USC’s Anne Frank Center addressing antisemitism in shadow of Israel-Hamas war
COLUMBIA – Jewish students and faculty at the University of South Carolina recently gathered by candlelight in the garden of the Anne Frank Center, the only North American partner of the house in Amsterdam where its namesake hid from Nazis eight decades ago.
To the dozens who attended, it was a safe space to grieve 10 days after a surprise attack on Israel by Hamas militants who killed more than 1,400 civilians, including babies, and took more than 200 hostages.
“How lucky are we to have this (center) at such a time?” USC President Emeritus Harris Pastides told the SC Daily Gazette. Of the Oct. 17 gathering, he added, “It felt right.”
Pastides believes the center’s mission of educating students and fostering peace helped diffuse heated sentiments, preventing the violence seen on other college campuses nationwide. Opened in 2021, the center is the only one of its kind at a U.S. college.
After last month’s attack, a revived USC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine distributed posters and leaflets on campus. And supporters of Palestine stood silently with protest signs at the vigil. Blocks away at the Statehouse, protesters at a “free Palestine” rally organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation chanted and held signs, while a small group of pro-Israel counter-protesters gathered across the street.
But there are no reports from any South Carolina college of anything like the wave of antisemitism causing Jewish students on other campuses to fear for their safety.
At Cornell University in Upstate New York, a student posted graphic threats online to kill and rape Jewish students, and at a pro-Palestinian rally, a professor called the Hamas attacks “exhilarating” and “energizing.” (The student has since been arrested, and the professor apologized for his choice of words.)
Video from a college in New York City showed Jewish students huddling inside a locked library pounded on by pro-Palestinian protesters. At Columbia University, also in New York, an Israeli student was assaulted with a stick. (A 19-year-old has been charged.) Another video that’s gone viral internationally shows a Jewish professor at Columbia condemning leaders at his university and others for not standing up to hate and protecting Jewish students. (Responding to pressure several weeks later, Columbia suspended two pro-Palestinian student groups.)
Pro-Palestinian groups say they’re targets too.
At Harvard University outside Boston, a billboard truck circled campus displaying photos and names of students affiliated with groups that signed onto a letter the night of the attack calling Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence. A “doxxing” website also posted the names of students, who say their family members face harassment too.
“I think it’s been important to acknowledge the terror of the Oct. 7 attacks. That was just an absolutely horrific nightmare,” said the Anne Frank Center’s director, Doyle Stevick.
Since then, the death toll in Gaza from Israeli airstrikes has topped 10,000 people, including several thousand children, according to an agency of the Hamas-controlled government.
“The university also recognizes that it has faculty, staff and students with links on both sides of the border,” Stevick continued. “These kinds of conflicts can intensify antisemitism. They can intensify Islamophobia. There’s a lot of fear and discomfort, so the need to support all of our students is critical.”
Anne Frank at USC
Since its opening in September 2021, more than 9,000 USC freshmen have toured the Anne Frank Center as part of an introduction-to-college course. In the past month, professors said, more students are asking to take the 75-minute tour and talk that tells the story of the Frank family, the Holocaust and antisemitism.
“It’s really a special privilege,” Stevick said. “I don’t know anywhere else in the country able to offer that kind of experience to their first-year students.”
In the current climate, our work is as urgent as ever.
Anne Frank Center employees are not experts on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Stevick said. But he hopes visitors leave with better context surrounding antisemitism, informing their view of current events.
“We always wish our work would be irrelevant but it hasn’t turned out that way,” Stevick said. “In the current climate, our work is as urgent as ever.”
Stanley Dubinsky, a linguist and Jewish studies professor at USC, said the vigil at the Anne Frank Center — organized by Jewish student groups — was a powerful show of support for students impacted by the terrorist attack.
“In some ways, the existence of the center itself is really a message,” said Agnes Mueller, a Jewish studies professor and Holocaust expert. “It says that we care and we know and we are interested in educating people about the deeper roots (of the Holocaust.)”
