Anne Frank’s legacy is brought to life at Museum of Tolerance

Push past a set of double doors hidden in a corner on the second floor of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and suddenly the world of 1932 Frankfurt, Germany, comes clamoring to life. Street sounds clog a narrow passageway leading past a 3-D blueprint of the city, where paneled mirrors reflect passers-by as if they were literally walking the tenement-lined streets; this is Germany when it was just another country, when Frankfurt was innocent, still home to thousands of Jews and, most memorably, one in particular. 

At the end of a ramp, the scene gives way to a window-lined corridor where Frankfurt’s most famous resident — Annelies Marie Frank — greets you in colossus. Her youthful, happy image is blown out over a giant backlit wall that faces out toward the city of Los Angeles. The contours of her face emerge in shadowy form, not drawn or photographed but digitally etched through the careful arrangement of words from her diary. As she brightly faces the Hollywood Hills, she announces herself to the city: “This is a photograph of me as I wished I looked all the time — then I might still have a chance of getting to Hollywood …”

The exhibition culminates in this room, where brightly colored children’s clothing lines the walls, hinting at hope for the future, and visitors can use interactive tools and social media to write their own commitments to addressing the themes raised in the show. Photos by Benny Chan/Fotoworks

Had she survived the Holocaust, Anne Frank would be delighted to know that she will look exactly the way she liked to look — and look out, quite literally, at Hollywood — all the time. Or at least for the next 10 years, while the Museum of Tolerance hosts the most comprehensive Anne Frank exhibition seen outside of Amsterdam, where the iconic Anne Frank House continues to attract more than a million visitors each year. Last July, a small group of the Museum of Tolerance’s leadership, including dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier, museum director Liebe Geft and chief financial officer Susan Burden led the Journal on an exclusive preview tour of the upcoming exhibition, which opens in late October.

[Related: Idols and an icon: Barbra Streisand, Tom Cruise meet Anne Frank]

The show is a post-mortem fulfillment of one of Anne Frank’s great dreams: to visit Hollywood, to see the stars and maybe even become one herself. That the museum chose to concentrate on her “Hollywood” image is revealing, for it not only encapsulates the way Anne Frank wanted to see herself, but how the world most wants to see her: as a doe-eyed young girl, gleaming, glamorous, a literary lioness brimming with life, hope and exuberant dreams. 

Few want to see what Anne Frank actually became: Hitler’s hunted prey, last seen in Bergen-Belsen as a wretched corpse, wasted by deprivation and typhus, languishing alongside other Jewish corpses next to a latrine full of human excrement.

This is the paradox of Anne Frank’s legacy: Is she a buoyant symbol of life? Or a hapless victim of fate? Given such diametrical images, how should we remember her?

On Yom Kippur, a day in which we enact our own death in order to return to our lives with renewed purpose, Anne Frank reminds us of what it takes to live courageously, even in the most dreadful circumstances. If in a world of terrifying uncertainty she could live with dignity, with fire, fine-tuning herself until the very last minute, finding meaning in the direst of conditions, then surely we, too, can live better lives. Through the power of her enduring words, Anne Frank proves captivity cannot confine a soul.

“I want to go on living even after my death!” she wrote in 1944, four months before her family was betrayed.

Unlike most of the 6 million others who shared her fate, Anne Frank has had an unabated afterlife. Thanks to the popularity of her wartime diary, her life has been continuously discussed, dissected and resurrected. Today, nearly seven decades after her father, Otto Frank, decided to publish “The Diary of a Young Girl,” the story of Anne’s life in hiding has been translated into more than 70 languages and sold an estimated tens of millions of copies. It has also turned its author into a literary and historical icon. 

“Simply put, she may be the most famous child of the 20th century,” Indiana University Jewish Studies scholar Alvin Rosenfeld wrote. “It is no exaggeration to say that more people are probably familiar with the Nazi era through the figure of Anne Frank than through any other figure of the period with the possible exception of Adolf Hitler himself.”

