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Travels with Anne Frank

A tour through some of Europe's human rights landmarks


If you didn't know where you were, and if you could ignore the barbed-wire fencing and the guard huts with the ominous "HALT!" signs in front of them, Auschwitz would look something like a deserted campus.

We were there on a warm day, listening attentively to our Polish guide. The leaves of the trees along the graveled walkway rustled in the light breeze, and overhead, a mourning dove sang its plaintive song.

The guide directed our attention to a brick courtyard. There, she said, prisoners who had been tried and convicted in the building known as Block 11 were taken outside, lined up against the courtyard's back wall and executed. Block 11 also held the cells for prisoners sentenced to death by starvation and the cells without any ventilation so that the occupants suffocated.

After that, Auschwitz didn't look like a campus any more.

Why We Went

The trip to Europe was organized by the Idaho Human Rights Education Center as part of its mission "to promote respect for human dignity and diversity through education and to foster our individual responsibility to work for justice and peace."

Center executive director Amy Herzfeld and the center's new education director, Dr. Dan Prinzing, assembled a team of educators from across Idaho. By early this fall, each teacher will prepare a comprehensive lesson on some aspect of human rights, which will be made available to colleagues throughout the state.

This is not the center's first foray into writing materials for classroom use. It has already produced a K-12 human-rights curriculum package, the only one of its kind in the nation, linked to Idaho's social studies curriculum standards. Its "History of Human Rights in Idaho" is available on the center's Web site (, in CD format and for live presentation.

Nor was this trip Prinzing's first educational mission abroad. He has already taken teams of Idaho teachers to Germany, China, Ireland, Spain's Basque country and Jordan, each time focusing on how those nations' experiences can have an impact on classroom lessons in Idaho. In his previous position at the State Department of Education, he accompanied Dr. Marilyn Howard, then-superintendent of public instruction, to Mexico, where they helped craft an agreement to promote educational cooperation and sister-school programs.

Both Herzfeld and Prinzing are committed to introducing Idaho teachers to the histories, cultures, problems and solutions of the world community. Both like to point out that the world has grown smaller and that Idahoans are increasingly affected by economic and political decisions made elsewhere.

This time, the teachers had assignments beforehand. Their lessons will cover history, women's rights, worker's rights, poverty, immigrant and refugee communities, civil unions, children's rights and more.

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A week after we returned, the Boise School District announced that two elementary schools—Longfellow and Pierce Park—will introduce an international curriculum beginning in the fall of 2008. Students will study a foreign language and learn about other cultures.

The mission began with a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Arrangements were made from Boise by Lisa Uhlmann, a friend of Aaron Peterer of the museum's international development.

The main guide for the trip, Gerrit Book, has led three previous Idaho education missions: one on post-World War II Germany, one on German reunification and one on changes to the Chinese educational system as leaders try to infuse students' creative thinking into what has been a cookie-cutter approach. Although he is German, Book is also fluent in Chinese. If all the paperwork goes through, he will come to Boise late this summer to begin a Chinese language program at Borah High School.

The Ghost of Anne Frank

If you've read the book, seen the movie or watched the documentaries, the Anne Frank House seems familiar already. The house faces one of the canals that crisscross Amsterdam although the hidden rooms were at the house's rear. Out front, a street artist sells small watercolors of the area.

Peterer walked us up the narrow stairs and into the rooms where Otto Frank, his wife and daughters Anne and Margot, and others hid from the Nazis. It was hot and humid that day, and we stood at the windows and saw the views Anne Frank saw. It was here that Anne began to write; the bookshop on the main floor displays all the translations—now more than 60—of her diary.

In the end, they were all betrayed. No one knows who informed on them. It's hard not to think about that person, and wonder whether he or she lived long enough to watch how Anne's words spawned an important chapter in human-rights history.

Otto Frank survived the war but in mid-1945 learned that both of his daughters had died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. At that time, Miep Gies, who had rescued Anne's papers from the secret annex after the family was arrested, turned the diary over to Otto. The rest, as they say, is history.

Aaron Peterer, from the Anne Frnk House's International Department in Amsterdam, receives a portrait of Anne Frank from Idaho Human Rights Education Center Amy Herzfeld and Dr. Dan Prinzing, education director for the center. The portrait was painted by Liz Wolf of Boise. - COURTESY IDAHO HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION CENTER
  • Courtesy Idaho Human Rights Education Center
  • Aaron Peterer, from the Anne Frnk House's International Department in Amsterdam, receives a portrait of Anne Frank from Idaho Human Rights Education Center Amy Herzfeld and Dr. Dan Prinzing, education director for the center. The portrait was painted by Liz Wolf of Boise.

