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Gang-gang: Anne Frank Let Me Be Myself worldwide exhibition encourages reflection

The exhibition creates a sense of the Annex where Anne and seven others hid from the Nazis.

Seventy years ago next month Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, never to know (unless, improbably, there is a heaven and she is there, looking on) that her ambition to become a writer was to come spectacularly, posthumously true.

Ms Garance Reus-Deelder, Managing Director of Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (last year it had 1.2 million visitors) is in Canberra for Thursday's opening of the Let Me Be Myself exhibition about Anne, her times, her fate, and what we all might learn from her.

On Wednesday Reus-Deeldergave us a sneak preview and a tour of the exhibition.

It includes a space, for reflection, that recreates a sense of the Annex where Anne and seven others hid from the Nazis. We see the desk at which Anne sat to write her diary.

"In this space," Reus-Deelder explained, "we try to create a space for a peaceful moment where people can reflect, try to recreate the spirit of the hiding place - where people take a moment to reflect on how they would feel if they were hidden in a secret annex for over two years and had to be silent.

"Here is the living room/kitchen where eight people spent the whole day. And here [gesturing at another very big photograph] we have recreated Anne's room with the desk where she wrote her diary. That diary is among the most read, most loved books of the world. It's translated in over 70 languages.


"And one of Anne's desires, when she was 15, [and confided to her diary] was to be a writer. But she died alone of typhoid in Bergen-Belsen, without knowing she would become one of the most famous writers in the world. Who knows what this remarkable young woman might have achieved in life had she had the chance.  But her death has given us a powerful and moving gift of reflection and understanding."

The exhibition is not, Reus-Deelder is adamant, an attempt to take a version of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam out on to the road. There's much, much more to the exhibition than that. But the Amsterdam premises have a strange power to attract people - more than one million of them every year.

Reus-Deelder says, "It always humbles me in the morning to see how people are prepared to stand in line for hours to climb the steep steps of this canal house ... to stand in Anne Frank's room. People come from all over the world. Many people come to remember, to reflect on what happened there [during the war] and on the importance of drawing lessons from that past."

Of course lots who make the pilgrimage to the canal house will feel in their bones that they already know the Annex because Anne Frank wrote so graphically, so intimately about it.

"The Annex is an ideal place to hide," she wrote on 11 July 1942.

"It  may be damp and lop-sided, but there is probably not a more comfortable hiding place in Amsterdam, no, in all Holland."   

The aforementioned importance of learning from the past is, really, the theme of this largely new exhibition. All Canberra high schools and colleges have been invited to attend. Young Canberrans will surely identify with the plight of the tragic wartime teenager.

"We start off the exhibition with the history," Reus-Deelder says, "because we feel that if you don't know it you won't understand its meaning for the present. But then we shift from historical remembrance to inviting the audience, usually school children, to think about the meaning of this history, for their own lives, for current day society. The exhibition deals with the concept of identity. Who am I? 'Let me be myself' is a quote from Anne's diary. I hope Canberra kids who come to the exhibition will enter into a dialogue with themselves, with each other. What is identity? How do you view yourself? How do you view others? What are the risks in categorising people [as for example Anne Frank and her people were categorised for their Jewishness]?"

Everybody knows the famous portrait of the teenage Anne, almost the last picture taken of her, that we've used here. But in the exhibition it is one of an arresting, haunting arrangement of eight photographic portraits of her in some of which she is poignantly little and enjoying a happy, unsuspecting childhood, in Frankfurt.

But on 8 November 1943, in hiding, she wrote "I see the eight of us in the Annex  as if we were a patch of blue sky, surrounded by menacing clouds ... there is a ring in which we are standing ...but the clouds are moving in on us and the ring between us and danger is being pulled tighter and tighter". In August 1944 they were betrayed by an unknown person and eventually taken to concentration camps.

The exhibition was opened on Wednesday by Her Excellency Ms Annemieke Ruigrok, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It continues at the National Jewish Memorial Centre in Forrest until 31 March.