In 2022, inspired by Anne Frank’s story, 10-year-old Anne Frank LA student-activist Olivia Prince, with the support help of Anne Frank LA, approached Councilmember Paul Koretz (CD5) about declaring an official day to honor Anne’s legacy. And he agreed.
On April 26, 2022, The Los Angeles City Council adopted a resolution declaring May 12 to be Anne Frank Day in the City of Los Angeles. The day honors Anne, her father Otto (whose birthday is May 12), and the nearly 1.5 million children who perished during the Holocaust.
Anne Frank (Annelies Marie Frank) was a Jewish girl born in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 12, 1929. When the Nazis came to power in 1934, her parents, Otto and Edith Frank, took refuge with Anne and her older sister Margot in Amsterdam. Anne led a normal family life in Amsterdam until the German Occupation of the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Heavy restrictions were put in place for Jews. On February 22, 1941, the German arrest and deportation of Jews to concentration camps began. In 1942, when Margot received a call-up notice for a work camp, the family hid in a "Secret Annex" above Otto Frank's office, located in the historic canal called the Prinsengracht in central Amsterdam. They lived in hiding with four other people, the van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer, for over two years (761 days). While in hiding, Anne kept several diaries in which she chronicled life in the annex, her fears, and her dreams of someday being a famous author. In 1944, their hiding place was betrayed. They were arrested by German soldiers and transported to Westerbork, a Nazi transit camp in the Dutch countryside. On September 3, 1944, the Frank family took the last train out of Westerbork to the most infamous death camp of WWII, Auschwitz. Anne and Margot were later sent to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, where they both died just weeks before the camp's liberation in 1945. By the end of the war, approximately 6 million Jews had been killed by the Nazis, including nearly 1.5 million children.
In 1947, Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the inhabitants of the Secret Annex, published Anne's diary as The Diary of a Young Girl. The Diary of a Young Girl has been translated into more than 70 languages and is one of the world's most widely read works of nonfiction. Anne's words continue to inspire readers of all ages with its timeless and timely message of resilience, youthful optimism, and the need to stand together against hatred in all its forms. Anne's diary is a testament to why young people's voices matter.
Why do you think Anne's legacy has endured for this long?
Margrit Polak: It's a simple and not so simple answer. Anne's precocious heartfelt poetic writing captures the heart of a human on the precipice of adulthood, full of hope, fear, and dreams. ALL adolescents feel this, and as adults, we are reminded of what the unknown can inspire us to feel. She had no idea that her messages would be so universal. For children and teens, her words go beyond race, beliefs, and location. Her words created a magical reality and horror. For those reading it for the first time, who know nothing about the Holocaust, they are praying for a happy ending, which does not come. A light like Anne's being extinguished at such a young age becomes a jumping-off point for us all to become activists for inclusion, acceptance, and the doing of good.
How did you become interested in Anne Frank Day? Do you have a personal connection to Anne Frank or Otto?
Margrit Polak: Anne Frank Day was an idea sparked by the daughter of one of our board members, Olivia Prince, who was only 10 years old then. She read materials on Anne appropriate for her age (Who Was Anne Frank?) and told her mom there should be an Anne Frank Day. During the pandemic, Olivia wrote a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein. Our board and Olivia soon met with Senator Padilla, who brought it to the attention of former City Councilman Paul Koretz. With his help, the City declared an annual Anne Frank Day in L.A. We worked closely with the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel to make sure that our mission was in alignment with the organization that Otto Frank founded (The Fonds protects Anne's copyright in all respects and that the messaging we put forth does not iconize Anne Frank, but also includes the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. We also are devoted to keeping her messaging alive and helping a new generation translate her experiences in a way that resonates with their own and their historical family experiences.
Margrit Polak: My father, Jack Polak, founded the Anne Frank Center USA in New York in the 1970s with Otto Frank. My dad was friendly with Otto (who I never had the opportunity to meet), Eva Schloss, and Miep Gies (who we did meet, picture to be sent to you), and his passion for Holocaust Education was as important to him as anything can be. He did not start speaking about it until he was already in his 60s but could travel and lecture well into his 90s. On the Canopy link for LAUSD, you can watch the Michele Ohayon/Netflix documentary about my parents' camp experiences. He was in Westerbork and Bergen Belsen, like Anne and Margot. My mother went to the same Montessori Lyceum as Anne and Margot (who were just a bit younger than she was). Since I've become involved in the world of Anne Frank, even more strange connections have come forth. (tell Betty's story!) I really feel the mission of passing the torch from witness to child of witness to students, and my own daughter Sofia, who considered her grandfather her best friend, is devoted to this as well!