Afterwards, Peterer let the Idaho team use the small garden behind the house to talk about the expectations of the trip organizers. Herzfeld reminded the teachers that the Idaho Human Rights Education Center grew out of the effort to fund and build Boise's Anne Frank Human Rights Center Memorial. Five years old now, the center develops human-rights materials that can be used throughout the state, and as time has gone on, it has become more active at the state level. She said much of the center's work is grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Human rights, she said, are international; indivisible ("You can't teach one without teaching all"); distinguishable from civil rights (" ... such as voting rights, which are often an extension of dominant culture privilege to historically marginalized groups"); and unconditional, accruing simply because of human status.

Herzfeld and Prinzing encouraged the teachers to ask questions, keep open minds, and wait to write their lessons until after the mission was over and they were back home. Prinzing acknowledged that teachers tend to want to get things done; some teachers on that first trip to Germany a few years ago actually wrote their lesson plans before they left Idaho, and then had to revise everything based on what they had learned about contemporary Germany.

In Berlin, our hotel was a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, one of three military crossing points—Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie—between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. It was the stuff of spy novels and movies, and it closed in 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall came down.

Today, there's a museum on the street, lots of souvenir shops and a reconstruction of the Checkpoint Charlie station with its warning that "You are leaving the American Sector." I did the touristy thing: stood beyond a pile of sandbags and waved as someone snapped a picture. It's the new reality: Checkpoint Charlie as a photo-op.

Multiculturalism's New Rise

Book arranged a meeting with Kenan Kolat, president of the 100,000-member Berlin Turkish Community. He said the problems of Turks in Germany are less ethnic and more social. Eighty percent of the Turkish immigrants tend to come from lower socioeconomic classes, while only 20 percent of the German population comes from the lower class. Exacerbating the problem is a German education system he says is oriented to the middle class. Among those earning the highest high school degree, 10 percent comes from a Turkish background, and 33 percent from a German background. Right now, he's concerned about some of the proposed changes to Germany's immigration laws: changes that would make it more difficult for families to reunify, that add new age requirements and that for the most part will require immigrants to learn to speak German before they arrive, rather than after they settle in Germany. Yet Germany needs these new residents, he said. Germany's population is aging, and more immigrants are needed to keep things running and to bring in more young workers to support retirees.

"Also, the world is globalized," he said. "There is a greater demand for educated, high-skilled workers, and the German educational system is not providing the education and training to produce enough of those qualified workers."

It all sounded familiar. The U.S. is not the only nation grappling with problems of immigration and the workforce.

But here's a difference: the Germans, or at least the Germans we met, don't serve ice with their drinks. If you ask for ice in your drink, you get a couple of pieces. Finally, Cindy Wilson, a teacher from Orofino High School, asked the waiter for a glass—a big glass—of ice. He looked puzzled, but complied. Then he asked politely what she intended to do with all that ice. She said she planned to pour her soda over it. He shrugged, and you could almost see the thought forming in a little balloon over his head: "Boy, these Americans sure have some weird ideas."

The Wall

Not much remains of the Berlin Wall. We visited one spot where, if you climb high enough, you can look down on a segment of the wall a block or so long. It actually consists of two walls and a sanded area in between that was raked smooth so any footprints would be immediately noticeable.

Still, there are other reminders of what happened in the Soviet Occupation Zone. One is the remand prison, the Gedenkstaette Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen, where prisoners were held for interrogation. It was operated by the East German Ministry for State Security, the "Stasi," who handled "state crimes" and "crimes against the public order of East Germany." One woman was sentenced for "public discouragement."

The Stasi operation was big: about 91,000 full-time employees and 180,000 informants. At the prison, workers steamed open about 90,000 pieces of mail every day to see who was writing what to whom. The place seemed familiar to those of us who had seen the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others when it showed at the Flicks earlier this year, but the prison guide said no, the filming was done elsewhere. Filming at the facility would have meant closing it down for a while, and the guide said the foundation running the memorial wanted it left open so as many people as possible could see it for themselves. Each year, thousands of visitors, including German students, visit the site. While we were there, a group of German military officers began their own tour.

All that remains of the crematoria and gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland is rubble. - COURTESY IDAHO HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION CENTER

Our guide, a former inmate, said the area around the prison had been restricted at the time, and prisoners had no sense of where they were. They arrived via a windowless van, exiting in an indoor holding area. When they were moved from one part of the facility to another, they were returned to the van and driven around as a way to disorient them. Inside, inmates were isolated; the guards used a system of lights to alert one another to movement in the hallways so that no prisoner would ever see another.

A train ride away, in Leipzig, we stood in the courtyard outside of the St. Nicholas Church. This is where peace demonstrators began weekly gatherings in 1988, demanding the right to leave East Germany and protesting other restrictions. The Berlin Wall came down a year later, but the Stasi remained. Late in 1989, about 300,000 marchers ended up in front of the Stasi headquarters. Irmtraut Hollitzer, who now runs the headquarters-turned-museum, said the marchers were cautioned by organizers not to commit any violent acts. They feared any aggression—throwing stones, for example—would be used by the Stasi as an excuse for "defending" themselves.

