Chinese American school takes Anne Frank to heart

Chinese American International School student Maikiko James, 11, knows how a Dutch Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis must have felt.

"I learned that it was really hard to be in the secret annex, where Anne Frank and her family hid," said the sixth-grader at the San Francisco school.

Maikiko, a Presbyterian of Chinese, Japanese and African American descent, discovered much about the famous ill-fated child writer by playing her last week in the school's production of "The Diary of Anne Frank."

As she immersed herself in the role, she realized how stressful it must have been to be prevented from moving around during the day, out of fear the Nazis would find her family's hiding place.

"It was strange because she always seemed so happy."

Now, Maikiko has begun to see what she and the young diarist have in common. "I'm as curious as she is, and I talk a lot," she said.

Though neither Maikiko nor any of her classmates at the school in the Presidio are Jewish, they have arrived at a new understanding about Frank and the Holocaust by role-playing and drama.

Maikiko and her classmates were eager to perform the play after their English teacher, Nitza Agam, took them to the recent Frank exhibit in Corte Madera.

"We all loved it because it was educational and sad," said Maikiko.

Sixth-grader Aleka Natzke, 11, found Frank's diary inspiring. "She didn't write any words of hate."

After being in the play, Aleka said, "I felt different for some reason. I could experience sort of what these people went through."

The play "is going to help us learn to be like Anne," she added. "Maybe it'll change our attitudes about prejudice."

One message Maikiko took away: "Anything's possible," and a Holocaust could happen again. She hopes teachers will "educate people not to scapegoat others," because "everybody knows that everyone's equal."

Her prescription for peace: "I hope everyone reads [Frank's] diary."

Students at this private school spend half their day studying all subjects in Mandarin Chinese, and the other half in English. While the majority of kids are of Asian descent, many are Hispanic, African American and white.

Eighth-grader Jeffrey Quan, 14, who played Frank's father, Otto, found it "good to learn about what happened to the Jews. Almost the same thing happened to the Chinese during the war," when Japan invaded China.

Bill Tuhacek, 12, who played Peter Van Daam, the teenage son of the family who lived in hiding with the Franks, was surprised that Anne Frank was actually relieved at first to be in a concentration camp, because she got out of her secret annex into the sunlight and fresh air.

Bill imagined he would have found the long hiding period that Peter endured very difficult, "especially for me, because I'm pretty active."

Agam, who is Jewish, included the play as part of a unit on prejudice that also included works by African American, Hispanic, and Asian American writers.

"You don't have to be Jewish to care," she said.

"You see these yellow stars on these Chinese kids, and at first it seems incongruous," she added. "But then you realize — it could be anybody" victimized by genocide. "That's what makes this play contemporary, relevant, powerful."

Agam's students have also kept journals in which they pretended to be a child in another time. They read a Bosnian girl's diary about life during the Serbian siege of Sarajevo.

Jewish-Asian connections abound in Agam's classes. Students have sung Hebrew songs, said Chanukah blessings, and tried Chinese and Hebrew calligraphy at San Francisco's Jewish Museum.

As for the Anne Frank play, CAIS principal Shirley Lee cites a Chinese proverb that says it is important to study history not only to learn about the past, but "so that history won't repeat."

Said CAIS board member Alice Carnes about the play: "It has to be told…No one can escape the message of the Anne Frank story."

The lesson has hit home. Julia Brown, 10, a Catholic whose tiny gold cross peeps above her shirt collar, also played the young diarist. Being in the play "made me think about how Anne Frank really felt," she said. "In the play, I don't really think I'm myself. I'm Anne Frank."