April 15, 2013
Justin Bieber Justin Bieber in Las Vegas last year (Isaac Brekken/Invision/AP)

I like what Justin Bieber said about Anne Frank. I like that he visited her house in Amsterdam in the first place, apparently knowing something about her, which is more than can be said for some of his fans. (They tweeted their ignorance.) And I especially like that he wrote in the guest book that Frank would have been his fan. “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber,” he wrote. Exactly right.

Bieber has been excoriated for making what has universally been considered a narcissistic gaffe. But it was nothing of the sort. Maybe out of ignorance or maybe out of innocence but surely out of insight, he treated Anne as the 14-year-old girl that she was. Her room, until she and her family went into hiding, was plastered with photos of celebrities. She was not a saint and not angelic but rather a teenager trying to come to grips with her blossoming sexuality, among other things. She would have screamed for Bieber.

Soon after her remarkable diary was published in 1952, Anne became an icon. The diary became a play and the play became a movie and Anne, in death, became an angel. She died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp of typhus — not some quick, angelic death but a slow rotting of the body. She suffered. She died in March of 1945, not that long before the camps were liberated and Nazi Germany was defeated. Another month, maybe … Another piece of bread … Another barracks…

There is an abstraction, a distance, to the famous number Six Million, the approximate number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. It’s an astronomical figure, a light-year of victims, something out of a planetarium lecture. No single person dies. No mother, no father, no daughter. Even when we know a name — Anne Frank, for instance — we make her ethereal, a lesson in positive thinking and family love. But I knew someone who knew Anne Frank. They were girlhood friends in Amsterdam, and they both wound up in Auschwitz. She mentioned Frank now and again — not the Frank of bravery or stoicism but just a girl skipping rope or something. The Nazis killed a kid.

So thank you, Justin Bieber. Only 19 himself, he recognized a commonality. He’s a kid. Anne Frank’s a kid. She undoubtedly would have been his fan. And now I am his.

Read more on this issue:
Alexandra Petri: This is even worse than you think.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.
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