Instead, the demonstrators left their candles on the steps of the building; the wax marks are still there today. And then they sent a delegation inside, effectively taking over the building and thwarting the Stasi's attempts to destroy its records. Hollitzer showed us the evidence of the range of Stasi surveillance: machines for steaming open letters, hidden cameras that tracked crowds and students' homework essays that were reviewed for signs of discontent. Once a government begins spying on its own citizens, it takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and manpower to keep up the effort.

The demonstrators also found towels stuffed into jars and labeled with names of citizens who had been interrogated while sitting—and, presumably, sweating—on towel-covered chairs. The idea was that if the Stasi wanted to find someone who was trying to hide, the towel would be pulled from the correct jar and given to tracking dogs to sniff.

Hollitzer said when she inspected the jars she found one with her son's name on it.

The Wrong Side of the Law

Like others before her, Rep. Nicole LeFavour, a Boise Democrat, walked away from the Stasi museum wondering out loud how people could live like that, could condone—or ignore—the political persecution inflicted on East Germans. Maybe if the repressions had been imposed in one fell swoop, East Germans might have objected. But for the most part, the system was built incrementally, one decision leading to another, until a relatively few people could, for the most part, control an entire population.

The Stasi kept good records. Following reunification, the German parliament established and funded the Stiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur, a foundation that "stands for an active and pluralistic discussion of the SED [the ruling party in East Germany] dictatorship." Among other things, it maintains the Stasi archives. Anna Kaminsky, the executive director, met with the Idaho teachers to talk about the scope of the work. She said there was estimated to be one secret service person, employee or informant per 50 East German citizens. Her point: most of the population did not work with the Stasi.

The parliament opened the records, allowing citizens to see what, if anything, the secret police collected on them. Any individual can close his or her file to research, but it hardly matters: the Stasi also kept general documentation, and all of that is available to the public.

Kaminsky said there was initial concern that people who had reviewed their files would take revenge on informants. In Hungary, in 1956, secret service agents and informants were murdered once their activities were made public. Thus far, about 3 million people have looked at their files, Kaminsky said, and there has not been a single murder as a result. In time, a "wrong clearing-up law" was enacted, giving more than 170,000 people clearance and pensions for wrongful imprisonment.

The Kreuzberg Museum in Berlin was opened in 1992. It focuses on the Kreuzberg area, traditionally the home of immigrants. Wall maps show where they have come from: Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Poland, Lebanon, Chile, South Korea, and so on.

The docent, Gokcen Demiragli, said the majority population in the Kreuzberg changes every 30 years or so, as some groups move out and others move in. Right now, the Turks and Lebanese are dominant; in the future, more Africans are expected.

She took us on a walking tour through the Kreuzberg. She grew up here and remembers her mother cautioning her to "go play by the wall" —the Berlin Wall— because there wouldn't be any traffic to worry about.

Demiragli showed us where the wall was. She said drivers were so used to diverting down side streets to avoid the wall that even after the wall was gone, some people still traveled the old, familiar routes.

The Gay Pride celebration in Berlin is a big deal. The festival, an enormous street fair, was expected to draw 350,000 people; organizers of the parade at the week's end predicted a crowd of 800,000.

Most of us spent the afternoon meandering through the crowds. There was something for everyone: children, dogs, balloons, couples, food booths, condom giveaways, beer stands, tattoo and make-up artists, HIV-and AIDS-prevention specialists, costumes, music, greetings by the mayor of Berlin and his partner, bands, kiosks selling everything under the sun.

Not much ice.

The Older World

From Berlin to Krakow, Poland: We took an overnight sleeper train. Poland is a member of the European Union, but it still stamps passports at its borders. Around midnight, Polish law enforcement officers knocked on doors of compartments and asked for the documents.

For just a moment, you could imagine how frightening it must have been to be trying to escape a country, hoping the border guards didn't notice a faked passport or forged papers. The knock on the door would have been terrifying.

Passports stamped, we returned to sleep.

Krakow is an old city, recently celebrating its 750th anniversary. The local guide led us through the old Jewish part of town. He carried a portable DVD player and every once in a while stopped to show us what part of Schindler's List had been filmed where we stood. Oskar Schindler's factory is another tourist stop.

Prior to WWII, Poland's Jewish population was about 3.3 million. As of 2003, according to estimates by the Polish Ministry of Administration and Public Affairs, Jews in Poland numbered around 1,200.

