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Discovering Anne Frank

Heike Mund / egMarch 3, 2015

Anne Frank's poignant diary is one of the most important books of the 20th century. Shocked by her story, the students visiting the Anne Frank Center in Berlin ask: "Why did Hitler hate the Jews?"

Anne Frank, Copyright: picture-alliance
Image: picture-alliance

Every day, masses of tourists walk through the Hackesche Höfe courtyards in the center of Berlin and discover its remarkable Art Nouveau design and exclusive shops. A few steps away, a non-descript sign points out the Anne Frank Center. With its graffiti-covered walls, this courtyard distinguishes itself completely from its upscale neighbors, crowded with dozens of parked bicycles and young people from all over the world.

30,000 international visitors

The class visiting the center today comes from the small municipality of Mühlenbecker Land, located at the outskirts of Berlin. Ms. Herold, the teacher, tries to grab the attention of her students. They're still giggling and chatting, busy with their smartphones.

An old, creaky staircase leads to the second floor of the rear building. As the students go through the door, they discover an airy showroom. Many photos cover the walls. The most important display case is predominantly placed right at the beginning of the exhibition: a faithful reproduction of Anne Frank's diary, with its red plaid fabric cover and its little golden lock. Anne received it on her 13th birthday.

The Anne Frank Center in Berlin is a space to exchange ideas rather than a museum, as 26-year-old Emre explains. He is one of the 20 young people, many of them university students, who volunteer to accompany school groups visiting the center. Most of the visitors are high school students with a specialization in history or German. Sometimes groups of children from elementary classes come to the center, too. The exhibition receives over 30,000 visitors from all over the world every year.

A class of eighth graders gathers in front of the Anne Frank Center in Berlin. Copyright: DW/Heike Mund
A class of eighth graders gathers in front of the Anne Frank Center in BerlinImage: DW/H. Mund

Questions lead to knowledge

Emre asks the group, "When you hear 'Anne Frank,' which words come spontaneously to your mind?" The students are asked to write down anything related to the person and the historical period. They scribble their ideas on index cards.

Emre patiently watches on the group as they brainstorm. He then observes: "All four groups wrote similar things. 'Diary' came up in three of the four groups. Two groups mentioned she was Jewish. And that she had to hide. The other two groups wrote that she was persecuted. Notice how the same ideas always come up."

Emre follows up by asking: "Do you have any questions, things you've always wondered about?" The students immediately write down their questions. "Why did Hitler hate the Jews?" asks one boy. "What would have happened to Anne, if she had survived the concentration camp?" another girl wants to know.

Volunteer Emre at the Anne Frank Center in Berlin. Copyright: DW/Heike Mund
Emre volunteers as a tour guide, accompanying students through the permanent exhibitionImage: DW/H. Mund

Emre answers their questions, while further introducing unknown aspects of the Nazi period. "Do you think there were other young people who wrote diaries during that time?" he asks. The teenagers all look surprised when he tells them how many young people held journals under Nazi oppression. "Anne was not the only one. Why did her diary become so famous?" No one knows the answer; everyone stops to think.

Anne Frank's life

The class then spreads out throughout the room with smaller tasks which require them to explore the exhibition, designed along a timeline going from 1933 to 1945. The left side shows the family's personal history, their everyday life in Frankfurt and their escape to Holland. The right side covers the political events which occurred during that same period, from the first persecutions of Jews in Nazi Germany to the horrors of concentration camps.

The students analyze the pictures together: Anne in a sandbox in 1937, Anne at the beach with her older sister Margot, Anne's class in a Montessori school, and then later pictures from the confines of her family's secret annex in Amsterdam. Among the photos are pages from her diary. "Not being able to go outside upsets me more than I can say, and I'm terrified our hiding place will be discovered and we'll be shot," she wrote on September 28, 1942.

The students are completely absorbed by the exhibition, no one is joking around anymore. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, a partner organization of the Berlin center, developed this timeline. There are now Anne Frank centers throughout the world: in London, Basel and New York. The story of Anne's life (1929 -1945) is of interest for people of all ages and her journal has been translated in over 60 languages.

Historical photo of Anne Frank in a sandbox with her friends, on display at the Anne Frank Center in Berlin. Copyright: DW/Heike Mund
Anne Frank in a sandbox with her friendsImage: Anne-Frank-Fond, Basel

Symbol of the Holocaust

"I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support," is the first thing she writes in her diary, on June 12, 1942. Her words vary between courage and despair, safekeeping her most secret wishes and thoughts. They still stir emotions today.

Anne did not survive, but her diary did. The young girl died of typhus shortly after her older sister in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp - just two weeks before the Allies would liberate it.

"You must imagine, she could not take a shower, she had no shoes. In the concentration camp, they had nothing to eat except rock-hard bread and watery soup." Everyone remains silent as Emre depicts the brutal conditions imposed on the Jewish children at the time. "She most certainly didn't want to die that way," whispers one of the girls to her friend.

A replica of Anne's room, where she hid for two years and wrote her diary, at the Anne Frank Center in Berlin. Copyright: DW/Heike Mund
A replica of Anne's room, where she hid for two years and wrote her diaryImage: DW/H. Mund

On the way to the exit, a pin board covered with small square pieces of paper grabs the attention. "All the respect for you, Anne" can be read on one of them. "Stop Wars. Anne Frank lives. We'll never forget her," wrote Miguel from Panama. "It's always easier to love than to hate," wrote a Polish girl. Anne Frank definitely remains a source of inspiration and courage.

"We're all alive, but we don't know why or what for; we're all searching for happiness; we're all leading lives which are different and yet the same," she wrote in her small, red, checkered book on July 6, 1944.