An exhibit about the life of Anne Frank has been traveling the world for decades.1 Anne Frank was a Jewish girl in hiding from the Nazis in The Netherlands during the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of the Jewish people of Europe during WWII. The diary she kept while in hiding from 1942 to 1944 is an exemplar testimonial of the Jewish experience of persecution.
Exhibits are primarily composed of displays hosted by local groups who secure a venue and staff. A tour of the Exhibit is designed to be about an hour long with a docent serving as a guide. The tour begins with a short film about Anne Frank’s life. When the film ends, the docent is introduced to lead the walking portion of the Exhibit. Docents are local volunteers, many of them Holocaust survivors donating their time. As they share Anne Frank’s story, they share their own stories throughout the tour, enriching the experience.
A local museum was hosting the Anne Frank Exhibit. The front of the building was a wall of darkly shaded windows and doors. The tinted view showed the grass and trees beyond, without the glare of the Southern California sunshine that might damage any artwork inside.
The Exhibit Manager stood next to the front desk beside the Docent. The Docent was a Holocaust Survivor, standing tall, strong, and solid. He was in his late 60s, with greying-brown hair receding in the front and round cheeks. They stood together quietly observing the next scheduled tour group approaching the museum through the shadowed doors. Two men, one of them armed, accompanied a small group of teen boys exiting a school bus painted white. Their attire quickly revealed this was not the museum’s usual high school field trip.
The boys wore dark blue, short-sleeved jumpsuits with no pockets. White T-shirts peeked out of their open collars. They wore blue slip-on sneakers and white socks. Wristbands identified them personally, while the black letters on the back of their jumpsuits identified them collectively, announcing them as: “JUVENILE.” These adolescents, teetering on manhood, were youth offenders incarcerated in the County Juvenile Detention Center.
The Exhibit Manager and Docent greeted the Teacher and Guard who chaperoned the group. They welcomed the group to the Exhibit. The Guard counted each boy before they were guided to the screening room and seated. The Guard stayed with them as they watched the film about Anne Frank.
The other adults stepped out of the room. The Teacher explained that the boys were enrolled in the GED program located within the County Juvenile Detention Center. As the Exhibit was local for a limited time, this uncommon field trip was added to the Social Science curriculum for Grades 10-12. The Teacher planned to follow the tour while the Guard took his lunch break. They returned to the screening room to watch the rest of the film with the group.
When the film ended, the Teacher gathered his students and reminded them to show respect to the Docent and the Exhibit with good behavior. The boys remained quiet as they followed the Docent to the beginning of the Exhibit. Tall, panel displays featuring text and images were set up like a small maze to follow the stories they told. Text and historical photos told the parallel stories of Anne Frank’s life and Hitler’s rise to power. Some of the boys looked up at the first panel.
The Docent began talking, suddenly animated and full of energy. He introduced himself as Samuel. They could call him Sam.
“I am a Holocaust survivor,” he said.
The boys turned their eyes to him, some eyebrows raised at Sam’s declaration. He continued.
“Today I’m going to tell you about Anne Frank’s life. I will tell you about the Nazi’s rise to power. And I will tell you my story, too. Do you have any questions before we begin?”
The boys looked at one another, still silent. Sam nodded. He encouraged them to raise their hands if they had any questions. The Teacher reminded them to participate. Sam began the tour.
“Anne Frank was born in Germany in 1929, shortly before the Nazis came to power. I was born in The Netherlands in 1927.” His English was perfect, spoken with a slight Dutch accent.
Sam led them slowly from panel to panel, introducing Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. He had everyone’s attention, with the exception of one youth in the back of the group who already appeared bored. His eyes began to wander away from images depicting the boycott of Jewish businesses, book burnings, and propaganda. Sam noticed him but continued.
“Like many German Jews, Anne Frank’s family emigrated to The Netherlands from Germany, hoping for safety. The Franks moved to Amsterdam, where I lived.”