Dr. Edyta Gawron of the Jagiellonian University Department of Jewish Studies told us there is a re-immigration of Jews to Germany these days, but not to Poland, despite Poland's long history of accepting Jews. When asked about the current situation, she carefully said that Jews "no longer need to fear physical violence." Still, Krakow hosts a Jewish Culture Festival each year, museums promote Jewish culture, and Holocaust history is now taught in the schools.

To The Death Camps

Thus we arrived at Auschwitz with some understanding of the awful toll the Nazis' "final solution" had taken. The camp actually consisted of three parts: Auschwitz I, our first stop; Auschwitz-Birkenau, a short bus ride away; and Auschwitz-Monowitz, which we didn't see.

In his award-winning history of Auschwitz, published in 2005, Laurence Rees writes that 1.3 million people were sent to the campus, and 1.1 million died there. For most of the victims, the only "crime" was being born Jewish. They included 438,000 Hungarians, 300,000 Poles, 69,114 French, 60,085 Dutch, 55,000 Greeks, 24,906 Belgians, 23,000 Germans and Austrians, 10,000 Yugoslavs, 7,422 Italians. Non-Jewish victims included 70,000 Polish political prisoners, around 20,000 gypsies, 10,000 prisoners from the Soviet Union, and Jehovah's witnesses, homosexuals and others.

If Auschwitz looked serene at first sighting, Birkenau was creepy. The railroad tracks lead into the middle of the camp. On either side are the barracks. Initially, prisoners were housed in what had been stables for 52 horses; the Nazis figured out how to cram 400 prisoners in each building. The Nazis razed the gas chambers and crematoria as the war ended, but the rubble remains.

The local guide, a Pole, paused as we walked along the railroad tracks. She said she had often heard that the Jews went to their deaths without resisting. She asked us to imagine for a moment that we had just arrived there, a strange, flat place, not knowing where we were, probably not understanding the language, surrounded by barbed wire and electric fences and guards, with our family members, all exhausted from the crowded railroad cars we had been stuffed into, hungry and thirsty. And suppose, she said, you were told to walk over to that building, undress, tie your shoes together, and go in for a shower, and then be sure to retrieve your belongings.

"What would you have done?" she asked. "Where do you think you would have gone?"

Then, for good measure, she added how much she resented reading in history books about the "Polish" concentration camps. "These were German camps. They were not ours."

Birkenau today is just a collection of old, abandoned buildings, the remains of the gas chambers and crematoria, and a monument to the victims. But the barracks at Auschwitz hold displays of what the Jewish victims left behind: piles of human hair covered with dust, baby clothing, an enormous stack of prosthetic devices—artificial legs and arms, probably many from German Jews who fought for Germany during World War I—prayer shawls, shoes, and luggage, the suitcases carefully labeled with names and undoubtedly carefully packed with what the others thought would be most needed during this journey. Some of the teachers wept.

Three women from the Krakow Culture of Tolerance Foundation met with us in a small room on the second floor of a building reached through a tunnel from Krakow's town square. They represent the GLBT—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender—movement in the city. Homosexual acts have been legal in Poland since 1932, but as recently as the 1980s Polish secret police were forcing homosexuals to sign papers acknowledging themselves as gay men and then using those documents to blackmail the men into cooperation.

In 2004, students organized a march for GLBT rights, overcoming much opposition. They expected 200 to 400 participants; 1,500 came. The event also attracted people who threw stones at the marchers.

Then, two years ago, the rightist party won the presidential elections, using homophobia to gain popularity. The Polish minister of education opposes hiring gay teachers; many gay teachers are afraid to come out.

Despite that, the women say, the GLBT movement has grown from supporting the annual parade to presenting weekly events. Their "Let Them See Us" campaign seemed to be successful. A teacher asked them what an "open society" would look like. "I don't know," the woman said. "I'll know one when I see one."

It was a lot to cram into 10 days of morning-to-night meetings and sightseeing, and until the teachers' lesson plans are turned in, we won't know how their reflections on what they saw and heard translate into something of value to students.

But one thing seemed clear: What we learned about—the prisons, the spying, the loss of human rights, the tragedy of the Holocaust—didn't happen all at once. The changes were incremental and even subtle. Those human rights vanished one by one until there were no protections left.

The Idaho Human Rights Education Center has a big job ahead as it makes sure no one walks down that path again.

Towels sealed in jars were kepts by the East German Stasi, labeled with the name of a citizen who had been interrogated there. Prisoners sat on the towels, which held their scent for tracking dogs who might later be needed to locate them. - COURTESY IDAHO HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION CENTER
  • Courtesy Idaho Human Rights Education Center
  • Towels sealed in jars were kepts by the East German Stasi, labeled with the name of a citizen who had been interrogated there. Prisoners sat on the towels, which held their scent for tracking dogs who might later be needed to locate them.