On Tuesday 27 January, Holocaust Memorial Day, we marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Russian army. A few weeks later in late March we will remember the deaths of 15-year-old Anne Frank and her older sister Margot in the hell of Bergen-Belsen, where they had been moved to from Auschwitz in September 1944. Ironically, as the two teenage girls' lives ebbed away from disease and starvation, and their emaciated bodies were then thrown into a mass grave, their father Otto Frank was already on his tortuous way back through war ravaged Europe to Amsterdam in the vain hope of being reunited with his two daughters. Anne and Margot so nearly made it to the camp's liberation by the British and Americans just a few weeks later, but in the end succumbed to starvation, despair and disease.
After the girls' deaths were confirmed by the International Red Cross, Miep Gies, Otto Frank's brave office employee who had risked her life to look after the family while they were in hiding for over two years, presented Otto with Anne's handwritten diary and her other stories, which Miep had rescued after the family's arrest in the hope of returning these to Anne upon liberation. When he read the check covered notebook that served as her diary, Otto realised he had never really known or understood the hidden depths of his teenage daughter, who had been grappling in her later entries with the two sides of her personality - the flippant Anne who was constantly provoking the adults in claustrophobic hiding, and the deep-thinking young woman with a strong moral entity who wanted to go out and repair the world.
Otto agonised over whether to publish his daughter's private journal (he knew her greatest wish was to have been a published writer), but eventually determined that Anne's writing and the knowledge of her fate could serve as a force for good. He hoped that reading its teenage concerns about life, love, relationships and of Anne's dogged hope for a better future, would open a window to the millions of innocent lives lost and remind the world of what prejudice and hatred of innocent people can lead to.
It proved difficult in immediate post war Holland to find a willing publisher, as the country wished to move forward from the war years (the Dutch nation had suffered terribly in the final winter of Nazi reprisals), but eventually in June 1947 the handwritten manuscript chronicling the changes in a child becoming a young woman, became a real book, published in just 1,500 copies to test the response of the readership. By the following February it was already in its third edition and by the 1950s was being published in many languages.
In the 1960s Otto Frank, was visiting London regularly (his stepdaughter Eva Schloss was living in London) and was devoting his life to promoting the message of his daughter and responding to the thousands of letters he received from readers young and old. He told British family and friends that he would love to see an educational organisation in his daughter's memory in Britain. In 1990, although ten years after his death, that wish came about with the establishment of the Anne Frank Trust UK, of which I am a co-founder along with Eva, also a survivor of Auschwitz, and other friends of Otto.
Fast forward to 2015, when the name Anne Frank is perhaps the most recognisable name of the more than six million Jewish Holocaust victims. The diary has sold over 30 million copies and been translated into 70 languages. Her secret hiding place is visited by over one million people a year from all parts of the globe, and those who cannot get to Amsterdam go to exhibitions, plays or films about her life.
Here in the UK, our charity takes Anne Frank exhibitions and educational programmes into schools and prisons all over the country, with the aim of challenging the differing forms of prejudice and discrimination that blight our society in so many ways. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time, and we target particular areas of social division and economic deprivation, creating peer to peer confident young educators (these young people are trained to take their teenage peers around the exhibition on Anne's life), of whom many go on to become Anne Frank "Ambassadors", who in turn will have the confidence to speak up against injustice and become real advocates for social change. We educate nearly 30,000 young people a year in this way, and our recent academic report into attitude change as a result of engagement with Anne Frank's story, has proved we are achieving what we set out to do in Anne's memory.
After all, this most recognised victim of the brutal and relentless persecution of the Jews of Europe in the mid 20th century was a teenager just like our young people of today, from whatever religion, culture, class or nationality they identify with. Strong identification can in turn lead to compassion and a feeling of indignation - 'Hey this could be me so I must do something that will stop this happening.' This can be applied with a global, national or local perspective, or even in the school playground.
Anne wrote, "How wonderful it is that no-one need wait, but can start right now to
gradually change the world".
Anne Frank, as we mark seven decades since your agonised protracted death at Nazi hands, please know that you really did help to change the world.