America has always been a nation of immigrants, even the “Native Americans” likely came over on the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska where the Bering Strait is now (and Sarah Palin could see ‘em coming over but she was hamstrung by gosh-darn government from standing her ground). Ever since colonists were living it up in Virginia and burning witches in Massachusetts, each successive wave of immigrants has been looked upon with a mixture of fear and opportunistic theft. And that’s not to mention the African slaves brought over here against their will. Yes, America is less a melting pot and more a crazy quilt, and that’s a good thing.
But our politicians tend to forget that, or to ignore it and buy into the myth of what “being an American” means, because it’s good for stirring up crowds and triggering massive waves of anger as well as favorable poll numbers for the sort of attention-whores who will be more than happy to tell you at every turn how they’re doing in said polls. Anti-immigration fever isn’t new, but it is the driving fuel behind much of the 2016 presidential race. Maybe we should pay more attention to who’s coming over, but not for the reasons that many of our so-called leaders would want us to.
Anne Frank’s story is well-known even to those of us who’ve never read her diary, published posthumously after she and much of her family fell victim to the Nazi gas chambers. The story was dramatized in film and has become a stage play, and in each telling we see a young girl who should’ve been able to come to our shores (“give us your poor, your tired, your hungry” and your oppressed) but who got no further than an attic in Holland (her family trying to flee Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies when they left their native Germany sometime in the Thirties). There, she and her family lived as best they could under the circumstances in Nazi-occupied Europe, until one day they were betrayed and shipped off to the death camps. Anne succumbed to illness in 1945, right as the Allies were months away from liberating Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. One wonders how many other Anne Franks, young girls unable to escape the racial and ethnic terror of Hitler and his henchmen, perished without their names becoming emblazoned upon their times. But Anne’s story still survives (thanks to the efforts of her father Otto, the sole survivor of the attic group), and it is the inspiration for an album and a song that have made my life richer.
Pop-culture writer Ryan Britt has a great line about how bands that were underground when you were a kid are always the ones you claim to have liked at the time, even though you’re more likely to rock out to whatever’s on the radio and popular. Neutral Milk Hotel released “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” in 1998, when by all rights I should’ve been in the target audience for it: only a few months removed from my eighteenth birthday and in the perfect demographic for American alternative rock. What I was *really* into at the time, if I’m being honest, was whatever was on the radio; I roomed that spring semester with a guy who lived British alternative rock of the Eighties, however, and soon I was jamming to the Smiths and Joy Division. But I didn’t even know about NMH until almost nine years later, when I saw the album at a record store, was intrigued by the cover art and lack of any song listings, and took it home. And right there, almost midway through the album, was “Holland, 1945,” which starts with an acoustic strum before unleashing Hell upon my speakers. The album is believed to be about Anne Frank, and I’m inclined to think that the lyrics at the top of this song are specifically about her, but it doesn’t matter.
We look for meaning sometimes at our own risk, reading too much or not enough into various works of art. And so I’m going to do some over-reading of “Holland, 1945,” because if it is about Anne Frank, it’s about the end of one life (the one that the Franks enjoyed in Holland before the war) and the beginning of a new one (their hideaway from the SS). It is the story of a family who might have had a chance to immigrate to our shores, if not for the restrictive policies put in place by hate-filled politicians who didn’t see Jews as humans (much the same way that some today don’t see Syrian refugees as humans). We fear what we do not understand, and we don’t understand sometimes why people want to come to our country (in so much as it is “our” country and not some fantasy-America they’ve constructed in their minds, much as we construct a fantasy-America that has always been kind to black and brown, yellow and red, gay and transgender). But we understand that their names are hard to pronounce, their faith is not like ours, and we seize upon any excuse to keep them out. We lose a bit of ourselves when we do, however, and “Holland, 1945” shouldn’t be about Anne Frank dying in Germany before she can be liberated. But it is, and we can’t look away when someone like her looks to us for security. Well, we shouldn’t, but more often than not, we do. That’s the real America, for better and worse.