“A voice we carry to all corners of the world”: Director of Anne Frank House Museum on how we engage with the past

man speaking at podium with image of Anne Frank on screen behind him
two men smiling at camera
man speaking at podium; slide behind him shows image of man with text saying "Johann Snapper at Yad Vashem Memorial"
November 30, 2023

What do we learn from history? And how do we tell Anne Frank's story to a generation whose grandparents were not yet born at the time of the Holocaust?

Ronald Leopold, Director of the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam, explored the ways in which people have understood and engaged with Anne Frank's legacy during a November 15 lecture organized by the Dutch Studies program and hosted at The Magnes.

Since Otto Frank made the decision to edit and publish his daughter's diary in 1947, The Diary of Anne Frank has been translated into 70 languages and adapted into a stage play and a film.

The house where the Frank family lived in hiding from 1942 to 1944 has been a museum since 1960. It currently sees over a million visitors every year, and its online educational resources reach countless others.

Leopold described the house as "the world's most famous empty space," marked by the absence of the family who lived there and the millions of others who perished in the Holocaust. His work at the museum seeks to show what happened during the Second World War and the Holocaust, to offer insights into how it could have happened, and to provide opportunities for reflection on what it means for us today.

From the time the diary was first published, Leopold commented, "one can safely say that a more universal paradigm has always had the upper hand in the legacy of Anne Frank compared to a focus on the specific Jewish experience and history where it had been rooted."

While interest in Anne Frank continues unabated, Leopold explained, new generations connect to her on their own terms and within their own rapidly changing media landscape. In the era of social media, individual reactions to the diary and museum gain more visibility — think TikTok — and there are more conversations around the mediation of Anne Frank's voice and experiences by her father (who edited and published the diary) and over 75 years of worldwide reception.

The museum's outreach efforts are global in scope — as Leopold put it, "a voice we carry to all corners of the world." He showed footage of a recent workshop with students in a township near Cape Town and outlined a project to incorporate their voices into an exhibition at the museum. While younger generations may connect to the story differently, he said, he looks forward to their ability to provide "new perspectives that will deepen our understanding of Anne Frank and perhaps a better understanding of ourselves."

Commenting on speaking to Berkeley students in Dutch Studies classes, Leopold said "if this is Gen Z, we don't have to worry... because they will carry this legacy forward into the future."

This lecture was the inaugural Snapper Lecture, made possible by the Johan Snapper Endowment for Dutch Studies, which was established last year on the occasion of Her Majesty Queen Máxima's visit to UC Berkeley.

Professor Snapper was in attendance at the event. In introductory remarks, Professor Jeroen Dewulf — current holder of the Queen Beatrix Chair in Dutch Studies — highlighted Snapper's many contributions to the field of Dutch studies, including six books, over 50 articles, and having founded the first Dutch Studies program in the U.S. at Berkeley in 1971.

Dewulf also called attention to Professor Snapper's personal connection to the lecture topic: Snapper was born in the Netherlands in 1935 and lived through the Nazi occupation. His family was later honored at the Yad Vashem memorial for sheltering a Jewish family in their home and resisting Nazi policies in other ways.

In her opening remarks, Arts & Humanities Dean Sara Guyer stressed the ongoing importance of museums and universities in commemorating the past and educating for the future. "Today, around the country and around the world, we're all thinking about new forms and experiences of antisemitism and new forms and experiences of genocide. Museums and universities have a responsibility, not only to call out forms of aggression or discrimination, but to create archives, to support research, to provide experiences, to understand better... and to communicate differently."

The lecture was presented by UC Berkeley Dutch Studies in partnership with The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, the Center for Jewish Studies, and the Division of Arts & Humanities.