History in the Here and Now

Article by Ronald Leopold

‘What can history teach us?’ That is the key question Otto Frank focused on after the war. And it is also the focal point of the museum and educational mission of the Anne Frank House. Ronald Leopold, executive director of the Anne Frank House, explains.

The Anne Frank House aims to show what happened

In accordance with its mission, the Anne Frank House aims to show what happened during the Second World War and the Holocaust, and to offer insights into how this could have happened and what it means for us today.

Otto Frank recognised the importance of these insights, and spoke of ‘learning lessons from history’ rather than ‘learning history lessons’. Remembrance of history, reflecting on this history and responding to this history are the three steps through which the work of the Anne Frank House still proceeds.

A house rooted in the past and focused on the future

Even before the Anne Frank House organisation was founded in 1957, Otto Frank wanted the house where he had gone into hiding with his family to be preserved and opened to the public, as a warning from the past but focused on the future.

In 1976 Otto Frank wrote to the then executive director of the Anne Frank House that he did not only want visitors to the house to reflect on the suffering of the Holocaust, but also wanted to inspire them to actively combat prejudice and discrimination. This ideal is still expressed in the mission of the Anne Frank House.

‘We can no longer change what has happened. The only thing we can do is to learn from the past.’

Invitation to reflection

The Anne Frank House and the diary do not only remind us of Anne Frank and the history of her time, they also invite us to reflect on, raise our awareness of and give meaning to our own times. 

One of the key lessons from the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust is perhaps the insight that it was all the work of human beings: the exclusion, the persecution and deportation, and ultimately the murder of six million Jews. The emptiness of the house reflects this. Walking through the house, visitors see the reflection of what no longer is, of what was deliberately destroyed during the war. And they experience that this had to do with ‘people like you’, who were victims, perpetrators, helpers or bystanders.

So within the historical context, the Anne Frank House makes it clear where antisemitism, racism and discrimination in extreme forms can lead, even today.

Explaining the historical context

The challenge for the Anne Frank House lies in opening it to the public without detracting from the character of the house. Because many tourists come from countries outside of Europe, and a large proportion of the visitors are aged under 25, it is important to go deeper into the historical context and background of the life story of Anne Frank. We aim to do this without diminishing the experience and meaning of the emptiness of the house.

Awareness of patterns

The Anne Frank House also emphasises the link between present and past and between actions and consequences in its educational activities. Of course bullying in schools is not the same as discrimination, and discrimination is not the same as persecution. But in all three, comparable patterns in our thoughts and actions that lead to us discriminating against or excluding people or groups of people are at work.

These patterns are part of what makes us human; we sometimes even need to them to create order in the chaos of the reality around us. But under certain circumstances these patterns can also have terrible consequences. We invite young people to reflect on this fact, and to take a well-considered and powerful stance against antisemitism, racism and discrimination in their own lives.

Young people teaching young people

We want to encourage young people to take responsibility for the social environment in which they live. In this context we ask ourselves the question ‘who inspires, influences and truly reaches young people?’.

Our experience is that this is chiefly young people themselves, and so through peer education we also give them the opportunity to play an active role in carrying out our educational activities, in ways such as giving guided tours of Anne Frank exhibitions and participating in youth conferences and seminars. We don’t supply ready-made answers, but we do offer guidance.

Empathy instead of identification

This prominent position for young people is nothing new. In his role as an educator, Otto Frank too called on young people to ask themselves questions, and the starting point for this was and is the identification with Anne Frank that is felt around the world.

Although the life of a 15-year-old now and that of Anne Frank in 1944 are very different, they share the dream of equal rights for all, of an open and free society, of being able to be yourself. It is in these ideals that Anne Frank, Martin Luther King, a teenage girl from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and an adolescent in Amsterdam West find each other.

Different times, same mission

Today the Anne Frank House organisation has a much greater reach among young people than Otto Frank could ever have imagined. More people than ever come to the museum. What’s more, we also reach millions of people every year through our international and online activities.

But despite this enormous expansion, the core of our mission has remained the same: on the one hand to preserve and open to the public the place where Anne Frank went into hiding and wrote her diary during the Second World War, and on the other to develop educational programmes and materials that inspire and connect with the experiences of young people all over the world.