Being Anne Frank
Written by
Judy Bolton-Fasman
November 2009
Written by
Judy Bolton-Fasman
November 2009
Being Anne Frank By Judy Bolton- Fasman Jennifer VanHekken, who teaches at the Bethany Christian School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had the best of intentions when she asked her eighth-grade students to surrender their cell phones, iPods and laptops and spend 18 hours in her classroom. No talking was allowed. Reading was the only sanctioned activity. And a bathroom break was the only excuse to leave the room. Van- Hekken's point: to have her students experience what life was like for Anne Frank between 1942 and 1944 at 263 Prisengracht St. in Amsterdam. VanHekken's students had recently read "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl." She intended to enrich their reading by asking them to live as Anne Frank might have during her years in the secret annex. Andrew Rosenkranz, who heads the Anti-Defamation League's office in South Florida, acknowledged that VanHekken's heart was in the right place. But he said that "Anne Frank's story already resonates with middle-school age children without having to simulate the events of the Holocaust." Rosenkranz understandably touted his organization's Holocaust curriculum, "Echoes and Reflections." I toured the Web site and liked what I saw. The curriculum was thoughtfully created in concert with Yad Vashem, Israel's National Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. For example, the integrity of familiar Holocaust images was restored when paired with interactive maps and concise explanations of potentially vague words like Holocaust and genocide. When I checked the South Floria Sun-Sentinel Web site to read the original article about VanHekken's controversial sleepover, I also saw reader comments from the eighth grade participants. They had clearly acquired a new empathy for Anne Frank. They felt they better understood her suffering. The glitch is that these kids equated their brief exposure to Anne Frank's circumstances as first-hand experience. I have to admit, my children, Anna and Adam, were also intrigued by the idea of giving up life's comforts for a day in exchange for a brief, albeit safe, foray into a life under the Nazis. But where does it stop? If eighth grade classes mimic Anne Frank's experience during the war, why not go further and recreate life in a concentration camp? Would kids break their teeth on hard crusts of bread and be forced to eat rancid soup for 24 hours? Would they have to sleep in the cold to experience life in the barracks? What about the unfathomable fear, degradation and humiliation that Jews endured during the Nazi genocide? Can those feelings ever be recreated? As part of my investigation into 21st century perceptions of Anne Frank, I screened a new DVD set of a BBC mini-series based on Anne Frank's diary with Anna and Adam. The series' success rested with the fact that the script stayed true to Anne's diary entries. The episodes focused on the small moments in the attic, and their cumulative effect was powerful - so powerful that despite knowing all too well what awaited the occupants of the secret annex, Anna and I kept hoping for a happy ending. Watching the series was Adam's first foray into Holocaust literature. He'd heard of Anne Frank, but unlike Anna had not read Anne's diary. In my highly unscientific poll taken over the years, I find that girls are more interested in Holocaust literature than boys. While watching the Anne Frank mini-series, Adam didn't know what to do with the gritty portrayals of boredom, irritation and the claustrophobia that accompany hiding in a small attic for two years. He was incredulous that the series was based on Anne Frank's actual story. The BBC series shows that Anne began her diary at 13, but being the gifted writer that she was, she revised her entries two years later with the goal of publication. Anne's revisions fleshed out characters and honed subtext, enabling her to transform the spontaneous outpourings of a teen-age diarist into a superbly crafted piece of literature. And what of Bethany Christian School's approach to learning about the Holocaust? VanHekken has agreed to forego the sleepover and use ADL's multimedia curriculum on the subject in the future instead. Given the participants' heartfelt comments, it feels as if a compromise has been overlooked. At the same time I see the dangers of kitsch and abuse by attempting to simulate the Holocaust. Based on an updated version of the diary released in 1995 - a version that includes Anne's more controversial musings on her changing body and her contentious relationship with her mother - the BBC mini-series takes Anne Frank the icon and turns her into a flesh and blood teen-ager with sexual yearnings and rebellious inclinations. But in the end the series falls prey to the sanitized, packaged message of the Broadway play and Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, Anne's oft-quoted sentiment, that despite her circumstances she believed that people were really good at heart, wraps up the series. Given that the viewer has been immersed in Anne's complex inner-life, the quote feels gratuitous. And taking the quote out of context is a missed opportunity to grapple with Anne's awareness of and ambivalence about the messiness of human nature. That's a lesson also worth teaching to our children.

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  • Julie Simon Lakehomer

    Found your blog! I didn't realize it was on the She Writes site. This is a very thought-provoking post. Quite some time ago, I taught elementary school and dreamed up a reality experience for my students. They chose and researched different careers, and I "paid" them realistic relative salaries which they had to use to rent their desks. It was quite an eye-opener for them, especially with regard to being whatever you want to be. (You still have to contend with the value your choice has in society.) It would be good to hear what the locked-in middle-schoolers would say or write about the points you bring up about what was missing from that experience.

  • Judy Bolton-Fasman

    I tried to get in touch with Francine about the column through Face Book, but she never responded. I'm reviewing her book for a Web site. I'll post the link and go to her page on She Writes!


  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Do you know Francine Prose's new book ANNE FRANK: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife? Francine is a friend and she is a member of She Writes, though I don't know how often she checks her page. (You should post a comment there!) But I am going to forward this post to her -- I think she would find it really fascinating. I did a Q&A with Francine about the book that we recorded for She Writes and we will be posting it on the site soon. Thank you for sharing this piece with the community.
    Warm best,