I am a child of Holocaust survivors. Do you think we all view the world slightly differently? I think about this a lot when thinking about what it means to leave a legacy; telling our family stories.
Margrit Polak: Yes, we not only carry our parents' specific trauma with us (and I say this with full inclusion to others who carry a difficult family history), but many of us also carry the burden and responsibility to speak for 6 million other Jews who have no voice. It is an awesome and unenviable feeling. In a world full of discrimination, it is also strange to feel like a 'hidden' victim. I cannot ignore the fact that my outward appearance is not the basis for the discrimination that exists against me and other Jews. But because I can 'pass' as a non-Jew, I receive fairer treatment than others in many situations. In regards to telling the stories, I feel that I don't have a choice. I had several prescient dreams after my father passed away at 102, dictating that this is a life mission for me.
Sofi Shield: For as long as I can remember, my grandfather would say this statement: "I should not be alive. And because I should not be alive, you should not be alive. But because you are alive, you have to use the life you've been given." This is a pretty heavy idea for a five-year-old to process, but as I got older, I struggled with this sense of obligation to my family's legacy and my duty to uphold it. It got more complicated as I thought of all the family members who did not survive and who my family also had to remember and represent. What I realized, and I often tell myself, is that my grandparents did not endure what they did for their story to die with me. However, they also did not struggle so much for me to also have to struggle. I need to respect my boundaries and emotional limits and understand that because these topics hit close to home, I might have a different capacity for them than other people.
I first read Anne Frank's Diary when I was 14. Do you think teens today can still connect with it? Is their world too different?
Harvey Shield: The proof is in the news. Her story remains as relevant today as ever. The world has changed, but human nature remains much the same. It is important to teach the extent of man's inhumanity to his fellow man.
Sofi Shield: While we are not trying to make a direct comparison between what happened during the Holocaust and the tensions and hardships that are occurring nowadays, the feelings Anne expresses, such as frustration, confusion, sadness, loneliness, and uncertainty, are felt by youth around the world today. Anne's thoughts, feelings, and ideas about being trapped inside while injustices occurred all around her resonated with many young people, particularly during Covid. While we absolutely cannot compare quarantining to being in hiding, nor do we encourage or endorse such comparisons, some young people may be able to use Anne's words as a tool and catalyst for their own self-expression in new and uncertain circumstances.
Sofi Shield: I hope Anne's diary remains relevant and encourages young people to reflect on and process the world around them. The medium of that reflection might look different for teenagers today, maybe they write a song, or maybe they write a blog post on their phones or laptops, but the idea that we need to take time to process situations in our own way should always remain important.
Why does Anne's story continue to resonate with young people today?
Harvey Shield: Anne's story has resonated with young people around the world since the Diary's publication. It has inspired, taught, and helped generations of teens through all those years, and we believe its message is as powerful today as ever.
Sofi Shield: It is the second most translated book after the Bible, and new adaptations of her story and the stories of those around her are continuing to be developed and released in all forms of media. While Anne's words on their own remain relevant, the addition of new resources and perspectives invites new conversations and windows into relating to her story.
Sofi Shield: I hope all types of young people are inspired and motivated to explore their own family legacies. And whether they find legacies that they want to uphold or legacies that they want to change, I hope that they are empowered to do so!
Why Anne Frank LA? Why was it important for you to have an organization based in Los Angeles as opposed to New York or another East Coast City?
Margrit Polak: The US is such a huge nation, and each region has a different mix of immigrants and descendants from around the world. Most Americans come from historic backgrounds where their families needed to flee their country of origin. The Indigenous American population were decimated by these immigrants, and this still demands reparation. Los Angeles has a rich melange of Latin, Southeast Asian, Armenian, Japanese, African, and Jewish, as well as many other survivors of atrocities in their homelands, and one of the most culturally diverse and creatives hubs in the world, L.A. offers unique kinds of opportunities for messaging. I think it’s ultimately important for us to set up different hubs in different areas of the country to help translate Anne’s story and connect it to what the inhabitants of these areas have experienced, whether currently, for example, in Ukraine or as distant in the past as the potato famines in Ireland.
Why is AFLA's work so important right now?
Harvey Shield: In today's USA, we are seeing more political violence, more racial hatred towards minorities, and more religious intolerance, particularly anti-semitism. These are the same trends that were prevalent in Germany before the Nazis came to power. We believe it is imperative to teach the lessons of the Holocaust so they are never repeated and never forgotten.