The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project in Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies held its launch event last Thursday in the Riemer-Goldstein Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston. Titled “A Latin American Pen, A Global Memory: Imagining Anne Frank Today,” the event highlighted the ongoing relevance of Anne Frank in Latin America. 

Co-sponsored by JCC Greater Boston, Facing History & Ourselves, Hadassah Boston, Jewish Women’s Archive, Gann Academy and Temple Beth Zion, the event featured a dramatic reading from “Anne: An Imagining of the Life of Anne Frank.” The book is written by Dr. Marjorie Agosín, an award-winning poet, human rights activist and Professor of Latin American Literature at Wellesley College, and illustrated by Francisca Yáñez, a Chilean illustrator, graphic designer and visual artist who focuses on culture, childhood and human rights.

Fiona Epstein, vice president of Special Projects at the JCC Greater Boston, opened the event by explaining that this LAJGS event “completely aligns” with the JCC “Jonathan Samen Hot Buttons, Cool Conversations” discussion series, which produces programs that “not only entertain, but also offer an opportunity to consider issues of Jewish identity, culture, spirituality and meaning.” She described the launch of LAJGS on stage as a “Shehechiyanu” moment, a Jewish blessing to commemorate special occasions.

Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe (PHIL, WGS), the Shulamit Reinharz director of HBI, spoke next, explaining how LAJGS began as the brainchild of Prof. Dalia Wassner and was designed to support the HBI’s mission by creating a home for scholarship about Jewish and gender issues in Latin America. She then reflected on the unfortunate timing of the event’s topic of discussion, referencing the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. She said that she believes the book reveals the struggle parents and teachers feel when trying to explain such tragedies to their children, and she expressed hope that Agosín’s novel can offer guidance and insight into the dilemma.

Wassner spoke next, describing how she created and came to lead LAJGS. She also “writes on feminist cultural connections between Jews and other minorities involved in Latin American processes of national democratization,” and teaches courses on this subject. She said, “My vision for LAJGS is that it serve as a platform for innovative scholarship, that it creates complex and timely cultural events and importantly, I aim for Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies to function as a dynamic bridge between the academy and the community. And here we are.” 

Wassner then turned to discuss what she sees as the ongoing relevance of Anne Frank in Latin America in light of the region’s struggles with authoritarian regimes and human rights abuses. Referencing the Argentinian dictatorship of 1976–1983, she asked, “How has the collective history of post-Holocaust Jews informed Latin American countries’ struggles with democracy –– with inclusivity?” She answered by looking to Agosín and Yáñez’s book, which she described as “a poignant work of art and literature that … re-imagines Anne’s diary as an illustrated testament to society’s willingness to strip human rights from human beings.” She explained that in Latin America, “Anne has become a symbol of testimony against authoritarianism” whose name “invokes the power of the individual to resist systemic violence.”

The event then turned to the dramatic reading of the novel, which, as Wassner put it, re-imagines the life of Anne Frank “in Marjorie’s pen and Francisca’s brush.” Jan Zimmerman, a performer, teacher and music director, filled the auditorium with a soft piano score. Starting — and ending — with a traditional Latin music piece called Ausencias (Spanish for “absence”) by Astor Piazzolla, she weaved in Yiddish folk tunes sung in the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps and classical works from German Jewish composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt.

While her music played, Dr. Nisha Sajnani, director of the Drama Therapy Program at New York University, read passages from the novel. A set designed by Wassner and Sajnani, as well as projected artwork by Yáñez and Sandra Mayo, an Argentine printmaker and mixed media artist with a focus on social trauma and human rights violations, added new dimensions to Agosín’s novel.

“I was born in Frankfurt in 1929. My family had lived in Germany for more than 200 years but suddenly we became strangers,” Sajnani read from the novel, speaking in first person as Anne. She described the cruel treatment imposed on her family and friends, how “they didn’t allow us to eat ice cream in the streets,” and “we could no longer go outside after eight o’clock, not even in the garden,” so they were forced to view everything “from behind a closed window.”

“Papa told me how they forced the neighbors to go down on their knees and clean the streets,” she continued. “The Nazis discussed what to do with the [she faltered] ‘Jewish problem.’ We’re not a problem, we’re just people, like them.”

The story went on, as Sajnani read aloud Anne’s thoughts, experiences, hopes and dreams. She loved going to school, learning everything from poetry and music to history and the sciences. But when asked about her life in Germany, she would only tell them “beautiful things, like the walks through the woods,” wishing to forget much of what she experienced. 

Sajnani also read from passages that described how the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands affected those around Anne. For example, Anne felt that her mother was slipping into silence with each passing day. “The truth is I never know what she’s thinking. Or perhaps she doesn’t think, and allows herself to be carried away by the melody of the days,” Sajnani recited, adding, “her silence is like a thread tied to her lips.”

A panel discussion with Agosín, Yáñez, Sajnani, Mayo and Zimmerman followed the reading. Wassner moderated the conversation, delving into the panelists’ motivations and opinions on the relevance of Anne Frank story today. Agosín reflected how, “like every young girl,” she identified with Anne when she read the diary. In many ways, she sees Anne as a universal figure that “represents all of us,” lamenting how “like so many vulnerable minorities,” Anne “was a young girl that had to conceal who she was,” while admiring how she continued to express hope and passion in spite of her suffering.

A reception and book signing concluded the evening, giving audience members a chance to mingle with the panelists.