The Legacy of Anne Frank by Gillian Walnes Perry

This past August, my mom, sister, aunt, and I drove out to Skokie, Illinois to visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. (Um, GO, by the way, if you live in Illinois. This is an amazing gem we need to take advantage of).

I was thrilled to visit their gift shop which had a wide array of books about the Holocaust, civil rights, and human justice. You bet I dropped money that day and I have two more books that I bought that day which I’d like to post about on Bago Book Talk Blog if you don’t mind indulging me with the Holocaust research streak I’ve been on since my visit to the museum.

One of the books I bought was The Legacy of Anne Frank by Gillian Walnes Perry. Anne Frank, the Jewish, teenage girl who kept a diary of her family and friends hiding in a secret annex in Amsterdam from 1942 to 1944, is one of my personal heroes. Her story fascinated me ever since I saw the play The Diary of Anne Frank (by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) when I was twelve years old. I read her diary right after that; I related to her so much because I, too, religiously kept a diary on who’s pages I pondered the world and my place in it.

Anne graced my life again when I had the opportunity to perform  in the Goodrich and Hackett play at Pec Playhouse in Pecatonica, Illinois when I was fifteen; I played Anne’s sister, Margot. The most meaningful experience about being in this play was getting a sense for what it was like for Anne, her family, and her friends hiding in a tight space with no way out for two years. Two hours can never compare with two years — but I believe the cast and I imagined well what it was like.

Here is the scene where the Franks, van Danns, and Mr. Dussel celebrate Hanukkah, despite the threat of their discovery. (I’m still obsessed with the outfit I wore for this scene!)

The young woman who played the role of my little sister, Eli, became a wonderful friend. It was nice to go to practice everyday and share this experience with her. My troubles always seemed manageable when I compared them to Anne’s and Margot’s. Here we are in the scene where Margot helps Anne prepare for her “date” with Peter:

Our director, Michael, was fantastic! He made sure the play was as authentic as it could be, advising us how to use the correct German pronunciations of the names (did you know it’s not pronounced “Aaaannnn” but “Ah-nuh”; and Margot isn’t pronounced “Mar-go” but “Mar-goat”; Frank isn’t “Fraaaaaank” but “Frahhnk” . . . in case you were wondering). He even had the set designer build a bookcase to cover the door to the theater so that the audience immediately felt the same claustrophobia the families hiding in the annex did. He did a great job working with young people, too. Eli, Brandt (who played Peter), Amanda (Miep), and I were all still in high school when we performed this play! Here Michael is with Eli and I after a performance:

It’s no surprise, then, that I picked up The Legacy of Anne Frank at the museum. I recommend this book for any one who feels the same connection to Anne that I do. I also believe this book models excellent teaching strategies, especially for social studies and humanities teachers. 

Gillian Walnes Perry founded the Anne Frank Trust with Otto Frank, Anne’s father, as well as other stakeholders in the United Kingdom in 1990. As the CEO, Perry witnessed just how large an impact Anne Frank and her diary has on readers throughout the world, especially young people.

Perry’s book chronicles parts of Anne Frank’s life as well as people closely connected to her. Some of the chapters reflect on who Anne was as a person.

One of the things I liked best about The Legacy of Anne Frank is the point Perry makes that Anne Frank was a real person. Her life — and the Holocaust overall — is too often fictionalized. We need to be careful about fictonalizing the Holocaust; we need to listen to the stories of survivors and liberators while they are still alive to tell their stories. And even after they’ve gone, fictional representations of the Holocaust need more care and attention than other works of fiction. Writers have a major responsibility to get it right if they choose to tell a fictional story about the Holocaust. This is how I felt about Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which I read this past summer. We need to hear the true stories first and appreciate that the Holocaust was real, perpetrated by real people, and that it happened to millions of real people. As Perry put it,

“I really don’t understand why we have to fictionalize the Anne Frank story, when young people engage with it anyway . . . . To me it seems like exploitation.

Perry 237

Holocaust fiction can be dangerous, especially in the hands of Holocaust deniers and white supremacists. Even if someone makes an offhand comment or what they perceive to be an “Anne Frank joke,” we need to remember that not only was she a child, but a real human being, who — along with 6 million others — was victim to hatred. 

I truly appreciated Perry’s warnings against us letting the topic of the Holocaust become “a safe topic” (Perry 277). Perry quotes an educator, concerned that the Holocaust no longer makes the same impact:

Even just twenty years ago we were fighting tough battles to get the Holocaust taught, but now it’s so established, it’s easy

Perry 277

Perry’s portraits of Anne’s family and friends helped to flesh out the girl I met in the pages of her diary. Perry offers stories and research about Anne’s father, Otto Frank; Eva Schloss — Anne’s would-be stepsister, who survived Auschwitz; Anne’s protector, Miep Gies; and Anne’s cousin, whom she greatly admired. There is also a chapter that sifts through the theories about who betrayed the Frank family. While Perry admits that we will likely never know the truth, she offers who she believes truly betrayed them.

Anne Frank influenced many notable people who Perry describes in her book as well. She talks about the parallels between Anne and Audrey Hepburn as well as how Hepburn came to work for the Trust and spread the lessons found in Anne’s diary throughout the world. The story of Nelson Mandela reading Anne’s diary while in prison makes an appearance, too. The stories of Stephen Lawrence — a black, British teenager who died in a racially-motivated murder — and Daniel Pearl — an American journalist attacked and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan — have eerie connections to Anne’s stories and serve as reminders about the destruction racisim and bigotry cause.

A large part of the book focuses on the educational projects the Anne Frank Trust funds throughout the world, including the impact that these educational programs have had in each place; for example: how Anne Frank’s words helped with the transition from Communism to democracy in Eastern Europe; inspired students under dictatorships in Latin America; gave hope to children who witnessed war and genocide in Bosnia; fostered gratitude in those suffering injustices in British prisons; helped foster peace in a religiously-torn Ireland; and resonated with young people in Japan, Vietnam, and India.

Finally, the book touches on the main values and goals of the trust. The trust developed the Anne Frank Declaration, which asks those who sign it to “to work towards a better world, free of bigotry, in the new millennium.” I love the way the Anne Frank Trust and its traveling museum uses peer education to engage and inspire people; I hope to use some of the techniques Perry describes in her book in my own classroom to foster empathy and understanding in my students.

To think that Anne’s voice impacts so many people makes my heart feel near bursting because I know that she wanted to be a writer. It’s tragic to think that she didn’t get to pursue this dream; but, I’m heartened that she made such an impact, nevertheless. Even more, I love that it is a young girl who made this impact.

People continue to underestimate our youth today; but, as I’ve seen across nine years of teaching, children and young adults are often the wise ones and we’d do well to listen to what they have to say. I like to wake up believing that writers as powerful as Anne sit in my classroom everyday.

Above the exit at the Illinois Holocaust museum are words from Anne:

“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly changing the world.”

Anne Frank

That’s Anne’s legacy to me; she is my reminder that I can change the world now. I can’t wait for funds, convenience, or the opportune moment because everything I need to do my part is already at my disposal and it’s there for you, too. Anne had a notebook and a pen. I have a classroom and a love for the written word. 

Tell me in the comments, what do you have right now that you could use to help change the world? 

Trigger Warnings: antisemitism, genocide (the Holocaust), war

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