For Holocaust scholars, Anne’s legacy presents extraordinary dilemmas. How could Adolf Hitler, a murderous tyrant, and Anne Frank, a 15-year-old Jewish girl, symbolize the same thing? 

One of the reasons the Museum of Tolerance has chosen to mount yet another exploration of the Holocaust’s most famous face is to serve as corrective. Because although Anne Frank’s diary is a powerful testimony of one Jewish family’s experience in hiding, as an educational document about the Holocaust, it falls terribly short. As anyone who has read “The Diary of a Young Girl” knows, the book ends just as the real horrors of the Holocaust begin for its heroine and her family. (This was seen as so problematic early on that later editions of the diary came to include an afterword with historical context.)

“You can read the diary,” explained museum director Geft, who also served as a curator of the exhibition, “but you do not learn anything about Auschwitz. You do not need to contemplate the miserable fate and tragic death of this beautiful child in Bergen-Belsen.”  

“The diary is an anticipatory step,” Rosenfeld said during an interview. “It takes [readers] by the hand and somewhat gently introduces them to what is to come, but never really arrives there.”

“It ends with a wonderful sense of optimism, that human beings are good at heart,” Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University, added. “To which I can respond — if human beings are good at heart, the Holocaust is surely no evidence of that.”

As Cynthia Ozick famously wrote in a 1997 New Yorker essay, “Because the end is missing, the story of Anne Frank … has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”

Disturbingly, the detail of Anne’s life that has been most often transmuted, traduced and reduced is her Jewishness. Scholars have even coined an easy term for this assault: de-Judaized. This dispiriting truth began with Otto Frank, who was aware that his daughter’s work would be important to the world, and justified tamping down and editing out its Judeo aspects in order to ensure the broadest possible reception in an anti-Semitic era. 

“This is not stressed enough,” Melissa Müller, author of the recently updated 1998 biography “Anne Frank,” said by phone from Munich. “Otto Frank was the one who after the war decided to universalize her destiny. It was not some public crowd — no stranger made such a thing out of Anne Frank. It was her father.”

Over the years, Anne and her diary have been so thoroughly universalized, romanticized and mythologized — she, the stand-in for 6 million, and it, a tale of human suffering and hope — millions upon millions of readers lack any sense of Anne’s life in its proper context. “The extension of Anne Frank into a metaphor for suffering in general, for inhumanity in general, for racism in general, all of that takes us away from the real life and fate, including, the real death of Anne Frank,” Rosenfeld said.

To read her diary only as a triumphant story of the spirit is to undermine the historical catastrophe that killed her. This show aims to change that. 

At a cost of $3 million, and created with the cooperation of the Anne Frank House and the Anne Frank Fonds (the entity that holds the rights to the diary), along with architect Mehrdad Yazdani of Cannon Design, the Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films and the media design firm Cortina Productions in Virginia, the Museum of Tolerance is seeking to resurrect Anne’s complete life story and reclaim the reason she became such a mythic martyr to begin with: Because she was a Jew.

Saturday, 11 July, 1942

Dear Kitty,

Daddy, Mummy, and Margot can’t get used to the sound of the Westertoren clock yet, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. I can. I loved it from the start, and especially in the night it’s like a faithful friend. I expect you will be interested to hear what it feels like to “disappear”; well, all I can say is that I don’t know myself yet. I don’t think I shall ever feel really at home in this house, but that does not mean that I loathe it here, it is more like being on vacation in a very peculiar boardinghouse.

This passage appears early in Anne’s diary, just as her beloved Westertoren clock appears early in the exhibition, marking the transition from Anne’s native Frankfurt to the city of Amsterdam, where the family moved in 1933. A floor-to-ceiling wall delineates the Frank family tree, tracing their lineage throughout Europe — Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland — and their eventual trajectory to the death camps — Westerbork, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen. A few steps farther on is a floating media station featuring a short interview with Anne’s cousin, Buddy Elias, her only living relative, who peppers the exposition of her early life with personal recollections from childhood. 

