When I open the front door of Westermarkt 20, I face teenagers and young adults in all shapes and sizes; motivated, uninterested, tired, or curious young people from all over the world, from different educational backgrounds, and with different language skills, experiences, and perspectives.
Today, a group of 15-year-old German students is waiting at the group entrance. They come from a small provincial town near Lüneburger Heath. This is the area where the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was located, and where Anne and Margot Frank died in early 1945.
Fortunately, the day is still young, and the students seem fairly lively. School groups that come around in the afternoon, after a visit to the Rijksmuseum or a morning of shopping, form a bigger challenge.
After a short introduction, the workshop starts in one of our education rooms. This is where I come in: the next hour I will be facing a group of young people, who sometimes have very different things on their minds. The first question I ask is always the same: ‘What is it you already know about this part of history?’ Blank stares and hunched backs, except for a few: ‘The persecution of the Jews by the Nazis.’ There's interaction, and the group relaxes.
In top form
The job requires pedagogical-didactical qualities as well as physical fitness. Several times a day, I take the stairs up and down, from the entrance hall and the education rooms to the museum and back. And I do a lot of standing around and walking in between, to keep the groups motivated and involved. The job also requires a top mental condition and the ability to switch quickly between English, German, and Dutch.
Compulsory school visits
Many young people visit the Anne Frank House. It is often a compulsory visit in secondary education, part of a school trip on the theme of war and peace in primary education, or takes place in the context of professional development for students taking vocational training. The Group Receptions department, as the name suggests, welcomes these groups and presents an educational programme before their tour of the Anne Frank House itself.
Information and food for thought
Although we mail people in advance to request information about the visiting group, we often don’t have much to go on. We often hear: ‘When did the Frank family move into Prinsengracht 263?’ And we get other questions, such as: ‘Why couldn’t the Jews pretend to be non-Jews?’ or ‘Why did the Frank family decide to move to the Netherlands instead of Switzerland?’ In all, the work never gets boring.
It is my job to ensure that students leave the Anne Frank House with a different perspective from how they came in. With more historical baggage and food for thought. I start with the story of Anne and her family, and have it represent the stories of millions of other – largely unknown – Jewish (and non-Jewish) victims of Nazi Germany. This helps young people become aware of the mechanisms of prejudice, exclusion, and discrimination. After all, parts of this history still echo in today's news items: racist chanting, closing borders, discussions about 'fortune seekers', or discrimination in the labour market.
The strength of the Anne Frank House
There are various educational activities I can use in my talks. By describing the average day of a Jewish person during WWII, the young visitors experience the impact of the anti-Jewish measures on 'their' lives. Thinking about the roles of the bystander, collaborator, resistance, perpetrator, victim, or responsibility for the actions and orders carried out, sometimes gives them new insights. Not everything is unambiguous or just black and white.
The students are introduced to the book In Memoriam, which contains the names of the 102,000 Jewish victims from the Netherlands. It provides some context and fleshes out the story of Anne and her (inner) world during the Nazi period.
The strength of the Anne Frank House speaks for itself: a historical place with rooms, people in hiding, and events that come to life through Anne's diary.
Touring the museum with audio guides
After the educational workshop, I bring the group to the entrance of the House itself, which they will tour with audio guides. They have to shut down their cell phones and leave large backpacks at the cloakroom. We want to keep the authentic wallpaper and the pictures that Anne cut out from magazines and pasted on the walls intact.
And the German students, how did they fare? Hopefully, they now have a better idea of what life was like when the anti-Jewish measures were in place: inhumane and curtailed.
They have gained a valuable experience. My work is done.
More info on special programs for groups: