In spring 2015, Brandeis English Prof. Dawn Skorczewski (ENG) will teach an innovative class that combines her interest in Holocaust writing and passion for collaborative learning in a course titled “The International Legacy of Anne Frank.” The course is designed to allow Brandeis students to interact directly with students and faculty in the Netherlands. Skorczewski believes that an international perspective is crucial for coming to a complete understanding of the diary. She is determined to take digital learning to a whole new level using weekly video conferences with Dutch students and professors, Skype tours of relevant Holocaust historical sites and a chance to travel to Amsterdam. 

justFeatures: What about the Anne Frank story prompted you to use her diary as the basis of the course?

Dawn Skorczewski: I went to Amsterdam last year on a Fulbright specifically to work with people in Amsterdam on developing this course, in addition to teaching American literature and film on the Holocaust.  One really fascinating thing about the Anne Frank story is that Anne Frank, when the diary came out, was not popular at all in the Netherlands. Her dad Otto came back from Auschwitz and found the diary ...  he knew the diary existed, but he didn’t know what was in it. What he found actually was a daughter that he had never known. What he concluded from that was  he wanted to get her story known to as many people as possible, and he realized most people never know their children. So the story was released as a diary and nobody read it, and then it was brought to America and they started developing a play. The play, The Diary of Anne Frank, in the early 1950’s was a Broadway hit. All of the sudden Anne Frank had an American life and was taken back as a famous person [to Europe] where she is now famous. 

justFeatures: Why is it important to have a cross-cultural perspective on the diary?

DS: The respect for the diary in the Netherlands is not the same as it is here, like it’s not taught to every 8th, 9th, 10th grader the way it is in the States.  Though one of the pieces of the story is that the professors who are teaching the book in the Netherlands don’t see the book as great literature, they see it as a young girl’s diary. Whereas I, on the other hand, actually do see it as great literature, and the story is not just paradigmatic of a young girl’s Holocaust story, but for me, it’s the particular story of a brilliant writer during the Holocaust. We are working together in this classroom where the students in Amsterdam can see the students in Boston. We can, from our different cultural positions, encounter the Anne Frank story in all of the versions around the world that we will be considering together. So that’s where I got the idea, these very different cultural versions and interpretations of the diary and its place in the story of the Holocaust and its story of the Netherlands versus its story in the United States. 

By Morgan Brill/the Justice

Prof. Dawn Skorcsewski (ENG) plans for her class on Anne Frank, which will be offered this spring.

justFeatures: How did the course come together?

DS: Four years ago, I was on leave in Belgium ... That was about four years ago, and I met someone there who asked me to give lectures at the University of Gent, and he told me that there was someone in Amsterdam who did similar work on the Holocaust. I spoke with a number of people, one of them who worked at the Anne Frank House about the possibility of having some kind of connection between courses, and initially I was thinking that we wouldn’t have that the students wouldn’t have that much contact but that they would work together because I thought that an international perspective on the Holocaust was essential. ... I wanted an international, a transnational approach. And also I’m interested in digital technology. Two years ago, we had a class called “Writing the Holocaust,” in which students from Amsterdam did write papers with students from my class here, so I wanted to continue to develop that relationship.

JF: Can you describe the structure of the course?

DS: Every Monday and Wednesday morning, we’ll be meeting with students from Amsterdam to discuss a text. A professor from Amsterdam will come here and teach in my classroom for me and I will go back to Amsterdam so that’s happening in April.  She’ll be working in the English department but she’s also a historian who works in the Anne Frank House, so she’ll be giving lectures on campus about her work on the Holocaust … For part of the course students in Amsterdam will be visiting a few major Holocaust sites and they will be taking us with them on Skype tours.  At the end of this course, two students will win a trip to the Netherlands to look at the Anne Frank House as interns. 

JF: Did you model this unique course off of similar courses at other schools?

DS: No. It’s so interesting that I’ve always been fascinated with how students working together can create what goes beyond how much they can create on their own. My impression is that when students put their heads together, especially when they’re from different universities ... they create together interpretations of texts, ideas, concepts, that they just didn’t have before they started ... the virtual classroom has exponential possibilities and we don’t know what they are yet. However it’s a lot different to be talking to students from far away than it is to be with them. So I feel like if I never sat in the same place as them it would be a totally different experience so I would like to, as much as possible, in an online environment, create opportunities where the bodies feel real. When [Professor] Dienke Hondius appears before my students in the spring she will be a real live person who was on the screen for two months, which is exciting. 

JF: What do you think is going to be the biggest logistical challenge?

DS: Well I think the fact that it’s such an early class is going to be difficult for Brandeis students. The second thing that I think is that there is always the possibility that we’ll have a problem with the technology. We’ve tested it out, it seems like it’s working but you can’t be sure. 

JF: Do you find teaching classes that relate to the Holocaust difficult because it’s such an emotionally potent topic for a lot of people?

 DS: We talk a lot in the beginning of the course about how the material is very emotionally charged topic and how it’s one of the most painful events in human history. But you know, I bring Holocaust survivors in to talk to my classes and a lot of what they talk about is how grateful they are to be alive and how important it is for them to tell their stories. So yes it’s really difficult material ...  but we still have to talk about it. So yes, it’s hard. And yes, we still have to talk about it. 

JF: What do you hope students will take away from the experience?

DS: If students want to have an international experience but for some reason or another they can’t go abroad during their time here, this is a really good opportunity. You might not think of it like that. You might think, ‘do I really want to learn about Anne Frank?’ but this is another way to think about the class. It’s an international education experience, that’s a really important piece of it for me. 


—Jaime  Kaiser