Lessons Of History


Frankfurt, Germany: Amsterdam has long been a place of education and remembrance of Anne Frank. But in her hometown of Frankfurt, Germany, Frank’s life and death for years have been marked only with a plaque on one of her two former homes and an elementary school renamed in her honor. Annual ceremonies were held on her birthday from 1957 to 1970, but until now there has never been an ambitious permanent site dedicated to telling the story of one of the most famous and eloquent victims of the Holocaust.

That will change next week in Frankfurt when 19 young Germans begin leading tours and using Frank’s story to teach tolerance to groups of their peers at a new high-tech space installed in the Anne Frank Youth Center. It is the largest of three multimedia educational exhibitions developed in a partnership between the Anne Frank Center in Berlin and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Another was installed in Berlin, and the third will travel around Germany.

In Frankfurt, the exhibition takes on special significance because it is located in the neighborhood where the Frank family lived before fleeing to Amsterdam after the Nazis took power in 1933. The youth center is in a 1926 Bauhaus-style building in the leafy Dornbusch section, a 10-minute subway ride north of the downtown financial district.

It’s sobering to walk through this quiet neighborhood and imagine how comfortably Anne Frank could have grown up had Germany never fallen under Hitler’s spell.

The center believes that the story of Anne Frank offers a unique opportunity to foster intercultural exchanges among Frankfurt’s increasingly diverse youth. By using Frank’s story, the center already has a connection with teens. Her diary is commonly read in seventh or eighth grade.

"If you go into a class and ask who Anne Frank was, at least half know," says Susanne Wiegmann, director of the Anne Frank Youth Center since 1997.

Serious dialogue about exclusion and persecution is an increasing necessity as Germany struggles to adapt to a society pushed to change by immigration from around the world, including Russia, which has raised the Jewish population to more than 100,000, making it the world’s fastest growing.

"People in Germany want to treat actual right-wing extremism with history because they don’t want to talk about the present," Wiegmann says. "It’s easy to talk about the past, easy to say that it’s bad."

She hopes the exhibition can bridge the gap between Germans who are less sensitive to present-day discrimination and immigrants who are less sensitive to Germany’s past.

There are several major Holocaust memory sites in Frankfurt, including two Jewish history museums and at least two Holocaust memorials, but none are designed to accommodate intense two- to three-hour educational sessions that force students to become conscious of their own situations, choices and assumptions.

"We don’t want people to relate to Anne Frank," says Janina Hertel, the center’s organizer of education programs. "Most people who connect to Anne Frank can’t do tours for us. If they identify with Anne Frank, then it’s hard for them to get other people involved other than the view of the victim. We’re not trying to make people cry. We want them to think."

The youth center was established in 1994 and has run its educational programs using small, temporary exhibits. The new exhibit, which cost 1 million euros, was paid for largely by a federal government fund established to combat right-wing extremism. The grant program was set up in 2000 in response to an unsolved bombing in a Dusseldorf subway that injured nine people, mostly Soviet Jews. Afterward, debates raged over the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Frankfurt’s Jewish Museum has also recognized the importance of using new technologies to make history relevant to a new generation. On Nov. 9, the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the museum will open the new Oskar and Emilie Schindler Learning Center to reach out to German student groups, says Fritz Backhaus, a curator at the museum.

Located at the museum’s branch in the site of the former ghetto, the learning center will contain a small exhibition about the Schindlers (who moved to Frankfurt in 1957), interviews with Jews saved by Schindler, and a database of the biographies of the nearly 12,000 murdered Jews of Frankfurt.

The Anne Frank Youth Center is not a Jewish organization and thus does not focus only on Jewish issues.

"It has to deal with the bystander and perpetrator perspective. This makes a big difference," says Gottfried Koessler, head of education at the Fritz Bauer Institute, a Holocaust study and documentation center in Frankfurt.

The challenge is to make this message flexible enough to reach a diverse range of students in today’s multicultural Frankfurt fed from immigration from the former Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere. Immigrants, especially those experiencing discrimination in the present, are less likely to look to history, Wiegmann says.

"Lot’s of people don’t have the burden, they say ëdon’t make us feel guilty,’ " she says.

The exhibition fills a large, high-ceilinged room. At the center is a facsimile of Anne Frank’s famous diary, as well as a touch screen that summons image, text and projects video. The four walls are dedicated to different themes and narratives. The guiding questions are: "Who am I? What is happening to me? And what is important to me?" Hertel says.

One wall shows photos of the Frank family and Jewish life in Frankfurt. It contains the exhibition’s only original artifact, a stone from a Frankfurt synagogue destroyed during Kristallnacht. Videos of different Frankfurt teens telling their own family stories can be projected over 20 different photos of Anne Frank.

Another wall tells about the history of World War II and the rise of the Nazi party with radio reports, old newspaper copies and documentary film footage. A third wall, about hiding, displays information about the eight occupants of the Secret Annex in Amsterdam.

The fourth wall discusses the Holocaust, mostly organized as a series of questions such as "Were the Germans always anti-Semitic?" To hear the answer, students must press their ears up to a small listening hole.

Finally, visitors walk through a replica of the bookcase that concealed the secret passage to the Frank family hiding place. Here it leads to another room where visitors may read books from the library, listen to tapes or type their thoughts on a computer.

The exhibition took two years to develop. The content was designed by educational staffs at the Anne Frank House Amsterdam and the Fritz Bauer Institute. It is expected to remain in use for five to seven years before the technology becomes outdated and must be replaced.

To find its student guides, the center placed flyers in schools and ran articles in local newspapers. That attracted 45 applicants, of which 25 were selected. The May training session yielded 19 volunteers from ages 18 to 25, all from Frankfurt or nearby Darmstadt. A second training course begins in November. Representing a cross-section of today’s Frankfurt, only a few of the guides are Jewish.

The exhibition is primarily intended for use by groups of German students in the mornings, but tourists can visit Wednesdays through Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. Groups larger than 10 may call ahead and arrange tours of other local sites related to Anne Frank, such as the houses where she had lived and the gravesite of her grandfather.

In 1957, on what would have been Anne’s 28th birthday, the Frankfurter Youth Ring installed a large black metal plaque on the front of the Frank family’s final home in Germany, a large two-family building at 24 Ganghofer Street. The last line translates as "Her life and death are our obligation." It’s a message that some in Frankfurt continue to take to heart.