The starting point of my trip was a 2-day meeting in Amsterdam of the international partners of the Anne Frank House – with colleagues from Argentina, Germany, Holland and the USA:
We shared our strategies for education about anti-semitism and other forms of prejudice. Our discussions included the role of emotion in education, the need for both historical accuracy and creative response in understanding the Holocaust, and some exciting new approaches to making the Diary of Anne Frank accessible to young people today.
Reflecting on community engagement, we were all particularly struck by the wisdom of some words by Eleanor Roosevelt (in a lecture of 1948):
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
I find it a real privilege to be part of the Anne Frank House’s international team. And in meetings at the House there is a continual reminder of our starting point (and of the time of day!), as the bells of the Westerkerk next door chime on the hour, just as they did when Frank wrote about them in her diary. https://www.annefrank.org/en/
A three-hour train journey from Amsterdam into the remote countryside of north-east Holland (and an overnight in the town of Emmen) brought me to the site of Westerbork https://kampwesterbork.nl/en This was the Nazi transit camp where the Frank family were first imprisoned, before their deportation to Auschwitz. I was given a tour of the site and warmly welcomed by its director, staff and volunteers.
The excellent museum makes clear both the facts of Westerbork – how thousands of Dutch Jews were sent from here to death camps in the east – and the human stories behind the numbers:
A book of remembrance lists all 102,000 prisoners who perished after their deportation from Westerbork – including Anne Frank:
Outside on the site itself, the individuals are represented by 102,000 bricks, laid out in a map of the Netherlands – with a Star of David for each Jewish person, a flame for each Roma-Sinti person:
There is a replica of the train trucks in which prisoners were crammed for transportation to Auschwitz and other death camps.
Here I saw a reminder of the need for Holocaust education: two young children climbed onto the trucks to smile and wave while their mother took photographs of them.
The Frank family were held in the punishment area of the camp – fenced off from other inmates – because they had resisted Nazi orders by going into hiding:
It was here that I placed the first of two pebbles that I had brought from the Anne Frank Trust UK to mark the 75th anniversary of Anne Frank’s death. The pebbles came from the garden of my friend Iris, who was born in the same year as Anne Frank (1929) and died in 2019. Each pebble was decorated by one of our Anne Frank Young Ambassadors from John Ruskin College of Further Education in Croydon, south London https://www.johnruskin.ac.uk/about-jrc/news/anne-frank-trust-project Our recent project at John Ruskin College was made possible by funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The pebble I left at Westerbork was painted by Amy, who chose words from one of the short stories Anne Frank wrote while in hiding in the secret annexe in Amsterdam:
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
The only building still standing at Westerbork is the former commandant’s house. The site’s director referred to it as “guilty heritage” and it has been permanently sealed off inside a huge glass and steel box. I think this may be the boldest decision I’ve ever seen made by a museum curator. Brilliantly thought-provoking.
After taking a complicated train journey into Germany, I stayed two nights in Hamburg, and hired a car for the 90-minute drive to Bergen-Belsen https://bergen-belsen.stiftung-ng.de/en/history/
This is the site of the concentration camp where Anne and her older sister Margot died in appalling circumstances of starvation and disease in late February or early March 1945 – exactly 75 years ago – about 6 weeks before the camp was liberated by the British Army.
The precise whereabouts of their bodies is unknown in the mass graves of the 52,000 Jewish people and others who perished here, but a symbolic headstone has been erected as a focus for remembrance:
It was here that I placed the second of the two pebbles decorated by Anne Frank Trust UK Ambassadors from John Ruskin College. This one had been painted by Christian with a quotation from Anne Frank’s diary:
“Where there’s hope there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”
Bergen-Belsen is on windswept area of heathland surrounded by forest. The vegetation reminded me of the Yorkshire Pennines where I grew up. I kept noticing details of the way nature is growing over the site:
The Bergen-Belsen Museum is an appropriately sombre building with very detailed, superbly presented displays. The historical facts are interspersed with video stories from individual survivors.
The Bergen-Belsen Museum includes a panel on Anne Frank, and the text makes clear both the context of her death and the responsibility for it:
As so often, it is art that truly brings home the reality – like this drawing by survivor Susanne Schuller of being plagued by lice:
For me, perhaps the most moving experience of all was spending some time sitting in the “House of Silence”, a triangular steel and glass walk-in sculpture built in 2000. I found it both calming and disconcerting.
Photos and text by Tim Robertson
Chief Executive of the Anne Frank Trust UK