On Thursday, the day after her Amsterdam concert, Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z visited the Anne Frank House. The pop superstar subsequently posted this photograph to her Instagram account, which has 10.8 million followers.
The museum is located in a beautiful house overlooking one of Amsterdam’s many photogenic canals. It is, in fact, the house in whose attic the van Pels and Frank families hid for two years before somebody ratted on them and they were arrested in August 1944. In early 1945, Frank died at the age of 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, probably of disease, after a tenure in Auschwitz. Hers was far from the only attic in which European Jews hid during World War Two. Rather, the reason so many people know Anne Frank’s name today is that her father, Otto, posthumously published her diary, which covers most of her time in the hiding space and, in addition to being the basis for a popular play and movie, is an astonishingly well-written document of an extraordinary situation, illuminating not only on the subject of trying to save oneself from a genocide but on the subject of being an adolescent girl.
This picture is more striking. Beyoncé, who is precisely nobody’s idea of a shrinking violet, is oddly self-effacing in her huddled crouch. (In how many photographs would she permit more images of somebody else than of herself?) Visiting the museum, and particularly the attic itself, is a humbling experience, if only because you cannot believe how small the space is. According to my own memory, one feels dazed afterward. The claustrophobia carries over to her pose.
The Anne Frank House's last brush with pop fame came when Justin Bieber visited a year ago and wrote in the guest book, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.” Outrage ensued. This was justified, if eliding the fact that Frank—a generally typical, if extremely gifted, teenage girl—may well have been a “belieber.” And one can imagine a similar response to this picture. It is bewildering, even disturbing, to see Beyoncé putting on a sad-face because the topic, for an hour, was the Holocaust.
It also may be an honest depiction of what she is feeling. She may have received ample education about the destruction of European Jewry during her childhood. But if she is only learning of its scope now, as an adult, that would not make her the first; it wouldn’t even make her the first if she had been introduced to it through Anne Frank. Famously, Jeff Mangum, the frontman of the revered indie band Neutral Milk Hotel, whose seminal album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was inspired by Anne Frank, read the diary for the first time as an adult and was blown away. One wonders if Beyoncé, who was once a teenage girl and has a daughter who will one day be a teenage girl, didn’t feel the same way during her hour at the museum.
Those of us who grew up with knowledge of the Holocaust might be inured to it. For us, moments like this one are valuable: As we scrolled through our Instagram feeds, past selfies and cat pictures, we were jarred to come across the world’s most famous pop star mugging with the iconic black-haired murdered Jewish girl. The Holocaust is jarring, and it serves us well to be jarred anew by it every so often. This picture allows us to recover our sense of wonder at its enormity and awfulness. Good for Beyoncé for putting us in that place.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the museum. It's called the Anne Frank House.