The 50th anniversary of Anne Frank's death offers us the opportunity to reflect upon and consider the horrible events which led up to her death. It also allows us to contemplate how the world has changed since 1945, when the Allies liberated the concentration camps and confronted the horror of the Holocaust.
One immediate response to the Holocaust and World War II was the establishment of the United Nations, "so that the events which had brought untold sorrow to mankind during the great and terrible war . . . might never recur" (Charter of the United Nations and the Constitution of UNESCO). The United Nations since established the "Declaration of Human Rights" and has declared 1995 the "International Year of Tolerance."
This declaration is extremely important, since the absence of tolerance was central to the Nazis' inherently discriminatory ideology and policies. The U.N. declaration rightfully states that, although people need their beliefs, these beliefs should not create an exclusionary climate.
The International Year of Tolerance emphasizes that, although every individual is different in terms of their talents, convictions, or beliefs, all are equal in dignity, and these differences enrich both the individual and the society.
The worldwide protection of democracy and human rights has been an ideal since the Nazis were finally defeated in 1945, since we began the painful task of explaining how the Holocaust could have happened in the modern era. Yet we are far from realizing this goal. Throughout the world men, women, and children continue to be treated inhumanly or in a degrading way.
In the memory of Anne Frank, we must recommit ourselves to her dream of a better world. A world in which an innocent young girl would not be judged, discriminated against, and ultimately killed for her beliefs. To reach this goal the International Year of Tolerance will develop educational programs that will provide, at the earliest possible age, the basis for responsible judgment. It will promote an attitude "devoid of arrogance between the generations, the sexes, individuals and communities, and between the human race and nature" ("Question of a United Nations Year for Tolerance"). Thus, the United Nations is challenging us to redefine tolerance and strengthen the essential foundation for the establishment of a culture of tolerance.
This new understanding of tolerance is critically important. The concept of tolerance still embodies an attitude of benevolence, adopted by those who actually feel superior to the recipient of this tolerance. Simply tolerating another person is not the same as accepting that person as equal in dignity. Only those in a dominant (or majority) position can say that they are tolerant of others. For example, if Jews, or African-Americans, or another U.S. minority group stated that they "tolerated" other Americans, it would be considered a joke. Only those in a weaker position enjoy the "pleasure" of being tolerated. The notion is quite offensive to those who want to be considered "equal."
The Jewish people were once tolerated in Germany throughout the early 1900s. Tolerance, as a social ideal, did not save the lives or civil liberties of over six million Jews in Europe. Tolerance did not spare the lives of over half the European Roma (Gypsy) population or over 70,000 people with mental or physical handicaps. Tolerance was a hollow promise to the 5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses or the 10,000 homosexual men imprisoned by the Nazi regime. Tens of thousands of other political or religious prisoners who were executed by the Nazis were not saved by the tolerance extended to them by cosmopolitan Europe in the late 1920s and 1930s.
Today, true respect for our neighbors and fellow citizens is disturbingly absent. Anne Frank's story teaches us that such respect is the prerequisite for a society in which everyone feels secure. This respect will ensure that the civil liberties on which this country was founded are protected for everyone. We need educational programs that teach students to consider all other people — irrespective of their ethnic descent or beliefs — as individuals, whose acceptance only depends on the social, law-abiding behavior of this person.
We are deeply committed to preserving Anne's legacy. And on this 50th anniversary of her death we shall challenge ourselves to fight even harder for the ideals she so eloquently described in her diary.
Copyright Anne Frank Center USA. Reprinted with permission.