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January 2013 / Bronx/​Riverdale Family / Brooklyn Family / Long Island Family / Manhattan Family / Queens Family / Staten Island Family

The Anne Frank Center USA

Learning from the past

There’s a place in Manhattan where kids and teens can learn a thing or two about tolerance, courage, hope, and strength of spirit in the face of adversity — and even a bit of history.

It’s the Anne Frank Center at Park Place and Church Street, where young visitors can find out who this special girl was and what the world was like during WWII, when six million Jews were wiped out by a plague called the Holocaust — driven by hate and racism.

Through various programs, interactive workshops, and exhibits, the center offers visitors a memorable, multi-dimensional experience.

“A lot of our visitors are from foreign countries and different cultures. Anne is very hard not to like and identify with. Her words are true and stay with the reader forever,” says Yvonne Simons, executive director. “Her diary has been translated into 68-plus languages, emphasizing its global relevance.”

These days, with so much happening in our country and the world, Frank’s story is especially meaningful to young people who seem to relate very strongly and personally to her ordeal.

Although it has been in the U.S. for 35 years, the center only recently opened its beautiful new gallery, which put it on the map in the city with educational and public programming.

According to Simons and Robert Levin, director of education, for many young people who visit the center and discuss Anne Frank at school, Anne’s story is their first exposure to the Holocaust. The center carefully differentiates how it presents this history, depending on visitors’ ages.

For younger children, Frank’s bravery in hiding, how she dealt with uncertainty and isolation, why she loved to write, and what she taught us about goodness and hope, is emphasized.

At the middle grades, the center provides more historical background about the Holocaust, but continues to place Frank’s story at the center, including her specific accounts of conditions in hiding and in the war-torn outside world, what she gradually came to know about the concentration camps, her insights about good and evil, and her growing identity as an independent, young thinker.

High school-age students are fascinated to combine what they have learned about the Nazi period with broader issues of discrimination, intolerance, hatred, and the prospects for peaceful resolution of conflict.

Anne Frank

Tolerance, courage, hope, strength of spirit. These powerful words still ring true today, as they did when Frank wrote them in her diary back in the early 1940s, when she and her sister Margot, and their parents spent two arduous years in Amsterdam hiding from Nazi soldiers in the Secret Annex behind a warehouse. The family fled Germany for the Netherlands after anti-Jewish laws went into effect. Tragically, in 1944 they were put to death in concentration camps after they were betrayed and caught. Otto, the father, survived. Eventually, he made his daughter’s wish come true by having her diary published.

Between 1942 and 1944, the Franks and another family learned how to get by in cramped quarters, eating meager meals while they heard sounds of destruction and violence everywhere. How does a young girl make sense of this chaos? On July 5, 1942 Frank received a diary for her 13th birthday. It was her salvation.

According to Levin and Simons, Anne’s authenticity, bravery at expressing character dilemmas we all face, especially during adolescence, resonate with children and teens. Anne, they say, had a talent for language that brings the events of the Holocaust to the present. She expresses herself as a typical, ordinary teen caught up in a horrific cultural cataclysm.

Today’s kids

So, what do parents tell their children when violence shatters the calm of everyday life, and when schools become vulnerable to unexpected attacks by shooters? When you hear stories of students suddenly faced with the threat of death? How do you talk to your kids about good vs. evil?

Like Anne, kids and teens live in a confusing world that is, at times, scary and violent. Eventually, they come to understand that bravery is not relegated only to the battlefield, but that ordinary, daily living takes bravery, adds Simon, especially in big cities like New York, and even in unexpected places like small, peaceful towns way out in Newtown, Conn.

For teens and children who are old enough to understand the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School — what better example of bravery by ordinary people than this horrific event? — there’s sad but valuable lessons in heroism beyond the battlefield: beloved teachers and a principal were killed as they tried to defend innocent students, and the courage of parents who must cope with devastating loss as they go about their daily lives.

Perhaps our children can learn from Frank that there are times when we all need to find that strength of spirit — until things get better. And, that hope and faith are valuable during challenging times.

