ST. PETERSBURG — “I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion. I have a religion and love. Let me be myself and then I am satisfied,” Anne Frank wrote in her diary on April 11, 1944.
That quote is the basis for “Let Me Be Myself: The Life Story of Anne Frank,” an exhibit organized by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam now on display at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
A series of panels with images and text explain how Frank and seven other people came to hide for two years in a secret annex, where she kept a fastidious diary that became a window into the holocaust unlike any other. The images of her smiling face and expressive eyes are a stab in the heart, knowing all that she endured.
The exhibit includes a model of the family’s annex, which spanned three interior floors of Otto Frank’s office building. But taking the Virtual Reality tour of the space is far more enlightening. The experience takes you up steep staircases, behind the secret-passage bookcase, and gives 360-degree views of each room. You can hear war reports on the radios. A narrator reads excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary, which pop up in text. Some describe life there, explaining how the inhabitants had to be super quiet during the day and could only see the sky through a window.
The exhibit lays out how the Nazis came to power and systematically stripped Jews of their liberties, imprisoned them in camps and eventually murdered 6 million throughout Europe. Reading about these atrocities never ceases to be shocking and terrifying.
There are allusions to how society could be primed to allow this to happen. The exhibit also celebrates the people who were brave enough to risk their own lives to help. It ends with panels highlighting stories from young people today, making the point that discrimination is wrong but still exists.
Annelies Marie Frank was born on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany. The world was in a financial crisis and by 1932 in Germany, the anti-Semitic National Socialist German Workers party, led by Adolf Hitler, blamed Jews and began taking away their rights.
After Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith, began making plans to leave. Otto headed to the Netherlands, where he started a company in Amsterdam called Opekta, selling pectin for jam. Eventually, Edith followed with her daughters, Anne and Margot. The girls went to a school for Jewish children but they were free do any activities they wanted. That would change.
Soon after Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, German troops invaded the Dutch border. Jewish business owners were forced to register their companies. Otto, who now had two companies, transferred leadership to Johannes Kleiman, Viktor Kugler and Jan Gies, husband of Miep Gies, another of Otto’s employees. Those people were the heroes who kept the eight people safe in the annex for as long as possible.
By 1942, it became clear to the Franks that they had to go into hiding, after Margot was summoned back to Nazi Germany. Otto and Edith had secretly prepared a place in Otto’s company building. They were joined by Otto’s business partner, Hermann van Pels, his wife, Auguste, and son, Peter. Later, they were joined by acquaintance Fritz Pfeffer.
Anne had received a red, plaid diary for her 13th birthday, one month before they went into hiding. For the next two years, she not only recorded the goings-on in the annex, but wrote deeply personal thoughts, feeling and observations that ranged from dark and full of despair to unbelievably optimistic. In 1944, inspired by a speech she heard on the radio, she decided that she would publish her diary as a record of the suffering of the Dutch people under German occupation.
Some of her most famous quotes are featured in the exhibit, including this one:
“I must hold on to my ideals. In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart. I see the world being transformed into a wilderness. I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us, too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I feel somehow that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility shall return once more.”
In August 1944, someone tipped off Nazi forces and police raided the annex, arresting all eight inhabitants as well as Kleiman and Kugler. They all ended up in concentration camps. The eight went to Auschwitz-Birkenau until 1945, when Anne and Margot were sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they both died. Edith, the van Pelses and Pfeffer died at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Otto was the only survivor. When he returned to Amsterdam, he found that all of the helpers had survived and that Miep Gies had saved Anne’s diary. He published it in 1947 and it quickly became a cultural phenomenon. He spent his life dedicated to human rights.
A quote from Otto Frank in a 1970 interview sums up the importance of this exhibition.
“We cannot change what has happened. All we can do is learn from the past and realize what discrimination and persecution will do to innocent people. In my opinion, everyone has an obligation to fight prejudice.”
IF YOU GO
“Let Me Be Myself: The Life Story of Anne Frank” remains on display through Jan. 24, 2021. The Virtual Reality Tour Experience is included with museum admission but must be scheduled by visiting bookwhen.com/flholocaustmuseumvr. $8-$16. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 820-0100. flholocaustmuseum.org.