Yesterday I visited the ‘Anne Frank + You’ exhibition in Ely Cathedral. Largely because it was raining and I needed to shelter my daughter’s pushchair and partly because I’d read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and fancied a refresher.
As I approached the Lady Chapel, I could hear the chatter and shrieks of excited school children, clearly enjoying a chance to be away from school, and above the shrieks was shh’ing from exasperated teachers, trying to encourage the children to think about the solemnity of what they were looking at.
I remember going on school trips to solemn places. Visiting the trenches of WWI as a child and not really understanding what we were doing there, I spent the day laughing with my friends while teachers shh’ed us. I’m sorry for that now of course. But the horror of war is not for children. They’re not supposed to understand this darkness.
The exhibition, run by the Anne Frank Trust UK, tells the familiar story of the Frank and Van Daan family through words, photographs, video and some pages from one of Anne’s diaries. We’re shown how the families were forced into hiding by the Nazis and lived for 25 months in a secret annexe, before being discovered and murdered. We all know the story, but it still gives you a chill.
There is a replica of Anne’s annexe bedroom, looking very much like a teenage girl’s room. A few movie-star pictures are pasted on the walls, but there’s sparsity to them. It’s clearly the best she could do with what she had and it gives the room the sinister air, which I’m sure the real room has in spades over in Amsterdam. Standing in the room, my daughter and I alone for a moment, the sadness is confronting. A young girl forced to grow to a teenager in this cramped space and even sadder is to know that the precious hope she protected so vivaciously within that room, came to a bitter end in a Nazi concentration camp.
As you move through the chapel, the boards tell other stories: Muslims murdered in Yugoslavia and Bosnia, the murder of Stephen Lawrence, racist clashes in sport, teenager Malala shot by the Taliban for speaking out against the oppression of girls – it goes on. It sounds bleak, but it’s not. Dotted everywhere are messages of hope. Quotes from Anne’s diary like: “How wonderful is it that no one need wait, but can start right now to gradually change the world.”
Anne Frank reaches out to young people as a peer from the past, offering them hope and inspiration to make a future for themselves where the tragedy of racism doesn’t exist. Here’s hoping.
My favourite part of the exhibition is on the way out. There’s a wire tree where you can leave a message and hanging from a branch is one that says, ‘Sorry you’re dead. I think you will be safe in heaven’ – by Evan, age 6. Very good use of the apostrophe for a 6 year old there, Evan. Anne would be proud of you.
First published by Cambridge News