After 70 years, Anne Frank’s story still resonates with the same – if not greater – international relevance than when Otto Frank returned from Auschwitz to his former Amsterdam office building, his family’s hiding place during the dark days of the war, found her diary, published it, and ultimately turned the structure into the iconic stage for exposing and teaching the Holocaust.
When Julie Couture, Amsterdam-based co-ordinator of Canadian Projects for Anne Frank House Amsterdam considered importing and curating the exhibit Anne Frank: A History for Today to run in tandem with Stratford Festival’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank, she was smitten by the Stratford Perth Museum, the circa 1870 two-storey farmhouse. Walking through its main floor 1930’s-era kitchen, and climbing its narrow wooden staircase, Couture visualized the second floor rooms evoking Frank’s secret hideaway, and students feeling compelled to tiptoe in silence, imagining that creaky floorboards would radiate Anne’s hushed fear of alerting the Nazis.
Coincidentally, Couture found the location of Stratford Perth Museum (SPM) appealing for its cultural and military links with the Netherlands during World War II.
“This is the first exhibit to include a panel showcasing Canadian soldiers’ roles in liberating Holland and participating in global World War II battles. Beyond the Frank family’s Holocaust scenarios and sacrifices, it portrays discrimination experienced by women, Chinese-Canadians, First Nations, Metis and Inuit people,” Couture said.
In 1945 the Stratford-based Perth Regiment served as part of the Allied forces that went across the North Sea to liberate Belgium and much of Holland. When the soldiers swept through Amsterdam to round up hiding Nazis, a Perth county local named Fred Scott, now 92, is credited among those who inspected Frank’s building.
Postwar, the regiment remained as a stabilizing force in Sneek, Holland until January 1946. At the end of the war, 100 Free Dutch troops were stationed in Stratford. To commemorate the Canadians’ service and hospitality, Juliana, Queen of the Netherlands, visited the area and donated a monument at Lion’s Pool.
Today, Perth County’s 77,000 population includes 8,000 who claim Dutch origin and 1,000 who list Dutch as their mother tongue.
Julie Couture, co-ordinator of Canadian Projects
for Anne Frank House Amsterdam
The exhibit frames Anne Frank’s story with powerful focus and historical context using a series of canvas panels that are chronologically illustrated with images, commentaries and maps. Details of Europe’s flailing post-World War I economies, world events and Hitler’s rise to power spawning increased anti-Semitism are creatively juxtaposed with quotes from the teenager’s diary, projecting a vivacious aura of teenage hopes and dreams versus a palpable dread of burgeoning brutality, and a timeline that culminates in a crescendo of horrors.
Designed to guide viewers on a blunt, educational trip through a history that deserves to be retold to every generation, this exhibit is an excellent complement to the Festival’s play and the book.
Anne tells viewers the family fled persecution in Frankfurt and settled in Amsterdam “because we’re Jewish.” When the Franks’ hopes for freedom disintegrate as they are found and sent on the last train ever to reach Auschwitz, viewers are steered to the grim reality of the “Final Solution.” Visitors learn that Anne and her older sister Margot were ultimately transferred to Bergen-Belsen where they succumbed to typhus in March 1945, barely a few weeks before British soldiers liberated the camp.
Couture explains the exhibit is aiming to attract school groups from across Ontario. “We all identify with Anne Frank’s feelings. We see she didn’t reach 16 because of hatred and discrimination. We hope, through education, students will recognize their own actions of hatred and discrimination; learn that ‘your little act can change the world’ and question ‘who are more terrible: Nazis or thousands of bystanders?’ We want students to recognize characters in Anne Frank’s story as victims, helpers, bystanders or perpetrators. ”
Ultimately, “visitors of all ages can reflect on themes that are relevant to Canada today, work together for equal rights and democracy.”
Museum general manager John Kastner adds that the exhibit cultivates people to stand up to racism, intolerance and discrimination.
Magnifying the exhibit’s impact are artifacts from the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre including a yellow Star of David badge, an Auschwitz prisoner’s uniform and identity cards.
The Stratford Perth Museum is located at Stratford Perth Museum, 4275 Huron Road, RR 5 Stratford, Ont. www.stratfordperthmseum.ca
Tickets: stratfordfestival.ca; 1-800-567-1600; or at the Stratford Perth Museum. Take the Stratford Direct Bus: $20. Return to Toronto.