*Anne Frank named her diary Kitty and each entry is written in letter form. In a search for some clarity in seemingly similarly dark political times, I thought I’d try Anne’s technique.
I spent last night lying awake revolving between fear and feeling sick to my stomach. My country has just elected a president with remarkable similarities to Hitler. (I know you of all people will understand.) So it was this morning, running on little sleep, and oscillating between shock and grief, that I unbelievably found myself standing in line to enter Otto Frank’s office building and wondering if I might find any clarity within. The Anne Frank House Museum is not a place I ever imagined I’d visit unless I happened to find myself in Amsterdam. Well, here I am in Amsterdam and last night’s events made visiting this museum seem more imperative and more daunting at the same time. It was a good thing we had purchased tickets online ahead of time so that we had a guaranteed entrance time. The weather, dreary with rain, reflected my foul mood and I didn’t want to have to stand outside any more than necessary.
At our appointed time our line began to shuffle forward. I took a breath in and let it out slowly to calm the nerves that had tensed knowing I was about to step into an emotional experience. Once through the doorway, I discovered the experience was not as I expected it would be. I had assumed we would be let into the famous annex in small groups at our designated time. Instead, once allowed inside the museum by your designated ticket time, you could visit the cafe, the gift shop, and start your tour through the museum whenever you felt ready. I went to the cafe, got a mug of hot tea, and warmed my hands while looking out the wall of windows. The rain continued to drizzle down on the long line of unfortunate tourists queuing outside. By the time I’d finished my tea, I’d steadied my nerves and felt ready for what was coming.
The tour starts on the bottom floor of the building that once housed Otto Frank’s jams & preserves business. Visitors crowded into the empty brick-floored warehouse room. This area had once been full of supplies and the eight hidden in the annex above had kept quiet while they could hear employees working down here during the days. Now the room was empty, devoid of everything save a small photograph hanging on one wall. The image, taken in 1999, depicted a recreation of what the room had looked like when it contained storage shelves and items. After the Jews were removed from the secret annex the place was ransacked and furniture taken. Otto, being the only member of the eight annex residents to return, decided that the building should be left devoid of furniture to symbolize the emptiness left by those who never returned. We were all shoulder to shoulder, yet there was no jostling. Everyone solemnly and politely stepped around one another to view the photograph. Strangely, I felt nothing. I couldn’t connect this room with its shiny brick floor and low ceiling which looked newly painted to the atrocity which had happened here. I was fascinated, however, by the fact that a museum of nearly empty rooms continuously draws an unending line of visitors, and somewhat abashed that the events which made this location famous continuously draws unending crowds of gawkers. This in no way helped soothe the feelings I was internally battling. Was this process about to replicate itself in the United States? And would those left visit the homes of those removed either to reminisce sadly or gawk?
The tour continued up a steep, skinny stairway to the building’s office rooms. We crowded into each room, again stepping around each other to view the photograph depicting desks and employees that once inhabited the office. Somehow, I had expected to see the tub which was placed each night in one of the office rooms where Anne and her sister had bathed, but of course this was long gone too. Finally, the last office before the stairs that led up to the annex had two tables in the middle of the room. On the tables sat dollhouse size dioramas of each floor of the annex as it had looked when filled with furniture for the eight hidden occupants. The annex would of course be empty now. Still I felt nothing. The materials in the room, the floor, the ceiling beams, looked too new. I just couldn’t associate this place with the once living individuals who inhabited it according to the famous diary. They still seemed like characters in a story. I was disappointed in any search for enlightenment.
“The ‘Secret Annexe’ is an ideal hiding place. Although it leans to one side and is damp, you’d never find such a comfortable hiding place anywhere in Amsterdam, no, perhaps not even in the whole of Holland.”
As we filed into the very skinny stairwell that took us up to the annex entrance, the crowd thinned into a single file line. It stayed this way as we passed through the entrance with the bookshelf propped open just wide enough for one person to enter at a time. The tight entrance also seemed to be a portal into silence. The line filed silently around the edges of each room. Nobody spoke. Nobody wanted to interrupt anybody else’s inner thoughts. I’m almost sure nobody even drew a breath. The rooms were empty save a photograph and one or two small artifacts encased in glass protruding from walls such as books or papers that had been deemed unworthy by the ransackers. The floors were a dark green linoleum with no scuff marks on them. The walls, a strange shade of light orange that were lit just enough by the dim light hanging from the ceiling, one bulb per room. The portions of wall where Anne had glued magazine photos to decorate her room were preserved behind glass and mounted in squares cut into the clearly newer wall panels. I was in line behind an older Indian couple whose facial expressions were always somewhere between confusion at where they found themselves and cold lack of emotion. I felt as if I should be feeling more gravity of the fact that I was standing in Anne Frank’s bedroom. And yet, nothing. All I could focus on was my wonderment at the people around me. They were from all over, spoke many different languages, and had all gravitated here. If so many different types of people had willingly chosen to spend their afternoon reminding themselves of one of the worst chapters in human history, then there still has to be hope for humanity. I can only hope that it is these people that would stand up to injustice rather than watch sadly but unhelpfully if their neighbors were to be taken away.
The last room in the annex contained the ladder to the attic, which although there was glass at the top to block access, a mirror had been placed just so that it reflected the view of the tree in the attic window. This was the only view of the outside world Anne had had for two years. It seemed as each visitor stood underneath the ladder and looked up their breath came back.
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of Nature.”
And then we stepped out the back of the annex. The museum has bought the building next door and broken through the back of the annex to create attached rooms which contain further artifact display area. The first artifacts to confront us were the identification index cards of the annex inhabitants that had been created upon their imprisonment in the various camps. It was here that my stomach turned over. These cards signified that they had not just been characters in a book. They had been very real individuals recorded and then dispatched. Please, G-d, let something like this NEVER happen again.
The next rooms contained Anne’s diaries and loose papers showing her original manuscript and her edits where she had begun to prepare her diary for publication. The annex occupants had lived through D-day and thought they would be free of the annex soon. Anne was an aspiring writer and had heard the Dutch radio address by government officials asking for personal letters and diaries after the war. Thus she had began to fix up her diary and gave pen names to the annex families to add her personal memoir to the national collection.
“‘The unbosomings of an ugly duckling’ will be the title of all this nonsense.”
The very last stop before exiting was a short video interview of Otto Frank made after he published his daughter’s diary. He stated that despite having a good relationship with his daughter, he never knew the serious side of her she kept suppressed under her outgoing and silly personality. He left us with the sobering statement that parents can never really know their children.
When we stepped back out into the rain after the experience my whole feeling towards the weather shifted. I was so glad to be able to exit that building, unlike Anne had been able to do. She would have given anything to stand outside the door for five minutes to breathe in the fresh air, feel the rain, and see the canal. Although I had not gained any insight into how I am to face the coming days, it’s good to be reminded every now and again never to take for granted the small things, like being able to walk in the rain, knowing that the sun will reappear eventually.
The line to get in now stretched down the block and around the corner. If you walked along the line, somewhere near the end is a monument in the shape of a pink triangle. This symbolizes the shape non-Jews taken to Holocaust camps had to wear in place of the yellow star. With these reminders so apparent in the city, today Amsterdam has the most diverse population in the world living peaceably together. If they can do it, can’t the United States?
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Know Before You Go
The museum requires time stamped online tickets (purchase here) until 3pm each day at which point they will let in first come-first serve until 7pm. Those hoping to get in without a pre-bought ticket will wait hours to be first in line.