A digital etching of Anne Frank’s favorite portrait of herself blown out over a large backlit wall glows above Pico Boulevard and faces the Hollywood Hills with the following quote: “This is a photograph of me as I wished I looked all the time, then I might still have a chance of getting to Hollywood, but now I’m afraid I look quite different.”

Above and adjacent, black-and-white archival footage of street life in Amsterdam — just outside the building where the Franks lived — plays in loop, ending with the sole, celebrated video image of Anne herself, peeping out of her window and gazing longingly outward. The sights and sounds of her world are everywhere.

“For me, architecture always has a narrative,” architect and exhibition designer Yazdani told me later, after the walk-through. “The best thing that can happen with good architecture is that people engage. They walk away with their own interpretation. Sometimes it’s pleasant, sometimes not so pleasant, but they have an emotional reaction. Every exhibition that I was familiar with on Anne Frank’s story had a replica of her room, but we wanted to do something that was more visceral, transformative; that not only told the story in a factual manner, but transported you to become part of her story.” 

This one begins with descent. 

A double flight of stairs leads down past an image of a chestnut tree, the one Anne loved to look at from her attic window in hiding. It is a portent of what’s to come on the lower floor, where a wall woven of brightly colored clothes awaits. 

“Anne Frank was one of 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust,” Hier said when we reached the exhibit’s lower level, where the drama begins. “When they came to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, they were immediately stripped of their clothes,” he added, gesturing toward a wall made of metaphor and modern-day garments. “These are their clothes.” 

As far as the eye can see, the wall of clothes snakes through the installation, leading visitors deeper into Anne’s story. “In this exhibit, there are 17,528 articles of clothing,” Hier said. “If you do that 90 times, you’ll reach 1.5 million. In other words, it’ll take 90 such exhibits to equal 1,500,000 children.”  

“It does make the point that this is a story of many, not just one isolated incident,” Geft added, addressing the critique of Anne Frank’s metonymy over the 6 million victims of the Holocaust.  

In the airy, open space, Hier and Geft speak animatedly about Anne’s life before hiding. There are pictures of her in school, where she struggled to learn Dutch on top of her German; pen-pal letters she and her sister limned in English with a pair of sisters living in Danville, Iowa; and a scrapbook of poems her classmates shared with each other in which Anne transcribed the popular verse, “Pluck roses on earth and forget me not.” 

“These are the symbols of her story,” Geft said as we progressed through the galleries. “We’re telling her story in her own words.”

Anne’s voice and Anne’s words, as spoken by the Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld, animate and enliven throughout. Steinfeld’s voice is penetrating and bright even as it brings ominous news.

Dear Kitty… After May 1940 good times rapidly fled: first the war, then the capitulation, followed by the arrival of the Germans, which is when the sufferings of us Jews really began. Anti-Jewish decrees followed each other in quick succession … we could not do this, we were forbidden to do that…

The painful proof begins to envelop the visitor: A sign declares Jews forbidden from entering a movie theater, and a photograph shows a synagogue in the Amsterdam neighborhood of Merwedeplein, which later became a distribution center for Hitler’s scarlet-letter stars. There is dark irony in its Hebrew inscription, which translates: “And I shall dwell among the children of Israel and I shall not forsake my people.” 

In desperation, Otto Frank sent letters and telegrams to his college roommate, Nathan Strauss, the owner of Macy’s department store, pleading for assistance in obtaining visas for his family to immigrate to the United States. “I would not ask if conditions here would not force me to do all I can in time to be able to avoid worse. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance,” he wrote.

As the Frank family’s misfortunes begin to close in on them, making the prospect of hiding inevitable, so do the exhibition’s walls start to tighten the space. The once bright blues, pinks and yellows of the children’s clothing turn shades of gray.

Once the gallery turns to the Secret Annexe, the only color comes in the form of the red-and-white-checkered diary Anne received as a gift from her parents, on her 13th birthday. “I want to write,” Steinfeld’s voice speaks for hers, “but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie deep in my heart.”

