Azar Nafisi remembers well the first time she read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, the poignant memoir of the Holocaust’s best-known child victim. “I was 11 years old,” she tells me in a phone interview from her home near Washington DC. “I stayed in my room until I finished it. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. But It was very difficult to understand the heaviness of what was behind the words.”
Nafisi went on to become a professor of literature, also writing one of the best-known books about Iran in English. Her Reading Lolita in Tehran tells of how she defied the Islamic Republic by holding clandestine literature classes for female students. A love letter to the power of literature, the book connected with audiences around the world and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Fittingly, it ends with a ‘suggested reading’ list featuring such giants of modern literature as Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov. The list also includes the name of Anne Frank.
“Over the years, I’ve repeatedly gone back to her diaries,” Nafisi say. “It’s an amazing work. We can read many books about the Holocaust, and remember that six million people were wiped out. But this can become just a statistic. Then you focus on one individual, go into her heart and mind, and those six million are all somehow retrieved through that one individual. She’s so alive in her words; she brings us into her little annex and makes us live with her. At the end, when she’s taken away, a part of us is taken away with her.”
When Nafisi was 11 years old, as was the case for many more children in Iran and beyond, Anne Frank’s diaries were a first introduction to the Holocaust: the systematic genocide of Jews by Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. Anne’s story continues to inspire millions today, in a variety of forms. In 2010, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam authorized Anne Frank: The Graphic Biography, an adaptation by the artistic duo Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colòn.
Coinciding with International Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, IranWire published Anne Frank: The Graphic Biography in Persian translation for the very first time. This is the latest part of the Sardari Project, a collaboration by IranWire and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which aims to counter the Iranian regime’s Holocaust denial by educating Iranian audiences about the Holocaust and Jewish history.
Nafisi pronounces it “a wonderful project... Anne Frank is so alive, and not a mere victim. Like the young people inside Iran, she does not like the oppressive atmosphere that’s been created for her.” She recalls a powerful quote from the diary: “I want to go on living even after my death.”
“One thing people learn from Anne Frank is the role memory plays in keeping people alive,” Nafisi says. “Six million people were annihilated but we can keep them alive through remembering, and that’s why I feel projects like the Sardari Project are so important. They keep memory alive.”
“Holocaust Education Would Threaten the Regime”
Asked about the Iranian regime’s motive for expending so much of its finite resources on denying the Holocaust, Nafisi says: “I think they empathize with the Nazis and fascists. They have the same kind of mindset. They abuse religion. Religion itself becomes a victim here because they use it as an ideology. Behind that ideology, there is no Islam; there is totalitarianism.
“They are also racists. They base their rule on fabricating enemies. The Jewish people are a good target, because they [the regime] can politicize the issue and draw in Israel.” Moreover, she says, the Iranian regime realizes that public sympathy for victims of the Holocaust would threaten the basis of its own rule: “They instinctively understand that knowing about the Holocaust would make Iranians notice the similarities with the Islamic Republic, and would deepen their resistance to the regime.”
For Nafisi, the Holocaust is an instance of “how far human beings can go in dehumanizing others” and as such, “learning about the Holocaust is essentially about retrieving that lost humanity. We need to understand the past in order to shape the future.”
“We learn about the Holocaust to prevent other genocides from happening, to be not just human but humane,” she adds. “That’s why the Holocaust education is important for people around the world, whether they live in democracies or dictatorship.”
Hope Against Despair
Almost 20 years have passed since the publication of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Since then, Nafisi who left her country of birth in 1997, has watched Iran descend further into authoritarian rule, at the same time as other countries around the world. Sticking to her literary guns, Nafisi has kept on promoting the power of writing to effect change. Her The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books was released in 2014, and again combined memoir and literary scholarship to offer an impassioned account of American history.
She reminds me of how Primo Levi, the Jewish Italian partisan and Holocaust survivor, once spoke about keeping his humanity alive by talking about the Italian poet Dante to his fellow prisoners in a concentration camp. “Literature becomes important because it is essentially hopeful, essentially democratic in structure. It connects us, rather than separating us from one another.”
I ask her if she has hope for the future. Ever the literature professor, she quotes the Czech playwright and political leader Vaclav Havel at me. “Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” She adds: “For the future of Iran and democracy, I have hope, but I am not optimistic.”
Turning finally to another Eastern European luminary, she has a more hopeful message still. “As [Bulgarian-French historian] Tzvetan Todorov said, ‘Only total oblivion calls for total despair.’ What the Sardari Project is doing is taking the despair away from us by giving us a memory; those who died in the Holocaust are retrieved through us, remembering them.”