Over 24 hours have passed since Justin Bieber shuffled through the halls of Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House, leaving behind this insane message in the museum’s guest book: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.”
Even with other things to distract us—drunk celebrities at the MTV Movie Awards, Tax Day, North Korea potentially blowing up the world—we’re still working through our feelings on the matter. Is Bieber an unbelievably pompous dickhead for desecrating the memory of a global icon by thinking that a girl like Anne Frank, a symbol of courage and grace in the face of unspeakable injustice, would enjoy singing along to “Somebody to Love” if she were still alive? Or did the young pop star mean well, even if he relayed his feelings a bit foolishly?
Also—could Anne Frank really have been a Belieber?
The thing is … yeah, maybe.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of Anti-Defamation League, reacting to the Bieber brouhaha, said as much. “If you read Frank’s diary, she was into celebrities, she was into pop culture,” Foxman told the Chicago Sun-Times. “So for [Bieber] to say he would have hoped that she would have been a fan, it’s a nice thing.”
The truth is, Frank was precisely the age of many of the girls that make up that Belieber fan army. She was 13 when she began writing her diary. Like any girl of that age—in the 1940s or today—she would clip photos of celebrities and hang them on her walls.
In a diary entry from July 1942, Frank wrote, “Our little room looked very bare at first with nothing on the walls; but thanks to Daddy who had brought my film-star collection and picture postcards…with the aid of a paste pot and brush, I have transformed the walls into one gigantic picture. This makes it look much more cheerful.”
A photo of one such collage made the rounds Sunday as the Bieber furor ignited. There’s Margaret and Elizabeth, the young princesses of York, and Norma Shearer, one of Frank’s favorite actresses. In fact, Bieber may have seen these photos while walking through the museum before signing that guest book.
“We think that what’s special is that a 19-year-old comes to the Anne Frank House and spends an hour visiting on a Friday night,” a spokesperson for the museum told the AFP. “He could be doing other things in Amsterdam, he was very interested. That’s more important than the commotion that we’re now seeing. That’s the positive side and we want to leave it at that.”
It’s true. Send a college-aged boy to Amsterdam for one weekend only during spring break season. It’s likely that his one stop on his free night would be, perhaps, an establishment from the Guide to Weed in Amsterdam, or maybe a gawking stroll in the Red Light District. Visiting a museum and taking the time to document how much he appreciated the experience actually speaks well of Bieber.
“He chose to take a visit to a historically important museum for Jewish history,” says Rabbi Andy Bachman of Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “Give him credit for expanding his mind. Sure, he made a slip keeping with his character. This is a pop star concerned with his appearance, his hair, and his fan base. Of course he’s going to understand Anne Frank through the lens of himself.”
Truthfully, that’s the way most of us understand Anne Frank when we first learn of her, as young people with our own diaries and our own pedestrian pop-culture obsessions, perhaps imagining what it would have been like for us to endure what she went through. It’s not exactly fair to vilify Bieber for going through the same process. Was our internalization of the experience as arrogant as his? Probably not. But consider the source.
“Obama didn’t say it. The leader of another country didn’t say it. Leading intellectuals of the western world didn’t say it,” says Rabbi Bachman. “A young man who is moderately educated and obsessed with his own image said it. Really? Is our understanding of the Holocaust through the prism of a pop star? Really?”
There is, however, a kernel of a genuine concern bubbling, that wee fans of Bieber are being indoctrinated into the legacy of Frank now through, of all things, the thought that she was nothing more than a teen-idol chaser, a would-be Belieber. It’s a horrible thought, sure, but one with a positive consequence. “If [Bieber] likes her, maybe these little girls will now pick up her diary and read it,” Bachman says. “Monitor the sales of the book on Amazon.”
Well, as of noon on Monday, The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, the top search result on Amazon for Frank’s diary, was ranked #2,376 in books. On February 26, 2013, the most recent capture on the web archive site Wayback Machine, that same edition was ranked #10,170 in books. Is Bieber to thank solely for the massive bump in sales? It can’t be said definitively, but it’s possible.
Would Anne Frank have been a Belieber? Maybe. Are we overreacting to Bieber’s comments? Maybe. But if all this hullabaloo means more people are familiarizing themselves with the story of a truly inspiring girl, well, that’s something we should all beliebe in.