There is ample evidence of her amusements. She collected film and fashion magazines, posting their photographs of movie stars and royal families on her bedroom wall. But there are also remnants of her quieter, hidden passions: a replica of a Dutch book she read about the history of the Jews, “Palestina op de tweesprong,” or “Palestine of the Crossroads,” and recollections of how the Franks celebrated holidays in hiding. “Anne writes in her diary that her mother, Edith, and her sister, Margot, were absolutely intent on going to Palestine as soon as they could,” Geft said, playfully adding that our heroine had different intentions: “Anne writes that she rather likes the finer things in life — you know, her creature comforts of Europe — and she wasn’t sure if [Palestine] would be a good fit for her. … But they were extremely conscious of their Jewish identity.”

According to record, Otto’s family was not religious but Anne’s mother, Edith, came from a deeply observant family, and an exact edition of one of her prayerbooks appears in the exhibition. 

“We’ve added whatever we thought was left out from other exhibits regarding Anne’s relationship to Judaism and to the Jewish people,” Hier said, citing the museum’s major criticism of previous Anne Frank tributes. “[Her Jewishness] is not even present in the Anne Frank house!”

But even as the museum seeks to bolster the depth of Anne’s Jewish experience, her rebellion against tradition is apparent. Her own characterizations depict her religious inclination as somewhere between tentative and exploratory: “Following Daddy’s good example, Mummy has pressed her prayer book into my hand,” she wrote in October 1942. “For decency’s sake, I read some of the prayers in German; they are certainly beautiful but they don’t convey much to me. Why does she force me to be pious, just to oblige her?” 

“Anne Frank was no saint,” Hier admitted, adding that the much-mythologized girl almost incessantly quarreled with the others in hiding, especially her mother. In her diary, Anne even portrays herself as a rascally know-it-all: “You needn’t think it’s easy to be the ‘badly brought-up’ central figure of a hypercritical family in hiding,” she tells us. And yet, the tendency to want to see her as a flawless figure of pure goodness, a prodigy child that never realized her exceptional genius remains. 

“Look, she had extraordinary talents as a writer,” biographer Mueller said. “But she was not what we call a ‘wunderkind’ — not at all. From what I learned from people who knew her, she had talents, but she was not a kind of Mozart.”

Anne was certainly the star of her own psychodrama, much of which is revealed as you reach the exhibition’s climax. Behind a bookcase that must be pried open is the “Secret Annexe,” a round room with wall-to-wall wide screens that envelop you in her space and her story. For 10 minutes, in a film produced by Cortina Productions, Anne narrates her experience of the war, in an abridged re-enactment of her diary conveyed by actors in silhouette. 

Dear Kitty, 

So much has happened. It is as if the whole world has turned upside down …

With the actors’ faces obscured, Anne sounds like any imperiled child. Her dreams sound like the dreams of any teenage girl …

I must have something besides a husband and children, something that I can devote myself to … 

And then, as if on cue, she discovers herself. She begins to intuit the truth of her peril and the depth of her faith.

I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and write, to express all that’s inside me … But … will I ever be able to write something great? 

Beneath all that teenage petulance lies the stirrings of a spiritual soul.

We have been pointedly reminded that we are in hiding, that we are Jews in chains, without any rights, but with a thousand duties … Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up till now? It is God that has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. 

Where Anne Frank truly astonishes — and where the exhibit most surprises — is in offering us the fruit of her Jewish DNA: a stunning, hopeful realism. For all those charges of youthful naiveté, for living in a time of horrors and still believing in a good world and good men, Anne reveals herself to be wiser than her critics. For all her distance from Jewish practice, Anne’s diary offers us Torah:

If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed will be held up as an example. Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all the peoples learn good, and for that reason and that reason only do we have to suffer now. Be brave! God has never deserted our people.