Dubinsky thinks South Carolina’s more-polite culture insulated it somewhat from the turbulence seen on other campuses.
People in the Northeast are “far more confrontational and combative and direct,” he said. “People are used to honking their horns. People are used to shouting. So that culture of directness that may play a role in exacerbating the kinds of confrontational behavior that you see on some northern campuses you’re not seeing down here.”
South Carolina also has a perhaps-surprisingly welcoming history when it comes to religion. While the state has a violent past of slavery and post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws oppressing Black people, colonial South Carolina promised religious freedom and was once home to the largest Jewish population in America, Dubinsky said.
In Charleston, there’s a Huguenot Church founded by Protestant refugees from Catholic countries and a Catholic church established by refugees from Protestant nations, as well as a Jewish synagogue with a congregation that predates American independence by decades.
What visitors experience at the Anne Frank Center
Stepping into the Anne Frank Center, visitors see a replica of the bookshelf that concealed the entryway to the Frank family’s annex, where they spent two years in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. (Anne’s father, Otto, was the only family member to survive the concentration camps after their discovery.)
There’s also a reprint of the yellow wallpaper from Anne Frank’s room, which she decorated with her interests, growing at age 13 from cartoons and Hollywood stars to art and royal families.
The center furnished its reproduction of the family’s hiding place with items used on an Anne Frank movie set filmed in the Amsterdam house. The low light mimics blacked-out windows.
But the center is less a museum and more about academic lecture and discussion. The tour features timelines with Frank family photos laid in contrast with propaganda from the rise of the Nazi Party.
Some artifacts include the Dutch version of the Jewish star, ration cards and examples of Nazi publications spewing racism toward not just Jews but also Blacks and Asians.
Items with South Carolina connections include photos and postcards from German prisoners of war held at Fort Jackson in Columbia. Presenters may discuss the self-avowed white supremacist who in 2015 gunned down nine Black parishioners following a Bible study at historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Discussions delve into how the 21-year-old killer came to his racist ideology and its ties to Nazism.
While USC’s center opened in 2021, the university’s connection to the Anne Frank House began nearly a decade earlier.
Stevick, an education professor and researcher, was writing a book about the museum and its educational work around the globe.
“I was just so taken with their staff and their work that I wanted to bring it to South Carolina,” he said.
The Anne Frank House operates under the premise that all young people understand the negative power of peer pressure, but few recognize the flip side — their potential to bring out the best in one another. That’s why it created traveling exhibits and trained students in 89 countries to present them to classmates, Stevick said.
In 2013, Stevick began using one of those traveling exhibits to lead trainings in middle and high schools across the United States.
Then in 2017, when Columbia’s Jewish community hosted Eva Schloss, a Holocaust survivor and Frank family friend, Stevick invited some 2,000 middle schoolers from across South Carolina. The next morning, he received a call from the Anne Frank House about expanding his efforts.
Just before announcing his retirement as USC’s president, Pastides visited the Anne Frank House. In return, the museum’s director visited the university. That’s when Pastides told Stevick he would like all USC students to have such an experience and planning began to open the center.
Hope for the future
Though it’s relatively new, Jewish studies professor Mueller believes the center, over time, can broaden awareness of the Holocaust and its atrocities to future generations of students. She hopes it also makes them understand not just the history but the emotions that led to the horrors.
Dignitaries hosted by the U.S. State Department have visited the center. They include a group of educators from Romania, prosecutors from Saudi Arabia and university officials from Africa. So has a group of FBI agents, who then encouraged other South Carolina law enforcement agencies to do the same.
USC’s Anne Frank Center continues to set up month-long traveling exhibits in schools, visiting 28 states in 2022. The center has three partner organizations in New Orleans, Omaha and Los Angeles that put on the events. Stevick said it’s the center’s goal to have partners in all 50 states by 2029, the centennial of Anne Frank’s birth.
Stevick also has plans to renovate the property so the center could host large school field trips.