Seven years ago, SUNY Buffalo State theater professor Drew Kahn made a commitment to honor the memory of Anne Frank, the young Holocaust victim whose diary has become one of the defining documents of the 20th century.
Three years later, Kahn launched the inaugural version of the Anne Frank Project, a modest attempt to bring his students face-to-face with history in a way that would encourage them to use theater as a tool for social change.
In 2011, Kahn took his first trip to Rwanda with activist Carl Wilkens to explore ways to link the Anne Frank Project to more recent and ongoing humanitarian crises, clearing the way for return trips with his theater students in 2012 and earlier this year.
On Tuesday, when the fifth annual Anne Frank Project conference begins its four-day run at Buffalo State and in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Kahn’s commitment will have blossomed into an ambitious affair including dozens of speakers, international visitors, performances and a museum exhibition on the life and legacy of the conference’s namesake. The conference is free and open to the public, with attendees encouraged to register through the conference website at annefrankproject.buffalostate.edu.
“We have moved from this silly, crazy idea of a professor, to a department, to an effort, an initiative for the arts and humanities to now a campuswide social justice initiative. As you can imagine, I’m thrilled,” Kahn said in a phone interview. “It’s one of the greatest surprises of my professional life, no doubt.”
One of the centerpieces of this year’s conference is the exhibition “Anne Frank: A History for Today,” opening Tuesday in the Burchfield Penney Art Center and running through Oct. 6. The show, organized by the New York City-based Anne Frank House, tells the story surrounding Frank’s harrowing experience in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam through a series of images and panels. The show includes an interactive exhibit designed by Erie 1 BOCES technology coordinator Andrew Wheelock featuring 20 computer stations visitors can use to take an interactive tour of Frank’s hiding space in a hidden annex in her family’s Amsterdam apartment.
Three local Holocaust survivors will speak during the run of the exhibition. Sofia Veffer, whose story mirrors that of Anne Frank in many ways, will speak at 10 a.m. Sept. 17. Marianne Goldstein, who escaped with her grandparents from Nazi Germany in 1936, will speak at 10 a.m. Sept. 18. And Sol Messinger, a survivor of the “Voyage of the Damned” on the St. Louis, a passenger boat, will speak at noon Sept. 25.
The conference will feature a presentation by Rebecca Davis, an educator who teaches dance to children in countries recently affected by major conflicts. Kahn and his students met Davis during their most recent trip to Rwanda, and were deeply affected by the performance they saw, Kahn said.
Kahn’s students also will present their original production of “Dear Me,” a collaborative play they wrote after traveling to Rwanda earlier this year.
And this year, lest any students feel that they are lacking an outlet for the inevitably heightened emotions the conference will evoke, Kahn has included several opportunities to turn talk into action. The event will feature an open mic night on Wednesday as well as opportunities to contribute to social justice causes in the local community.
“One of the things that we have found is that we were getting students to kind of crack their hearts open, and attendees, at these sessions. And they were kind of looking for a place to attach it : What do I do with this passion?” Kahn said. “So we have a community engagement center that will be open and running the lobby of the library throughout the conference, where various organizations from around Western New York who are dealing in serving marginalized populations will be there to give information to the students.”
For Kahn, the growth of the conference has been gratifying. And not only because it’s drawing increased attention to his theater program and to Buffalo State, but because it fulfills what he sees as an essential obligation of the arts to serve as a voice for those who can no longer speak for themselves.
“Anne Frank has been really good to us,” Kahn said. “I committed to her about five, six, seven years ago and said: We at least owe you and all of the children who are not allowed to finish their stories because of the atrocities of adults, let us continue to tell your stories.”
What: Anne Frank Project
When: Tuesday through Friday
Where: SUNY Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
What: “Anne Frank: A History for Today”
When: Tuesday through Oct. 6
Where: Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.
Tickets: Conference is free, but registration is recommended; Burchfield Penney exhibition is $5 to $10.
Info: 878-5559 or annefrank-project.buffalostate.edu