the Franks lived prior to being uprooted again by the darkest of forces. Ditto the Jewish Lyceum on Voormalige Stadstimmertuin in the Jewish Cultural Quarter, the school where Anne and her sister Margot went after all Jewish children in the Netherlands were forcibly separated from the regular Dutch school system. I can’t help but think how fraught their lives were yet how everyday joy filled their hearts.

Many of our lives have gone virtual with the pandemic, deprived of our usual routines, wider entertainments, and our various luxuries. So what if our museum cards gather dust in our home-office desk drawers for now? There will be time for more Rembrandts, Vermeers, and van Goghs.

Famous for its religious tolerance, I can only imagine what Amsterdam was like before the Nazis arrived. It is beyond words to describe the lack of people and their memories. No Jewish families in the streets, no markets, bakeries, or delicatessens. Some call on us to remember, daring us to see the past again. But how does one remember as many as fourth-fifths dead among 80,000 in a city of 800,000, 6 million across Europe, or tens of millions more from a wider global war?

How can one recall how the streets must have rung out with the sounds of thousands of Jewish citizens going about their daily lives, many born of European migrant families from other less tolerant Christian states? A descendent of a Portuguese Sephardic family, the humanist philosopher Spinoza was chief among them. Today, Spinoza’s statue occupies a spot across from where he was born in Waterlooplein, while the Holocaust Museum, Resistance Museum, and Portuguese Synagogue – the largest synagogue in the world at the time of construction – are the main reminders of a lost past (all now temporarily closed to visitors).

Created by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, one can look down to see markers embedded in the pavement outside the homes of former residents who were taken away never to return. Thousands of 10-cm by 10-cm brass Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) list the names, dates, and destinations of murdered Nederlanders, their unimaginable histories explained in scuffed silence. Four markers call out the Frank family’s details in front of 37-2 Merwedeplein, where they lived after fleeing Frankfurt before being forced into hiding: “Hier woonde ANNE FRANK Geb 1929, Ondergedoken 6-7-1942, Gearresteerd 4-8-1944, Gedeporteerd uit Westerbork, Auschwitz, Vermoord Maart 1945 Belsen-Belsen.” Hier woonde, Hier woonde, Hier woonde, ….

Over the last year, Amsterdam began constructing a memorial to its lost citizens. Nestled in a park behind the Hermitage Museum, the Nationaal Holocaust Namenmonument opened last September, sombrely growing from an empty space to a series of winding brown brick walls over the course of a year, each brick inscribed with the name of a Dutch Holocaust victim. At first, the names don’t seem to mean much if they aren’t your family, but then maybe you see one that could be yours or is yours if you came specifically to look.

And then you wonder if Anne is there, and realize that she must be. She died too, despite her miracle diary that lives on. Despite a voice that still resonates for millions around the world. Despite her dreams that don’t end with the turning of the last page. And sure enough as you follow the alphabetic ordering, you find her brick along with those of her family, her sister nine rows away and her mother a little further, up and to the right. / Anna Frank 10.1.1929 – 14 jaar / Margot Frank 16.2.1926 – 19 jaar / Edith Frank-Hollander 16.1.1900 – 44 jaar / But not her father Otto. He survived.

How could Robert Kennedy, a successful lawyer, environmentalist, anti-war advocate, and son of a former U.S. senator and attorney general use a teenage girl’s horror as a political weapon? Use another’s detention and death to declare his own perceived right to freedom? Ignorance, I suppose, despite his credentials and smarts. You would think that if anyone knows better, he would. His small-government idealism purports that everyone should have the same rights in law and deed.

In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, he championed solar power for Americans with an elegant twist: “More than one million Germans have installed solar panels on their roofs, enough to provide close to 50 percent of the nation’s power, even though Germany averages the same amount of sunlight as Alaska.” In a 2016 Politico article, he cited an enlightened narrative about the reason for U.S. troubles in the Middle East: “But if we are to have an effective foreign policy, we must recognize the Syrian conflict is a war over control of resources indistinguishable from the myriad clandestine and undeclared oil wars we have been fighting in the Mideast for 65 years. And only when we see this conflict as a proxy war over a pipeline do events become comprehensible.” These are not simple observations. The man knows his stuff.

