After a long few days touring college campuses, discussing literature, and spending hours on the bus, some of the PAGE girls got a break in their busy visit to the Triangle two weeks ago.
East Duke’s blue parlor — complete with a chandelier and marble fireplace — was reserved for a group who had been reading The Diary of Anne Frank throughout the summer.
As they filed in, a couple girls agreed that it was, besides the Biltmore House, the fanciest room they’d ever been in.
In their Duke T-shirts and braided hair, the girls rearranged the chairs into a circle, leaving a large spot for a highly anticipated guest: Barbara Rodbell. They argued over who would sit next to her. They got their notecards with prepared questions ready.
Rodbell grew up in Germany and met the Frank sisters at an early age, while they were both attending school in Holland and struggling with Dutch. At 91 years old, she remembers her story well — one that took place through her early teenage years. She knows the weight of sharing that story.
As the PAGE girls — ranging from rising eighth to rising tenth graders from Madison County— sat around and listened to Rodbell, the beauty of this intersection became clear. The girls were learning to express themselves and share their own narratives through digital storytelling projects, literature groups, mentorships with high school and college interns, and friendship with each other. And Rodbell was proof that the power of female expression and empowerment transcends circumstances and generations.
Rodbell’s stories brought the diary excerpts to life. She spoke about how naughty Anne was as a young girl — how she wouldn’t get out of bed if she didn’t like the dress her mom made her wear. She talked about when, in Amsterdam, no one could ride bikes anymore — how she had to walk to town to get food for her family because of her blue eyes and blond hair. She talked about her father, a lawyer whose devotion to the law kept him from hiding despite her begging. She described the process of wrapping up the body of someone who had died during hiding and leaving it in the street.
“(This experience) was different,” Allison Snyder, a PAGE participant, said. “Because whenever we learn about the Holocaust and how it was like, we just learn it from the textbook and from our teachers, but Mrs. Rodbell told us her first-hand experiences. So, it was different.”
Rodbell removed the yellow star from her clothes and used the identification papers of a dead 27-year-old non-Jew when she was 17.
“If something bad had happened, they would’ve known,” Rodbell said. But every time she ran into soldiers, they never paid enough attention to notice. Rodbell described the big Nazi “pickups,” where families were taken from their homes. Unlike her parents and younger sister, she avoided being discovered. She said she didn’t find out about her family’s fate at Auschwitz until three months later, through a letter from The Red Cross. She soon moved to the U.S. to stay with friends of her parents.
Photographs of the Franks were passed around the circle and flipped through by each girl. The girls asked questions about Rodbell’s time as a dancer, about the fame of the diary, and about her friendship with Margot, Anne’s older sister.
Rodbell made sure to answer each one in as much detail as she could while weaving in some advice.
Be aware of how your words affect others, she said, and refrain from saying something if it means hurting someone else along the way. She mentioned the hateful rhetoric in politics today. “It’s a really life-ending kind of thing,” she said. “It’s dangerous.”
Just as Anne did in her short years, Rodbell reminded the girls, “You do your best in the one life that you have.” She looked around and told them to be brave, and to be kind.
A week later, Rodbell made an over-four hour trip from Chapel Hill to Madison County — this time, to listen.
During their final exhibition, PAGE participants performed songs, presented their digital stories, read poems, and gave speeches to a church packed full of family, friends and members of the community. Rodbell sat in a pew near the front.
After the presentation ended, Rodbell said she noticed the strong bond between the girls.
“The wonderful thing is that they are friends and that they have a group that they belong to,” Rodbell said. “It seems to be actual friendship between them.”
Throughout the night, the girls shared stories — about dear pets, favorite grandparents and best friends.
“If you look at all the films that they showed, about their families and stuff, it was always about the people they love the most. Loving, and developing their hearts,”Rodbell said. “That is the most important thing, I think, for girls.”