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From 'Diary' to Living History Lesson : Exhibition: Anne Frank's World War II chronicle and its greater context are the subject of an upcoming Newport museum installation with local survivors as docents.

March 21, 1995|CARROLL LACHNIT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fifty years ago, on a day in late March, a 15-year-old girl died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. She was only one of an estimated 18,000 prisoners who succumbed to the illness sweeping Bergen-Belsen that month, only one of the millions who died in camps at the hands of the Nazi regime. But she is perhaps the one whose name is best known: Anne Frank.

For 25 months, the Frank family and four other Jews evaded transport to the death camps by hiding in the "secret annex" of a building on Amsterdam's Prinsengracht Canal. Sustained by friends outside, they hoped to outlast the Nazi occupation of Holland. But their hiding place was found in August, 1944. Anne's father, Otto Frank, was the annex's only survivor.

But something of Anne Frank--a glimpse into her loving spirit, her daily courage and her hopes--had survived too. She had kept a diary.

Now Anne Frank's life and times are the focus of an educational exhibition at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. "Anne Frank in the World," which opens April 20 and continues through June 18, is aimed primarily at junior high and high school students, for whom "Anne Frank: The Diary of Young Girl" is usually required reading.

"Anne Frank in the World" uses 540 pictures, facsimiles of the diary and other materials to tell the story of events from 1929 to 1945--the span of Anne Frank's short life. The exhibition draws parallels to the world today, suggesting that the political apathy, prejudice and scapegoating that laid the foundation for Hitler's regime and its "final solution" still exist.

"Anne Frank in the World" comes to Orange County at an appropriate time, said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

Reports compiled by the commission and the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith show a leap in the number of hate-related incidents against Jews in Orange County over the past two years. Thirty-one such incidents were reported to the commission in 1993. The number rose to 53 in 1994, Kennedy said. The Anti-Defamation League tallied 41 anti-Semitic incidents in Orange County in 1993 and 50 last year.

"Anne Frank in the World" reminds people of what happens when a society ignores or tolerates a rising tide of ethnic and religious hatred, Kennedy said.

"It's important to look back and draw lessons from that," he said.

A group of Orange County residents who survived the concentration camps or managed to evade arrest by hiding will act as docents or guest speakers at the exhibit. Some of them will also be paired with Orange County high school students to lead groups of students through the exhibition.

Also in connection with the event, a Los Angeles-based organization, the Committee of Concerned Christians, has donated 100,000 copies of "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" to school districts throughout Orange County.

The exhibition's focus reflects Otto Frank's beliefs about the role of his daughter's testament, said Barry VanDriel, international coordinator for the Anne Frank House, which created "Anne Frank in the World." VanDriel also trained the first group of docents for the Orange County show.

Otto Frank "thought it was important to remind people about what led to the Holocaust," VanDriel said. "He regretted than his family had been victimized, but he said that he wanted to keep Anne Frank's message alive for everyone. It's not just what happened to Anne's family or the Jews. It's a universal story. It appeals to anyone who has been oppressed in any way. They can identify with Anne."

Esther Leiner does--in an intensely personal way.

"It was like seeing myself," said Leiner, 61, a Corona del Mar businesswoman, talking about her first reading of Anne Frank's diary. "This little girl lived my life. I lived hers. Thousands of children lived this life, but she was able to write about it. She had the paper and the pencil to do it. That was the miracle."

In their home country of Poland, Leiner and her family moved from city to city in advance of the German invasion, finally taking refuge with the family's non-Jewish nanny. She hid them in a woodshed outside her house. Leiner's little sister, too young to keep the silence necessary for survival, was sheltered with nuns at a nearby convent.

Leiner's father dug a tunnel with his bare hands in the shed's dirt floor, creating a tiny, dark space where his family could hide for an hour or so from passing army patrols or strangers who came to visit the nanny.

For a year and a half, until 1942, Leiner and her parents hid in the cold wooden shed, never going outside and talking only in whispers. It was a sore trial for Esther, who was 6 when the family began its secret life.

Then the German army decided to billet a family of collaborators with the woman. She could no longer bring Leiner's family food or take out the slop bucket.

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