One can also cite Kennedy’s anti-elite, David versus Goliath posturing in numerous battles from pipelines to poverty, minority rights to indigenous rights. Even his anti-vaccine stance purports to look out for the little guy as stated in the Foreword of a recent book opposing the “new normal” with more than 5,000 Amazon ratings. Kennedy states that “Government technocrats, billionaire oligarchs, Big Pharma, Big Data, Big Media, the high-finance robber barons, and the military intelligence love pandemics for the same reason they love wars and terrorist attacks. Catastrophic crises create opportunities of convenience to increase both power and wealth.”

Stop the presses. Who doesn’t agree with that? I am all for small! And less sabre rattling. And more power and wealth for everyone. Alas, I suffered through only about a third of the anti-book, until I couldn’t stomach another rehash of the endless screed. Basically, liberty versus death, us versus them, and superstition versus science … over and over and over. Way too many conspiracy theories under the bed to count. When did We the People become We the Sheeple?

I know I shouldn’t have bought the book, but I wanted to learn more about the anti-vaxx arguments, perhaps as ammunition for a future article. So here goes in a nutshell: 1) My body is strong (or stronger than other snifflers), 2) sceptical of science and government oversight, 3) toxic ingredients, 4) evil bloodstream chips or DNA-coded nanobot bio-weapons, 5) religious exception (Mark of the Beast), 6) no need with rising immunity, 7) fear of dying, 8) Big Pharma monopolies, 9) Big Tech monopolies, 10) government by physicians (medical tyranny a.k.a. iatrarchy, 11) lab-engineered plandemic, 12) already had Covid, 13) vaccine side-effects are worse than the virus, 14) vaccines are ineffective, 15) Colin Powell was vaxxed and still died, 16) Don’t tell me what to do, etc. Oh yeah, and masks don’t work.

The bigger picture is about money. RFK Jr wants you to buy a book or donate to his Children’s Health Defense activist group. His arguments are couched in a Libertarian guise like Trump’s working-class billionaire schtick – look at me, I’m successful, you too can be a winner. In essence, the argument is anti-government, anti-science, anti-intellectual. Might as well be in league with the Libertarian takeover of the GOP. Less taxes. No unions. Strong borders. Anti-vaxxers of the World, Disunite!

It is hard to fathom how someone who cares so much about rights can be used to undermine civil society. If you want to get rid of Big Pharma and Big Tech, work at it. Don’t preach to those who take a pitch fork to the law and the rights of others.

The last two years have seen us all stretched to the limits. Many of us have suffered and lost loved ones or knew those who did. But who among us think we have suffered the horrors of Nazi Germany or that Anne Frank’s life was easy because of the brilliance of her story telling? You can’t amplify your message through the appropriation of another’s.

His ignorance is also a lack of empathy, the inability to see another’s pain beyond our own. How many faux outrages can we concoct before we realize that another’s pain is our pain? That is, if we want to share life in a family of humans. I know that’s a creed too far for some, even the religious. But we are responsible to others.

The pandemic could be over if we were all vaccinated. But that isn’t likely to happen so we will have to ride it out. Fortunately, because of vaccines we are already seeing less pain – the latest wave twice as infectious, but a tenth as deadly, as we approach a more manageable endemic stage. It’s the ultimate Prisoner’s Dilemma. The health of another impacts my own health.

Anne Frank would have been 93 this year if she lived. We can never forget her life or her death. Or forget the tragedy that comes with playing politics about whose liberty is more important, yours or mine. Not because the government is coming for my life, but because I didn’t come to help when you needed me. Her last diary entry was on August 1, 1944, three days before the Frank family was arrested. By then, Anne already knew the world was full of “powerful enemies.”


John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: johnkingstonwhite@gmail.com