Seventy years ago 15 year old Anne Frank lost her fight to stay alive in the hell that was Bergen-Belsen. It is ironic that perhaps, just perhaps, if she and her sister Margot had been able to remain in Auschwitz for the winter of 1944-45 the sisters may have had more of a chance, as although conditions were terrible, the gas chambers had been destroyed. Being transported between the two camps in October 1944 they may have even believed that a camp in Germany, the country where the Frank family had flourished for generations, would offer them a better chance of survival than their terrifying existence under the chimneys of Auschwitz in the alien “eastern reaches of Europe.
If the Frank girls had any thoughts en route that maybe returning to Germany, where they had their own distant memories of early childhood spent in the vibrant city of Frankfurt, they were in for a grave shock. By the time the Frank girls arrived in Bergen-Belsen camp it was a virtually abandoned wasteland of starvation and disease.
When we think of the teenage Anne Frank we think of a vivacious, and bright girl, who faced the world head on both before and during her enforced hiding. But the last seven months of her short life were very different, her prized long dark hair shaved to her skull, bearing a tattooed number on her arm to replace her name Annelies Marie Frank, constantly itching from her striped camp uniform and desperate even for a mouthful of the cabbage soup she so despised while in hiding.
In my early years of travelling around the UK with the Anne Frank exhibition, I almost became blasé as at each opening an elderly man would introduce himself as a liberator of Bergen-Belsen, and would describe to me what he saw there. I have not met a liberator for many years now - those first-hand witnesses are very few now in numbers. I even remember in the 1970s working for a company that had a rather strange warehouseman. I was somewhat fearful of this man George, until it was explained to me by a colleague that George had been in one of the units that had gone into Bergen-Belsen and what he had seen of man’s inhumanity to man had affected him mentally ever since.
A Dutch witness to Anne and Margot’s sickness in the camp recalls finding their two thin bodies behind the barrack where they had succumbed almost together, wrapping in a thin blanket the corpses that had been the sisters, and sometime sibling rivals, Anne and Margot Frank and throwing them into a mass grave.
So these were the final lice ridden, delirious, starving days of Anne, the girl who had written just a few days before her capture in the summer of 1944: "I cannot build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death” and went on to affirm: “I must hold on to my ideals, for perhaps the day will come when I will be able to carry them out”.
At the Anne Frank Trust UK we have decided to mark the 70th anniversary of Anne’s death (poignantly we will never know the exact date but we have chosen to mark it the day before the camp’s liberation she never got to see), not with a one minute’s silence, which has its rightful and appropriate place in commemoration ceremonies, but with a one minute of being #not silent. In other words raising our collective voices and making a noise to remember a young girl, who thanks to the tenacity of her Holocaust survivor father Otto Frank and the publication of her diary, could eventually not be silenced. In the intervening 70 years Anne’s writing and vision of a better future has inspired statesmen, such as Nelson Mandela who read it and encouraged other prisoners to do so while in Robben Island prison, and John F Kennedy, who said: “Of the multitude who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank.” And perhaps even more importantly the millions of young people who have determined to make the world better in Anne’s memory.
Led by the participation of notable people, actors and writers such as Naomie Harris, Eddie Izzard, Ceallach Spellman, Simon Callow, children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, Jacqueline Wilson and head of the New York based International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, we are asking everyone in this country and wider, young and old alike, in their homes, schools and workplaces, to take just one minute to film themselves (selfie style!) reading from Anne’s diary, or even just speaking about their own lives and hopes for the future. A selection of one minute extracts can be downloaded from the Trust’s website or you can dip in to the diary and choose your own. And we are calling on all those who do this to post their clip on to their social media or video sharing platforms such as YouTube or Vimeo, using the hash tag #notsilent to create a giant wave of noise and activity.
Together we can be #notsilent to remember an ordinary, yet extraordinary, teenager who died in terror because of murderous hatred and prejudice. Together we can be #notsilent to challenge all manifestations of prejudice and hatred.