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Anne Frank and the Freedom Writers

Anne Frank and the Freedom Writers

The message of hope lives on in a most unlikely place. by

When The Diary of Anne Frank was first made public almost 50 years ago, she came to signify the tragic heroes who survived the Holocaust, although she was certainly more heroine than tragic. Here was a young Jewish girl, hiding from the Gestapo with her family in a secret apartment in Amsterdam looking at an uncertain survival. Yet her diary revealed a sense of optimism for a better future, a lack of fear, and hopefulness that against all odds they would survive. And though Anne Frank perished, the diary that she left behind lives on, and continues to powerfully impact the lives of others.

The movie "Freedom Writers" is based on the true story of Erin Gruwell, played by Academy Award winner Hilary Swank. Erin is a novice high school teacher whose first assignment is teaching freshman English to a class of angry and disinterested white, black, Latino and Asian students in Long Beach, California after the Rodney King riots in 1992. Passionate about teaching and determined to make a difference, she isn't easily deterred by her students' angry outbursts and a general lack of interest in learning anything she's so earnestly trying to teach them. Instead, she searches for ways to appeal to them.

The opportunity presents itself in the form of a cartoon she confiscates from one of the students in class. Depicted in the cartoon is a hand drawn caricature of a black man with exaggerated thick lips. Erin then makes the connection between the drawing she holds in her hand and the cartoons used for anti-semitic propaganda leading up to the Holocaust - which only one student in the class had even heard of. But now that she has their attention, the door to their expanded universe is about to open.

Since the school board and her superiors consider her students a lost cause, Erin takes two part time jobs so that she can buy her students books that they can relate to. Surprisingly, instead of choosing a book about the inner city experience, she selects one with a Jewish theme instead -- The Diary of Anne Frank. Unexpectedly, it is a book to which they feel an instant connection. Not only can they understand Anne's adolescent angst, but they also know well her feelings of helplessness and alienation in a world she cannot control but which threatens to destroy her. With drive by shootings, random attacks and gang wars a normal part of their own lives, they see the destructive power of prejudice and blind hatred.

"Anne Frank understands our situation," says Eva, one of the Latina girls. So totally identified is she with Anne that when she realizes that Anne dies, Eva is outraged and feels personally betrayed. "Why didn't you tell us that she dies?" she rails at Erin.

The Diary serves as a moral imperative to rise above their own suffering and to survive, enlightened just as the Jewish people have managed to do.

Erin then gives them journals in which to make daily entries on anything at all that comes to mind. Their personal writings convey the tension, mindless violence, and sadness that dominate their lives. Excerpts from their journals are used very effectively in voice-overs during the film and their prose eventually becomes The Freedom Writers' Diary, an anthology on which the film is based.

When the students learn that Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who risked her life to keep the Frank family hidden, is still alive in the Netherlands, they embark on a fund raiser to bring her to their class as a guest speaker. It is the emotional highlight of the film. Visibly moved by the courageous stories of this now elderly woman (played by actress Pat Carroll), the students instantly see her as a hero.

"I was not a hero," she says. "I was an ordinary person. All I did was do the right thing. But you are heroes everyday. You are turning on a light in a dark room."

Seeing that her young charges are now committed to "The Diary," Erin herself sponsors a trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. To personalize the experience, each student is given a card with the picture and story of a child who perished in the Holocaust. It is a poignant, wordless moment in the film, appropriately followed by a dinner with four Holocaust survivors.

This little gem of a film is filled with fine, authentic, credible performances, especially Hilary Swank's which is powerful without being dominating. It also does not use the suffering of the Jewish people to exploit sentimentality. Instead, it provides a context in which these young people can see their own suffering, not as a justification to keep them in the misery of their own lives, but rather as a moral imperative to rise above it and to survive, enlightened just as the Jewish people have managed to do. It's an extraordinary example of learning the lessons of history for personal transformation and renewal.

It is no accident that the majority of Erin Grewall's students went on to college. Their creating The Freedom Writers' Diary serves as a testimony to their transformation. As one of the students says in reference to their diary, "It's something to leave behind. We were here. We mattered." Just like Anne Frank.

January 13, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 9

(8) Anonymous, August 8, 2011 7:22 AM

Are we comparing living in America to Europe under the National Socialists fascists and their collaborators

It is a peculiar analogy to draw between a Jewish child and her family hidden from an entire world that looked only to destroy them on account of their being Jewish - and Black, Latino and culturally disadvantaged children living in America! Better and more accurately make a comparison to the Jews who escaped the pogroms and anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia, poverty and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe that immigrated to America - legitimately - and how they worked very heard to learn English, worked in sweat shops and did everything to raise themselves above the conditions they found themselves upon arriving in America. And did so without the support of tax payer provided public assistance, housing, education, utilities, food stamps, et cetera. None of which was provided to the Jewish children placed on death row for reason of being Jews! How dare a comparison be made with us children hidden from murderers from which very, very few were to survive. Oh dare you! Pointing fingers against America - What are the parents of these children doing to bring them up properly as Jewish mothers and fathers have done for millennium! They should be the ones in school to learn how from the Jewish immigrants that came to America including survivors of the Holocaust that became themselves and raised their children to be upstanding citizens of America and contributors to America and the world!

Dvirah, October 17, 2012 5:41 PM


Anonymous, August 8, 2011 7:22 AM is technically correct in pointing out the differences in the two circumstances, but misses the real point: how people feel when, for one reason or another, the "deck is stacked against them." Any individual has only his own experience to go by, and the feeling of being outcast in your own society is the same even if the severity of the circumstances are not.

(7) Anonymous, May 26, 2010 4:47 AM


Every so often I dream of writting something that would help change the world to a better place.

(6) Ryan Henderson`, August 19, 2009 7:14 AM

Moving and Inspirational

This movie moved me. It put many things into perspective for people like those kids in the english class. how one person can change so many others. just like the many heroes in the holocaust. Great film.

(5) roamin holley, August 12, 2009 4:57 PM

I love the books and the movies freedom writers

the freedom writers is a good book and movie to wach or read cause it amazing how the boy's and girl change there life around in the end and miss g hepl them out at lot if it wasnot for her most of them would of never made it to college or they might of been dead and the reson y i think teenagers can relate to the feedom writers cause uproble going therw the same think i been therw the same thing they whent to kick out of school shot at fight kick out my mom house and all that some time i use to were the same clothes twice a week when i was kick out of school and i got alot of bead home boys but when i read this book it insired me and i start going back to school innow i'm makeing all a and b and i'm in the 10th grade well i'm out so talk later

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