The next panels explained the increasing isolation and persecution of the Jews in Germany: The Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935, Kristallnacht in 1938, and on September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. Then, World War II began. Within months, Jews had to start wearing a Yellow Star attached to their clothes. It had to be visible at all times to identify them as Jewish.
“In 1941, the Nazis invaded The Netherlands,” Sam said. “Things changed quickly for the Jews. We had to wear the Yellow Star on our clothes. Kids had to go to Jewish schools. Jews could no longer own businesses.
“Anne’s father, Otto Frank, put his business in the name of a non-Jewish employee. He began creating a hiding place for his family in a Secret Annex attached to the back of his company’s building.” Sam paused.
“My father lost his printing business. Then my oldest brother, Isaak, was arrested and disappeared. We moved to the countryside to live with my uncle, my father’s brother. My uncle was married to a non-Jewish Dutch woman.”
The boys looked shocked, shared glances with each other, then looked back at Sam. He nodded at them, acknowledging that the boys were paying attention. They still had no questions. Sam led the tour into January 1942, when the Nazis planned to systematically murder all European Jews.
“The Nazis built a vast network of concentrations camps. Mass deportations of Jews to the camps began. Many were killed in gas chambers shortly after arrival. Others were sent to labor camps to be worked to death.”
Sam returned to Anne’s story, sharing that her sister, Margot, received a call-up notice to report for work. The Frank family went into hiding the next day. They were joined in the Secret Annex by four other Jews. Four of Mr. Frank’s employees risked their own lives to help them hide. Tens of thousands of Jews went into hiding across The Netherlands.
“The Secret Annex was unique compared to most hiding places. Their employees brought them food, books, and basic necessities. Everyone had to be quiet all day so the workers in the warehouse below wouldn’t hear them. The days in hiding were long.
“Anne passed much of her time in hiding by writing in her diary. During her two years in hiding, Anne wrote about everything. She wrote of the war, the Jews, the state of the world, herself, the future and her dreams. Anne wanted to be a writer. She wanted to publish her Diary after the war.”
Sam saw the same bored-looking kid standing at the back of the group. The Boy fidgeted a bit, moving from one foot to the other. Sam spoke louder.
“My brother Aron and I helped our father and uncle build a hiding place for us under the farmhouse. It was small and we couldn’t stand up all the way, but it fit all five of us under the house. My aunt and her brother ran the farm and helped us. We hid for seven months before we were discovered and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943.”
Several of the boys wore looks of concern. Sam nodded.
“Someone betrayed Anne Frank’s family. Their hiding location was revealed to the authorities and on August 4, 1944, the eight people hiding in the Secret Annex were arrested. When they raided the Secret Annex for valuables, they left Anne’s diary on the floor. One of Mr. Frank’s employees rescued the diary, saving it. She planned to return it to Anne after the war.”
The next panels showed images of concentration camps that captured the groups attention. A few boys asked which camps were shown in the images. Sam answered each question patiently, then pointed to a picture of Auschwitz.
“The Frank family was deported to Auschwitz,” Sam told them. “Mr. Frank was separated from his wife and daughters. His wife was killed there, while Anne and her sister Margot were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They became very sick with typhus. The Frank sisters died about a month before the camp was liberated in April 1945. Anne was fifteen years old.
“By the time the Frank family got to Auschwitz, my brother and I had already been through the main camp. We were transported to another camp to work. Many German companies took advantage of the persecution of the Jews by building factories near concentration camps to use us as cheap labor to help the war effort. Aron and I worked in a factory assembling ammunition.
“In January of 1945, the Soviet Army was approaching, and we were sent back to Auschwitz. I hurt my ankle on the way. The Nazis were scared of getting caught and leaving witnesses, so they forced prisoners on death marches towards Germany. I was having trouble walking at that point. Aron was put on a death march. The Camp was liberated two days later by the Soviet Army. I never saw my brother again.”
Many eyes widened at Sam’s story. Sam was quiet as he moved the group to a panel showing an image of Otto Frank, postwar. He circled back to Anne’s story.
“Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam. He was the only survivor of the eight people who hid together in the Secret Annex. Realizing Anne was not coming home, Frank’s former employee gave him Anne’s diary. Astonished by what he read, Mr. Frank granted his daughter’s wish and published her wartime diary in 1947. It has since become the most famous document to come out of the Holocaust.”
Sam completed his own story. After liberation from Auschwitz, he was ultimately able to return to his aunt’s farm in The Netherlands. He learned that his uncle and parents were killed in Auschwitz. His oldest brother Isaak was killed in the Sobibor death camp. Aron died on the Death march. Sam was taken in by his aunt.
Sam gave a powerful tour, passionate and engaging throughout. Some of the boys were still bright-eyed and attentive, while a few others were lost in introspective thought. There was only one set of crossed arms. The bored Boy in the back looked at the exit. He looked everywhere but at Sam who completed the tour. Sam gave them a warm smile, his round cheeks pink. He thanked them for being an attentive and well-behaved group.
“We are now armed with powerful knowledge. This means we have an individual and collective responsibility to speak out against the type of discrimination that creates human catastrophes like the Holocaust,” Sam said. “We’re coming to the end of our time here together today. Do you have any questions before we’re done?”
Before anyone could respond, the Teacher indicated that Sam should complete the tour while he met with the Guard. Sam nodded then asked the group again if they had questions. The Teacher walked to the front of the museum to talk to the Guard. The Boy in the back suddenly raised his hand for the first time. Everyone in the group looked at him, surprised. He narrowed his eyes at Sam before asking his question.
“Some people say the Holocaust never happened,” the Boy said. “What do you say to that?”
All eyes scattered as a tornado of shock ripped through the group. They stared at their peers, they looked for Sam’s reaction, they searched for their Teacher or the Guard for mediation and de-escalation. Some eyes closed altogether, not wanting to see what happened next. Sam and the Boy had their eyes locked on each other. The Boy clenched his jaw and cocked his head. Sam took a slow breath then released it. Sam narrowed his eyes back at the boy. His voice cracked through the silence like broken glass.
“I’m going to answer your question with another question,” Sam said calmly, his eyes bright with controlled defiance. “If the Holocaust never happened...where is my family?”
The Boy stood up straight, snapping his head upright, and opened his eyes. The boys stared at him, then at Sam. His cheeks were red with emotion. The group watched them stare at each other. Sam repeated the question, his accent suddenly thicker.
“Where is my family? Where are my parents? Where are my brothers? The Nazis tried to kill all of us. They didn’t want witnesses like me to stand here telling you about it.”
The Boy bit his lip, lowering his eyes. No one dared ask another question. Sam glanced to his side to see the Teacher and Guard return to the group. The tour was over, the group was quiet. The Boy wore an expression of grief as he stared hard at the floor, his silence now absolute. Sam was quick to calm and collect himself, the fire going out in his cheeks. He thanked the boys again for their attention.
The men guided the group back to the museum lobby. They met with the Exhibit Manager again, whom the Teacher thanked. Sam smiled, shook hands with the Teacher. The Guard lined the boys up next to the desk to be counted again before they could return to the bus and the Juvenile Detention Center. Sam walked the length of the line until he passed them, most of the boys thanking him for the tour. Sam stood behind them and watched them leave.
The Boy was near the end of the line, next to the locked donation box on the desk. He poked at the box with a finger. The clear box revealed coins in the bottom. The Boy bent down to adjust a shoe and sock, unaware he was being watched. Sam saw the Boy holding something in his hand as he stood.
At the same moment, the Guard opened the front door of the museum, and the Teacher began to lead the line of boys outside to the bus. The boys started to move. Without holding up the line, the Boy quickly reached up with one arm outstretched over the donation box and held his hand over it. He then walked quickly to catch up with the boy in front of him. They left the building. Sam returned to the desk. He looked in the box and saw green dollar bills folded tightly in thirds and flattened from being hidden in a shoe.