Anne Frank who? Museums combat ignorance about the Holocaust

Anne Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in May 1945 at 15.
Anne Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in May 1945 at 15.PHOTO: AFS/AFF, AMSTERDAM/BASEL

AMSTERDAM (NYTimes) - "She hid Jews?" Aleatha Hinds, 17, ventured a guess about Anne Frank's identity as she waited in line for two hours recently to enter the museum devoted to that world-famous diarist, who hid with her family in a secret annex for 25 months during World War II.

"No, no, no!" replied several friends, all 11th- and 12th-graders from the St. Charles College high school in Ontario. "She was Jewish!" they corrected her, in unison.

"She was hiding in her father's factory," said Eric LeBreton, 16. "The Nazis were looking for all the Jewish people because Hitler was trying to do genocide."

With attendance swelling to 1.3 million annually, from 1 million in 2010, the Anne Frank House has begun reckoning with a striking dimension of its popularity: Many of the younger and foreign visitors who flock here nonetheless have little knowledge of the Holocaust - and sometimes none about Frank. The museum and some others dedicated to Jewish life are seeking new ways to address a declining understanding of World War II and the genocide that took the lives of 6 million Jews in Europe, efforts that have increasing relevance as anti-Semitic incidents intensify across parts of Europe and the United States.

"We find that, with the war being further removed from all of us, but especially for young people and people from outside of Europe, our visitors don't always have sufficient prior knowledge of the Second World War to really grasp the meaning of Anne Frank and the people in hiding here," said the museum's managing director, Garance Reus-Deelder. "We want to make sure that Anne Frank isn't just an icon, but a portal into history."


Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said more than 500,000 students visit annually, but "attracting and sustaining their attention is an increasing challenge". The museum has increased its emphasis on personal stories and ideas - in addition to facts and events - in hopes of drawing in young people.

Technology was important, too, given its popularity with young people, "but it must be effective in generating engagement and learning", Bloomfield said.

"The effort to be relevant," she added, "can lead to the trivialisation of history."

For some experts, a worrisome trend is that museums focused on the Holocaust have shifted away from emphasising historical details and moved towards a "memorial culture", in the words of Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, a leading US scholar on World War II and the Holocaust.

"Most people of goodwill today would think, of course we should remember the Holocaust," said Snyder, the author of the new book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century. "But the level of historical knowledge among people about the Holocaust is not very high. Remembering becomes a kind of circle - where you're remembering to remember, but you don't remember what you're supposed to be remembering."

Museums that preserve and present the truth are also fighting revisionists and Holocaust deniers who are increasingly vocal on the internet, and who are confusing the public, at a time when firsthand accounts of the Holocaust are fading.

As the generation of survivors disappears, museums dealing with Holocaust-related issues are seeking a new narrative, said Emile Schrijver, general director of the Amsterdam Jewish Cultural Quarter, which includes the Jewish Museum and the new Dutch National Holocaust Museum. "The strength of a lot of the information that we provide has always come from the people who experienced it," he said.

At the same time, the US has seen a spike in attacks on Jewish cemeteries, Nazi swastikas sprayed on walls at schools and more than 150 bomb threats across the country at Jewish community centres, schools and synagogues, according to the Anti-Defamation League, whose offices have also been targeted.

In Europe, attacks on Jewish schools and a kosher grocery store in France are examples of a trend on the rise for a decade that has included anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, Britain and other countries. A European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights report from 2016 concluded that 76 per cent of Jewish people surveyed "believe that anti-Semitism has increased in the country where they live during the past five years". "What schools need, and what anyone who wants to learn about the topic needs, are institutions that provide information on a trustworthy level," Schrijver said.

Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, programme director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, which is devoted to the broad scope of Jewish history, including the Holocaust, said that a 2016 visitor survey found that people "want to know, or they want to know more about the Holocaust".

That museum plans to open an 18 million euro (about S$27.3 million) redesign of its permanent exhibition in 2019. It will begin with a better overview of the Nazi rise to power in Germany and give more attention to the "inner Jewish perspective" of German Jews trying to cope with National Socialism.

"I'd like to be a relevant institution that also takes a stand," she said.

Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, said that Frank's story "has been romanticized and distorted in many ways", and putting her life and writing in greater historical context was critical to educating young people.

"Anne's gift as a writer is remarkable, and through its simplicity and its naturalness, we find a connection to her as a young teenager whose questions and challenges are as relevant today as ever," Geft said. " If you contrast the normalcy of her literary content with the insanity of a world torn asunder by evil and hate, the legacy of her diaries and essays is an eternal lesson to confront anti-Semitism, to denounce hate and injustice, and to speak up against persecution."