Harvard Lampoon apologizes for ‘sexualizing Anne Frank’ with bikini cartoon

"Holocaust jokes? Never okay. Sexualizing a young girl's body? Never okay."

A series of identity photos taken in 1942 shows Anne Frank.
A series of identity photos taken in 1942 shows Anne Frank. –AFP PHOTO / ANP / DESKDESK / AFP / Getty Images

Each day seems to offer new lessons for Washington in how perilous it can be to invoke the Holocaust.

The lesson learned on Tuesday by members of the Harvard Lampoon, the vaunted satirical magazine founded in 1876, was a bit different.

Best not to photoshop the head of Anne Frank, the German-born Jewish diarist who perished in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, onto a shapely, bikini-clad body, the student humorists realized. Best, also, not to circulate the image and flippantly call it an addition to “your list of reasons the Holocaust sucked.”

The undergraduate publication, which has launched staff from the Ivy League campus to the writing rooms of comedy shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” came under fire this week for the crack that appeared in an issue distributed over the weekend.

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The doctored image ran below the headline, “Gone Before Her Time: Virtual Aging Technology Shows Us What Anne Frank Would Have Looked Like if She Hadn’t Died.”

Students on Sunday began circulating a petition demanding that the magazine be held accountable, the Harvard Crimson reported. And Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, executive director of Harvard Hillel, a hub of Jewish life on campus, wrote in an email to Lampoon editors that the image recalled Nazi propaganda.

“It is an image one can imagine Julius Streicher, publisher of Der Stürmer, producing and celebrating,” Steinberg wrote. What the students had depicted was “the sexual violation of a child – one who, in life, was subjected to the most hideous of crimes.”

Among the students who took offense was a Harvard sophomore who posted the cartoon on Facebook. When the image ran afoul of the site’s community standards and was removed, the student, Jenny Baker, turned instead to a Google Doc. She included an image of the page in question and enumerated her objections.

“Holocaust jokes? Never okay,” she began. “Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Never okay,” she continued.

“Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? So unbelievably not okay,” she emphasized.

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Baker delivered a recommendation to the staff of the Lampoon: “try to find other ways to be funny rather than sexualizing and trivializing the murder of a young girl and an entire population of people.”

She concluded, “This is trash.”

The backlash reached beyond campus. Robert Trestan, the director of Anti-Defamation League’s Boston office, tied the “outrageous, insensitive, sexualized” image to a rising tide of anti-Semitism, saying the student-run organization had crossed a line between humor and bigotry. He called for an apology.

The Lampoon provided one on Tuesday evening.

“We realize the extent of offense we have inflicted and understand that we must take responsibility for our actions,” the magazine’s leaders wrote in a statement posted online. Pledging to revise their editorial review process, they underscored that the Lampoon “condemns any and all forms of anti-Semitism.”

The magazine, known for high jinks at its turreted headquarters blocks from Harvard Square, boasts a roster of distinguished alumni, including late-night host Conan O’Brien and novelist John Updike. The Lampoon has embraced honorary members as disparate as Winston Churchill and Kesha.

It has not shied away from the national spotlight. In 2015, Lampoon members, posing as the staff of the Crimson, convinced then-candidate Donald Trump that he had earned the endorsement of the undergraduate newspaper. They smiled for a photograph with the real estate tycoon, who flashed a thumbs-up sign.

Cartoon imagery invoking Jewish history and identity has proven especially fraught in recent weeks. The New York Times apologized last month for a caricature of Trump blindly following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rendered as a guide dog with a Star of David hanging from his collar.

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Concerns about corrosive imagery come as the Anti-Defamation League documents “near-historic levels of anti-Semitism.” The organization recorded a total of 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions last year in the United States, making 2018 the third-highest year on record, according to an audit released in April. In Germany, anti-Semitic episodes rose nearly 20 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to figures released Tuesday by the Interior Ministry.

Survey data suggests that anti-Semitic incidents are increasing as understanding of the Holocaust diminishes, testing the rallying cry, “never forget.” Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, are unable to say what Auschwitz was, according to a 2018 survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Fifty-two percent of Americans believe Adolf Hitler came to power by force when, in fact, he was elected in 1933.

Frank’s diary, published posthumously in Dutch in 1947 and translated into English in 1952, has been an enduring source of global Holocaust education. “The Diary of a Young Girl” delivers stark moral truths, such as, “What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.”

The diarist also wrote of the respect owed to her gender, asking, “Generally speaking, men are held in great esteem in all parts of the world, so why shouldn’t women have their share?”

And before she died at the age of 15, she declared her own worth as a young person.

“Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want,” she affirmed. “I know who is right and who is wrong, I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.”