Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Anne Frank, USA

A while back I mentioned my interest in a book by Francine Prose about the history of Anne Frank's diary. The book which is aptly titled "Anne Frank - The Book, the Life, the Afterlife" - includes a recounting of Anne Frank's remarkable story, an exploration of how the diary became a worldwide best seller and then an award winning play and successful movie, and later gained popularity as one of the books most frequently assigned to students in school. Prose herself ends her book with a story of Bard college students who read the book with her and come to see themselves in new ways as a result. These students amaze Prose who identify with Anne's humanity, sympathy, and humor, and "are keenly aware of the gap between what Anne was forced to endure and the trivial setbacks that their contemporaries found nearly unendurable." Their discussions together help the students to see Anne as a fully developed and fascinating character who changes and grows so enormously in just two years. As the students read the end of Anne Frank's Diary together, a hush fell over the class, and Prose recalled thinking about Anne's wish expressed in the diary to go on living after her death and how, in a very real sense, this had come to pass in a thousand classrooms like this one across the land.

Well, it just so happens that on the 5th floor of a small street in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood, there is a museum dedicated to documenting the life of Anne Frank. It is located in a rather cramped and disheveled space, but given its limitations, it does a good job of bringing Anne Frank alive. The day we were there a young girl was working on her own diary inspired by Anne's, and one of the Franks' distant relatives spoke informally about what she knew of the family and the others who hid from the Nazis for 2 full years in Amsterdam. All of these people that the woman remembered perished in the Holocaust, save Anne's father Otto who would go on to make sure that Anne's diary got published.

Actually, I like the fact that Anne Frank, USA is such a small scale organization. It seems right that a monument to this girl's experiences and to preventing such terrible injustices in the future should not be a slick, well funded operation, but something that is struggling, just getting by, yet having an impact far greater than its modest appearance. One of the reasons we know this is the degree to which the foundation is working with schools to revitalize school curricula. The Bell Academy in Queens is just one place where students are studying the book and creating comic strips or graphic novels, like Maus and Persepolis, that capture their experience of reading the book or of the continuing problems associated with racism in the world. These students revere Anne Frank and have learned a great deal from her. They refer to her as brave and unselfish, and they have learned how lucky they are to be largely free of such oppression. Their work is literary, artistic, personal, moral, imaginative, exciting. And drawing connections between Anne Frank's life and their own efforts to eke out a life are giving school a powerful meaning that is surprising even them. To the extent that Anne Frank, USA can continue to have this kind of impact on the way these children see the world, it will continue to be well worth the effort and expense.

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