So even as you exit the Secret Annexe and enter the camps, where the wall of clothes has turned black as soot, and you’re brought to bear witness to her terrible fate, her words uplift. Even as four video screens tell of what happened next — that Anne and her family were betrayed, that they were arrested, transported to Westerbork, then Auschwitz, then torn apart. And that Anne finally died at Bergen-Belsen, though no one knows exactly when, but where one of the last eyewitness accounts of her is celebrating Chanukah with her sister, singing Yiddish songs.

Remembering her means remembering all of this: how she lived, who she was and how she died. And that we are permitted this memory because of her diary, because her words have reached across generations and endured. An exact replica of Anne’s diary is the last artifact glimpsed in the exhibition — encased and enthroned, dramatically lit.

“At the end of her story, there is this extraordinary find,” Geft said as we reached the end of the tour. “And we find it the way the world found it.”

Karl Silberbauer, the German police officer who arrested the Frank family had at first dumped Anne’s diary on the floor. Unwittingly, he emptied the contents of Otto Frank’s briefcase, where Anne kept it hidden, in order to fill the bag with loot. “He thought that this was nothing!” Hier said, both appalled by his carelessness and delighted by fate. Later, the Frank’s family friend Miep Gies returned to the Annexe and rescued the diary, safely storing it while the family was deported. And even after Otto survived the camps and went to live with her, it was months before she told him of Anne’s diary — he hadn’t yet given up hope that his wife and daughters were alive.

“The beauty of Anne Frank is that, in the simplicity and naturalness of her writing, we can all identify with her,” Geft said. 

“She’s everybody’s daughter, everybody’s sister,” Hier added. 

“We feel as though we know her,” Geft continued, “the issues that she raises, the feelings, the hopes, the fears that she expresses. And they are as relevant today as they were at the time she wrote them.

“But that’s not her legacy,” she added. “She wrote this against a backdrop of a world being torn asunder by evil and hate. Her ultimate legacy is to confront anti-Semitism, to stand up against injustice and to guard against discrimination and prejudice.” 

As he spoke, Hier reached into his jacket pocked and pulled out a small piece of paper. 

“I just saw this quote from John F. Kennedy, and I wrote it down,” he began. “ ‘Of all the multitudes who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank.’

“What she could have contributed to mankind! To write such things! It gives people an idea of what was lost in the Holocaust; because this was only one person.”

Anne Frank’s story is Anne Frank’s story, which is to say, entirely unique. But it is also a metaphor for the many, and to universalize her tale is not to dilute it, but to find within it the threads of our own history. 

“The truth of the matter is that you really need to focus on one story to personalize a tragedy of this magnitude,” Geft said. “We must focus on the particular, and when we are sensitized by our encounter with the particular, and our hearts and minds are engaged, we can then learn the lessons and apply them to the universal. This is what Anne Frank allows us to do.”

The poets wrote that the death of a child is most painful because it is the death of infinite possibilities. At a baby’s brit milah (bris), a vacant chair is placed near the circumcision to serve as Elijah’s seat, for which the Holocaust scholar Berenbaum offered this interpretation: “We have this tradition in the Jewish tradition, to sit a child down in Elijah’s seat. And what we’re saying is, any child can grow up to be the messiah.”

What if, for the Jews, the desire to see Anne Frank as more of a prophet than an ordinary person is not false idealization but an act of religious insistence? We should remember the dead with their infinite potential, even as we recall how they died. On the High Holy Days, one of God’s many names becomes zocher kol ha-niskachot — the One who remembers everything forgotten. God does not vacillate between legacies but remembers us in our fullness. 

True, Anne Frank was only one of 6 million, but in Judaism, one is a world. And although she is no longer in the world, she would want us to remember this:

“I know what I want,” she wrote. “I have a goal, an opinion, I have a religion and love. Let me be myself and then I am satisfied.” 

Today, when we face our own mortality, Anne Frank’s commitment to conscience, to understanding and preserving her own “still small voice,” is not just her legacy but her challenge to us all.

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