Anne Frank Who? Museums Combat Ignorance About the Holocaust

The New York Times, Nina Siegal

AMSTERDAM — “She hid Jews?”

Aleatha Hinds, 17, ventured a guess about Anne Frank’s identity as she waited in line for two hours recently to enter the museum devoted to that world-famous diarist, who hid with her family in a secret annex for 25 months during World War II.

“No, no, no!” replied several friends, all 11th and 12th graders from the St. Charles College high school in Ontario. “She was Jewish!” they corrected her, in unison.

“She was hiding in her father’s factory,” said Eric LeBreton, 16. “The Nazis were looking for all the Jewish people because Hitler was trying to do genocide.”

With attendance swelling to 1.3 million annually, from one million in 2010, the Anne Frank House has begun reckoning with a striking dimension of its popularity: Many of the younger and foreign visitors who flock here nonetheless have little knowledge of the Holocaust — and sometimes none about Frank. The museum and some others dedicated to Jewish life are seeking new ways to address a declining understanding of World War II and the genocide that took the lives of six million Jews in Europe, efforts that have increasing relevance as anti-Semitic incidents intensify across parts of Europe and the United States.

“We find that, with the war being further removed from all of us, but especially for young people and people from outside of Europe, our visitors don’t always have sufficient prior knowledge of the Second World War to really grasp the meaning of Anne Frank and the people in hiding here,” said the museum’s managing director, Garance Reus-Deelder. “We want to make sure that Anne Frank isn’t just an icon, but a portal into history.”

Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said that more than 500,000 students visit annually, but “attracting and sustaining their attention is an increasing challenge.” The museum has increased its emphasis on personal stories and ideas — in addition to facts and events — in hopes of drawing in young people.

Technology was important too, given its popularity with young people, “but it must be effective in generating engagement and learning,” Ms. Bloomfield said.

“The effort to be relevant,” she added, “can lead to the trivialization of history.”

For some experts, a worrisome trend is that museums focused on the Holocaust have shifted away from emphasizing historical details and moved toward a “memorial culture,” in the words of the Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, a leading American scholar on World War II and the Holocaust.

“Most people of good will today would think, of course we should remember the Holocaust,” said Mr. Snyder, the author of the new book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century.” “But the level of historical knowledge among people about the Holocaust is not very high. Remembering becomes a kind of circle — where you’re remembering to remember, but you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be remembering.”

Museums that preserve and present the truth are also fighting revisionists and Holocaust deniers who are increasingly vocal on the internet, and who are confusing the public, at a time when firsthand accounts of the Holocaust are fading.

As the generation of survivors disappears, museums dealing with Holocaust-related issues are seeking a new narrative, said Emile Schrijver, general director of the Amsterdam Jewish Cultural Quarter, which includes the Jewish Museum and the new Dutch National Holocaust Museum. “The strength of a lot of the information that we provide has always come from the people who experienced it.”

At the same time, the United States has seen a spike in attacks on Jewish cemeteries, Nazi swastikas sprayed on walls at schools and more than 150 bomb threats across the country at Jewish community centers, schools and synagogues, according to the Anti-Defamation League, whose offices have also been targeted.

In Europe, attacks on Jewish schools and a kosher grocery store in France are examples of a trend on the rise for a decade that has included anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, Britain and other countries. A European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights report from 2016 concluded that 76 percent of Jewish people surveyed “believe that anti-Semitism has increased in the country where they live during the past five years.”

“What schools need, and what anyone who wants to learn about the topic needs, are institutions that provide information on a trustworthy level,” Mr. Schrijver said.

Léontine Meijer-van Mensch, program director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, which is devoted to the broad scope of Jewish history, including the Holocaust, said that a 2016 visitor survey found that people “want to know, or they want to know more about the Holocaust.”

That museum plans to open an 18 million euro (about $19.2 million) redesign of its permanent exhibition in 2019. It will begin with a better overview of the Nazi rise to power in Germany and give more attention to the “inner Jewish perspective” of German Jews trying to cope with National Socialism.

“I’d like to be a relevant institution that also takes a stand,” she said.

For the Anne Frank House, the challenges are both historical and practical: How to accommodate and engage tourists who may be frustrated with the increasingly long lines to explore the museum, with its tiny, cramped canal-house attic.

Early this month, the museum announced that it would expand the educational facilities and visitor entrance by 20 percent, redesign the entry halls and enhance exhibitions to provide more historical context. The project will cost around 10 million euros (about $10.7 million) and unfold during the next two years while the museum remains open.

Phase 1 of the redesign began this month, when curators installed an introduction video at the start of the museum tour. It underscores the basics, explaining that Frank was born in Germany and her family fled to Amsterdam when she was 4 after the election of the National Socialist Party.

“Germany became an anti-Semitic dictatorship in which opponents feared for their lives and Jews were systematically persecuted,” the narrator explains in the video. “The Nazi leader was Adolf Hitler.”

In the next exhibition room, a new display explores anti-Jewish measures that Nazi occupiers instituted in Amsterdam in 1941, rendering persecution in greater depth than before. For instance, a panel of photographs traces Frank’s school years here: She attended a public Montessori school until 1941, when the occupiers required all Jewish pupils to enroll in Jewish-only schools.

During the redesign’s second phase, the museum will present a more substantial prologue to Frank’s story, with historical information about the years 1923 to 1940, describing her life — and European history — before she went into hiding.

“Anne Frank became a kind of poster girl for hope and inspiration, when in fact her story was very, very tragic,” said Tom Brink, head of publications and presentations at the Anne Frank House, who is overseeing the redesign of the exhibitions. “We want to balance the story a bit more, so that we have more information about the context and the times, while still keeping it a very personal experience.”

Visitors to the Anne Frank House line up to enter the museum, which is just off a canal. Growing attendance has prompted the expansion and renovation. CreditIlvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, said that Frank’s story “has been romanticized and distorted in many ways,” and putting her life and writing in greater historical context was critical to educating young people.

“Anne’s gift as a writer is remarkable and through its simplicity and its naturalness we find a connection to her as a young teenager whose questions and challenges are as relevant today as ever,” Ms. Geft said. “ If you contrast the normalcy of her literary content with the insanity of a world torn asunder by evil and hate, the legacy of her diaries and essays is an eternal lesson to confront anti-Semitism, to denounce hate and injustice, and to speak up against persecution.”

Saved from demolition after the war by Frank’s father, Otto Frank, and other preservationists who created a foundation to protect it, the family’s former hiding place within a stately canal house at Prinsengracht 263 opened as a museum in 1960.

The annex, with its fading wallpaper and Frank’s newspaper clippings still pasted to the wall, will remain preserved in its postwar state during the renovations. It can accommodate only 300 to 400 visitors an hour, causing the long lines that have become a constant feature of the adjoining Westermarkt church square landscape.

The museum has changed its policy so that visitors can enter through the morning and early afternoon only with tickets prepurchased online, and in late afternoon the line forms for people who do not have prepurchased tickets. These efforts may not markedly reduce waiting times, but they are expected to alleviate some of the congestion inside and the lines outside.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the line still snaked around the block. A group of college students from the United States, just behind the Ontario high schoolers, knew a lot about World War II history. All of them had read Frank’s diaryThey said that more context in the museum might help some visitors, but they still wanted its focus to be on her message of optimism.

“What’s so amazing is that she could write things that are so full of hope in such dark times,” said Michaela Gawley, 20, a Brandeis student from New York.

“America is really facing dark times, to my mind,” added Ms. Gawley, who is Jewish.

“To be able to hold on to hope and faith that people are good is … ” she said, before pausing. “It’s hard.”