Why the Anne Frank House Is Reimagining the Young Diarist as a Vlogger
The controversial series stems from the museum’s desire to reach a younger generation by telling history in new ways
The Anne Frank House has served as a key steward of the diarist’s legacy since opening in 1960. But as the distance between World War II and the youngest generation grows—both “literally and metaphorically,” according to the Amsterdam museum—the institution has found itself searching for new ways to relay the history of the Holocaust.
That’s where the “Anne Frank Video Diary,” a 15-episode YouTube series featuring 13-year-old actress Luna Cruz Perez as its eponymous subject, comes in. Released each Monday and Thursday between March 30 and May 4, the five- to ten-minute clips find Anne detailing such topics as her relationships with other residents of the "secret annex," her joyous reaction to D-Day and her ongoing fears of being discovered. Rather than rendering the diary itself on screen, the episodes interpret events described on page with Anne as the videographer, not the subject of the camera’s eye.
The copyright to the diary is held by the Anne Frank Fonds, a separate entity that has faced off with the museum in recent years over how to best interpret Anne’s story. The rights restrictions means the series won’t be viewable in the United States and other assorted countries, but as Nina Siegal reports for the New York Times, users in 60 countries can view the Dutch-language series alongside subtitles in five languages.
The Anne Frank House explains the power of the videos in a lengthy FAQ page: “The strength of the diary is that Anne speaks to you directly and gives you a personal and poignant glimpse into her life. … We want to reach this group in the same personal and poignant way through [the] Anne Frank video diary. The video camera takes the place of the diary, yet the approach stays the same: Anne speaks to you directly and invites you into her world and her thoughts.”
In the same FAQ, the museum outlines the reasoning behind its unconventional approach, pointing out that “young people who are less likely to pick up a book … do watch videos on social media.”
The project has its share of critics: Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Rich Brownstein, a lecturer for Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, deems the series, which is viewable in Israel, “jaw-dropping for adults who simply cannot ignore its solicitous premise,” though he admits that it “may work as a starter on the Anne Frank journey, as merely a supplement to the diary.”
Brownstein likens the initiative to Eva.Stories, a controversial 2019 series that transformed the wartime diary of Hungarian girl Eva Heyman into an Instagram account: “Both productions explicitly undermine their veracity,” he argues, “seeming to suggest that today’s adolescents are incapable of understanding traditional narrative.”
Haaretz’s Avshalom Halutz, meanwhile, acknowledges the “immediate distaste that might be aroused by video diaries” but says the project is “a fascinating [one] with many good qualities.”
The “Anne Frank Video Diary” focuses on March through August 1944, when Anne and the seven other Jews living in the secret annex were arrested after two years in hiding. Though much of the dialogue is improvised, all of the events in the series correspond with ones Anne described in her writing.
“We are not making things up,” museum director Ronald Leopold tells Haaretz.
In the new adaptation, Anne’s father, Otto, presents her with a video camera—analogous to the actual red-and-white checkered diary—on her 13th birthday. From there, the series mixes short clips of the Franks’ lives prior to going into hiding with overviews of life in the Secret Annex, which the four members of the Frank family shared with Auguste, Hermann and Peter van Pels and dentist Fritz Pfeffer.
Of these eight Secret Annex residents, only Otto survived the war. Anne and her older sister, Margot, died of typhoid in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at ages 15 and 19, respectively. Otto published an edited version of his youngest daughter’s diary, preserved by one of the women who helped hide the family, in 1947; today, the work is available in more than 65 languages.
“I’m excited about this video diary. By replacing the diary with a camera, young people can easily imagine themselves in that situation back then, when Anne Frank lived,” says Jacqueline van Maarsen, Anne’s now-91-year-old friend, in a statement. “The idea took some getting used to, but I think it’s good that Anne Frank’s story has been transferred to modern times.”
The Anne Frank House offers seven educational videos designed to be taught in conjunction with the main webseries. Its website also has a student workbook available for download.
As Leopold tells the Times, the series’ target audience is students aged 11 to 17—roughly Anne’s age when she wrote her diary. “We need to reach out to the story as they understand it,” says Leopold. “We really need to think about new ways to tell this history and against the backdrop of an exploding media landscape.”
The museum planned to time the release of the video series—which has been in the works since 2018, according to Haaretz—to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Netherlands. But with individuals across the world sheltering in place due to the coronavirus crisis, the series has taken on a new resonance, prompting some viewers to wonder, “When will it stop, when will she be able to go back to school again?” (The museum itself is now closed because of the pandemic and is currently scheduled to reopen on June 1.)
Says Leopold, “So many of these thoughts and reflections are bringing the story really, really close to readers in 2020.”
That being said, the Anne Frank House is quick to emphasize that the circumstances of World War II were vastly different than the modern-day forces keeping people indoors.
“Anne Frank had to go into hiding for the sole reason that she was Jewish,” the museum notes in its FAQ. “Her persecution, life in hiding, and eventual death were the result of deliberate human actions.”