Anne Frank? Wher's that going on?
Shed One, starts Thursday, are you gone?
A thinks a will, but whit's it aboot?
It's a wee Jewish lassie who wrote in a book.
Extract from 'Ode to Six Million' by Gary Friels
Last month HMP Kilmarnock, the first prison in Scotland to be built under the private finance initiative, became the first Scottish prison to participate in the Anne Frank Prison Project. Organised by the Anne Frank Trust UK, this project was founded in 2002 and aims to educate prisoners and young offenders about the Holocaust and the life of Anne Frank, alongside encouraging them to respect themselves and others.
This combination of knowledge and skills is at the heart of lifelong learning and poses many challenges for individuals who have spent a large part of their lives opting out of education. In partnership with the Workers' Educational Association, prison education staff integrated the Anne Frank Exhibition into its literacy project. They wanted to reach out to prisoners who did not normally engage in education and hoped that the Anne Frank exhibition would stimulate interest and develop literacy skills in a less obvious way than traditional approaches.
One requirement of participation in the Anne Frank Prison Project is that a group of prisoners is trained by the Anne Frank Trust as guides to explain the exhibition's panels to visitors and answer their questions. This presented additional challenges. Firstly, the Anne Frank Trust refers to this group as a 'team', a concept which is difficult for individuals who are likely to have little or no experience of communicating in a close-knit group, and of helping each other to achieve a common goal.
Secondly, showing people round an exhibition requires confidence as well as an ability to speak and respond to visitors. Would volunteers be able to communicate what they had learned in an engaging way to an audience? And finally, as volunteers, they could drop out from the group and the project and at any time. Would there be enough volunteers to sustain the exhibition until it ended?
Once the exhibition was booked, volunteer guides had to be identified. These consisted of individuals whose ages ranged between 21 and 60 and who were either interested in education and/or this subject, wanted a challenge, or did it 'just for something to do.' While some were well informed of the Holocaust, others did not know anything about it or Anne Frank. They soon began to research the Holocaust and the second world war, and to write their reflective journals.
Research conducted by the volunteers revealed an unusual close link. They found that methadone originated in Germany during the second world war as the war had necessitated an alternative painkiller to morphine be found. They read that scientists at the I G Farben Company had synthesised this opiate (later called methadone) in the late 1930s, and that it was never used to treat pain during the war as its analgesic benefits were not realised until a few years later. They found this of particular interest because many of them had experienced drug dependency and methadone. One volunteer took up a staff member's suggestion of collating music to accompany visitors while they went round the exhibition. This involved research into the music of the Third Reich, songs that came out of the camps and klezmer music.
Guest speakers Henry and Ingrid Wuga spoke to the volunteers to assist with their research. German-born Henry and Ingrid had come to Britain on the kindertransports just before the war had broken out. They spoke to the newly formed group of 11 volunteers about their experiences as child refugees, and about their families, many of whom had not survived the Holocaust. They listened while Henry told them why he was sent over by his parents to Britain when he was 14 years old and why he was interned in the Isle of Man (although under the statutory age of internment), as a Category 'A' enemy alien during the war. Volunteers carefully read Henry's old German passport with the 'J' stamped on it in purple and 'Israel' printed as his middle name – the 'name' assigned to all Jewish males.
Volunteers' questions were wide-ranging and searching. One asked if Henry had a German and a British passport. Henry replied 'No' as he did not want to have dual nationality. Another asked if he felt hatred towards Germans after the war. Henry replied: 'You cannot carry hatred with you as it will destroy you.' Ingrid added that she had not forgiven the Nazis as her aunts and uncles were honest people who were murdered in the camps. Further questions focused on their views on Jewish prisoners who helped the Nazis, and on why the Nazis picked on the Jews. In expressing his gratitude of thanks to Henry at the end of the talk, one volunteer announced: 'I'd nearly come to jail just to meet you sir.'
For two weeks these volunteers took more than 100 fellow prisoners and their families, prison staff and students from Cumnock College round the exhibition. Visiting an exhibition is not a normal activity for most prisoners and this project, organised by the Scottish branch of the Anne Frank Trust UK, gave them a chance to experience information in a way they could easily relate to.
Working in pairs, the guides helped each other and each interpreted Anne Frank's experiences in a way that was meaningful to them. Some underlined key words on prompt cards to assist them in their remit. Others added a personal perspective. For example, one guide began by focusing on the year of Anne Frank's birth, 1929, as that was the year that his mother was born. This personal approach had a powerful impact on visitors. Visitors commented that guides were articulate, enthusiastic, well-informed and interesting. Additional creative talents that emerged from the volunteers were the choice of music that played to set the atmosphere for the exhibition, and the writing of the poem from which the extract at the start was taken.
The Anne Frank Prison Project surpassed everyone's expectations in the quality of knowledge that was consumed and demonstrated by the volunteer guides and in their commitment and interest. Every volunteer who signed up to be a guide stayed the course which is not normal practice in this environment. As the exhibition fades into the past, these volunteers may now decide to finish writing their reflective diaries. Many would have shared Anne Frank's feelings that 'writing in a diary was a strange experience for someone who has never written anything before.' Yet some are continuing to write and a culture group that aims to bring educational activities to the whole prison community is now being planned.
This article was first published in SR in 2009
Photograph at top of page taken at Madame Tussauds, Amsterdam