The CultureMap Interview
Holocaust scholar Charlotte Decoster on Anne Frank and why she was anything but typical
Charlotte Decoster is a walking encyclopedia about Anne Frank. And it’s a good thing too, as she serves as the voiceover for Frank’s diary at the Dallas Holocaust Museum. Decoster, a native of Belgium, reads Anne’s words in the original Dutch and also translates them to English for a special exhibit displaying the Frank family’s private photo album. Decoster recently walked through the museum with CultureMap and shared her insights.
CultureMap: How did you first become interested in Anne Frank and the holocaust?
Charlotte Decoster: My grandfather was a liberator and a medical doctor. When the British military moved through Belgium, he joined up with them. For two years, he helped Jewish victims recuperate medically in Germany at the former site of Bergen Belsen, the concentration camp where Anne Frank and her sister Margo died of typhus. If she had lived a few weeks longer, my grandfather could have been the one to nurse her back to health.
“We tend to focus so much on horrors of the holocaust that we neglect these beautiful lives that existed before,” Decoster says.
CM: Why do you think Anne Frank’s legacy has been so enduring?
CD: Anne was a very good writer for such a young age, and she edited her works several times. She loved Hollywood and wanted to be an actress or a writer, and she hoped that her work would one day be published.
Her father, Otto, realized how important Anne’s memories were not only to her but to the rest of the world to learn about the persecution of the Jews.
He was really the driving force to make sure that her legacy grew. He created the Ann Frank foundation in Switzerland, and soon after that the Anne Frank House opened in Amsterdam, along with the Anne Frank Center in New York.
CM: What’s something most people don’t know about Anne Frank?
CD: Most people know little tidbits about Anne Frank, but a lot of people don’t know basic things about her story. For example, she didn’t hide in an attic. She hid in an annex.
CM: Were you surprised by anything about the exhibit?
CD: The thing that surprised me the most is where these pictures came from. The photos were actually lost for a long time.
When Jews were sent to concentration camps, a Dutch moving company was in charge of taking their belongings out of houses and storing them in Amsterdam before they were eventually sent to Germany to be redistributed. When the Frank family was captured, the photo albums were hidden in the couch.
It’s a mystery where they’ve been all these years, but when the Anne Frank House opened in Amsterdam in the ’90s, a cardboard box with the photo albums was on the steps. Otto Frank died in 1980, so he never found out they’d been recovered.
CM: What does the photo exhibit add to our understanding of Anne Frank and her family?
CD: It gives you a glimpse into their everyday lives before they went into hiding. It shows photos from school days, vacations and holidays. We tend to focus so much on horrors of the holocaust that we neglect these beautiful lives that existed before. It’s a celebration of the Frank family.
CM: What’s a typical day like for you?
CD: I basically teach teachers about the holocaust. I run teacher workshops, help school groups that come to the museum, train museum docents and write curriculum for students. I just developed an Anne Frank Curriculum trunk that teachers can check out free. We’ve had requests from as far as Oklahoma.
CM: How did you end up in Dallas?
CD: I’d been to Texas several times for horse riding competitions before I attended Austin College in Sherman. I met my husband there and he’s from Gainesville. I found that you can’t take a Texan out of Texas, so I was very happy to find a job here.
CM: You recently earned your doctorate in history at the University of North Texas. What was the topic of your dissertation?
CD: Rescue networks that operated in Western Europe during the holocaust. My research also involved hidden children.
The interesting thing is that Anne Frank is recognized as the example of the hidden child, but she couldn’t be more atypical. Most children hid alone, not with their families, and very few kept diaries as it was both dangerous and expensive to buy paper. Lastly, unlike Anne and her sister Margo, many children hidden during the holocaust survived.
Anne Frank: A Private Photo Album is on display at the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance until March 31.