Anne Frank still has vital teenage role to play

The words of a tragic girl, who would have been 80 today, remain a potent weapon against prejudice

By Gillian Walnes, June 11, 2009

Had she been allowed to live, Anne Frank would be celebrating her 80th birthday today. In schools all over the country, children are being encouraged to reflect on what this teenage Holocaust victim’s life could have been. She may or may not have achieved her potential as a writer; she may have married, had children and grandchildren; she may have chosen to live in the Netherlands, the USA or perhaps Israel.

I have worked with Anne Frank’s story over the past 20 years. It has been a privilege to travel around the UK during that time with Anne Frank exhibitions, meeting extraordinary people and getting an insight into the particular social issues affecting different communities.

When I helped found the Anne Frank Trust in 1990 (along with the late Otto Frank’s stepdaughter Eva Schloss and his friends Bee Klug and Rabbi David Soetendorp), the racism we were seeking to tackle was pretty clear-cut: black and Asian immigrants were not enjoying the same opportunities as white people. Young black boys were being overwhelmingly targeted in stop-and-search incidents. At that time, Stephen Lawrence was about to start studying for his A-Levels, hoping to become an architect, and there were certainly incidents of antisemitism, most overtly seen in desecrations of Jewish cemeteries. The challenge is different now, more subtle, though the rise in credibility of the ultra-right demonstrated by last week’s Euro-election results represents a rising undercurrent. Antisemitic incidents and other examples of hate crime are on the rise.

New prejudices are directed at young immigrant workers from eastern Europe. And, whereas racial divisions used to be predominant in multi-ethnic inner cities, the east European immigrant population is spread throughout the country.

On a visit recently to the Isle of Man, I observed that there were probably no community cohesion issues to address as the population seemed to be made-up completely of white descendants from the Vikings and Saxons. I was wrong — the island’s substantial elderly population is largely cared for by Filipino workers, and the Isle of Man also employs east European crop pickers.

An Anne Frank exhibition organiser, Catherine Quirk, told me of huge concern about inflammatory opinions expressed by some Manx secondary pupils on Facebook relating to “incomers” to the island of different ethnicity. “Scratch the surface,” she said, “and prejudice is never far away, but is particularly shocking among the younger generation.”

The teenager who would be 80 today still has a significant role in tackling prejudices youngsters may not even be aware they have. The Anne Frank Trust’s senior project officer, Mukith Khalisadar, a young Muslim man of Bengali background, reports that, in some London schools where he has taken our educational project, there is initial resistance from pupils to learning what they perceive as a Jewish story. The teenagers can be aggressive in asking: “What has this got to do with me?” But when they are shown that the Nazis also targeted black people and other groups, and learn more about Anne, they start to identify with a Jewish girl’s insecurities about adolescence, relationships, family and hopes for her adult life.

Anne may never have reached the age of 80 of course, and not fulfilled her plea that, “If God lets me live, I’ll… make my voice heard, I’ll go out into the world and work for mankind!” But, because her life ended so terribly at the age of 15 in a cold filthy barrack in Bergen-Belsen, we will never know.

Last updated: 12:16pm, June 16 2009