There are many lessons to be learned from Frank’s horrific experience and her coping abilities: she once said she was able to shake off all her cares when she wrote in her diary — and that’s how she dealt with her reality.

Levin and Mike Clary, marketing manager at the Center, both agree that young people are ready and eager to stand up for justice and fairness once they have an opportunity to get beyond headlines and worrisome stories, know that their own insights matter, and find avenues to pursue action.

They may discover this in school, church, in community or educational groups, or at home — there are many outlets.

And there are excellent organizations teaching tolerance and encouraging action. Levin explains that the center’s approach is to use the beautifully-recorded experiences and ideals of a profound young writer who began with a simple, day-to-day diary, but whose work became an international example of confronting difficult issues and seeking solutions.

What are the results of people taking action against injustice and intolerance?

“It’s amazing to see how a conversation with a Holocaust survivor about having endured personal intolerance during WWII resonates with students today in regard to issues that they can identify with,” says Simons. “We talk to students about the importance of each individual making a difference — ‘change’ begins with you — the individual. Do not be a bystander and have your voice not be counted.”

She believes that action works, and “at the very least it begins dialogue, moves questions and issues into the public eye and awareness, and actions do move the needle.”

Simons and Levin are both convinced that because Anne is straightforward and bares her soul, young readers take the events destroying her world, very personally.

According to Levin and Clary, strong leaders, teachers, parents and role models counteract lies and misinformation across the Internet, for example. Anne Frank remains one of those role models. Programmed hatred, propaganda and misinformation can be best combatted and shown for what they are by trusted, unbiased sources, they state.

“Anne was after all one voice; her words impact people all over the world,” says Simons. “The fact is that her voice is that of a teenager asking adolescent questions about life that resonate with children her age — 13 through 15-year-olds.”

“At the same time, younger and older audiences connect to Anne,” adds Levin.

‘Conversations’

On a recent Saturday the most active audience participant at a center event called “Conversations with Anne,” was an 8-year-old boy, brought by his mother for his first orientation to Anne Frank.

He was totally focused on the 40-minute production and asked the most and the best questions during the talk-back,” says Simon.

“Conversations with Anne” is the Center’s signature, one-actor show that draws directly from Frank’s diary. It speaks directly and personally to all audience ages. The theme changes monthly; in December it was “A World of Gifts,” as Frank observed the holidays in captivity, but also thought deeply about the meaning of gifts and gift-giving.

On Saturday, Jan. 12, there’s a new two-person “Conversations” show, honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and called “Letters from Anne and Martin.” The performance is based on text from Frank’s diary and Dr. King’s letters from a Birmingham jail, followed by a discussion led by educators who are passionate about this theme. As with all shows in this series, “Conversations” travels offsite; “Letters from Anne and Martin” has already been booked by a local college in February.

School programs

The Center offers a vibrant series of Artist-in-Residence and Writer-in-Residence programs to schools and community groups throughout the year. In “The Art of Self Discovery,” students in the upper elementary and middle grades study appropriate sections of her diary, with a special focus on how she matured and developed her sense of self.

Each participating school or organization then hosts one of its visual or performing artists, or writers, for a five-to-10-week residency to guide students toward such expressive projects as portrait-making, murals, sculpture, photography, oral history, poetry, or playwriting. Students typically present their projects at celebratory community events in their neighborhoods, and the most exemplary projects are honored at the center.

Preparations are also underway for a special Art of Self Discovery outreach to students in the city’s hardest-hit areas of Hurricane Sandy’s path, and will be able to offer selected schools this program at no cost in March, April, and May 2013.

The Anne Frank Center, USA [44 Park Pl. and Church Street in Manhattan, (212) 431–7993 X 301].

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based writer and journalist who has interviewed and profiled many interesting people, including several celebs. She has been covering arts and entertainment in New York City, but also enjoys sharing her insightful articles with NY Parenting readers. As a mom, she has lots of parenting experience under her belt, having raised a bright and independent teenage son (in college), and his older brother, who is a super-talented actor and comedian.

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