Anne Frank in Amsterdam

When my colleague and I first arrived at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the line was so long it went around the corner and as far as I could see. So we decided to come back early in the next morning to beat the crowds. The line was only about half a block long at 8:30 the next morning and we considered ourselves fortunate. With so many people wanting to see it, the museum is inevitably crowded. There were usually heads between mine and whatever I wanted to look at. It was dimly lit and the exhibits were hard to see. And yet, it was one of the most profound experiences I’ve had in a while.

I visited Amsterdam on a Globus Monograms program, an independent package that hosts you, orients you, assists you, but pretty much turns you loose to do whatever you want. There were three tourist attractions I wanted to try to fit in: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. Otherwise I was inclined to go with the flow and just absorb every bit of Amsterdam I could fit into the spaces between the structured events. That included a lot of walking around exploring, and taking a look at the unique features for which the city is so famous, such as the canals, dykes and houseboats; the shops, sidewalk cafes, bars, coffee shops and smart shops and the red light district. One has to see these things.

My next door neighbor Pieter Sommen, a native of Holland, lent me a history, Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City, to help me extend my trip backward along the axis of time. I had a DK Top 10 Amsterdam guide to identify points of interest. The hotels gave away free maps and instructions. Globus’ guides and hosts answered questions. The Monograms program included a city tour to see the basic sights, with a short guided walk through the Rijksmuseum. I also visited the Van Gogh Museum, and both museums were transcendent experiences.

But for all that, the Anne Frank House, with all its dinginess, bad lighting and crowds, may have ultimately had the greatest impact of everything in Amsterdam. I’m not sure why that would be, but as poorly as society treated a great being like Van Gogh, the treatment undergone by the teenaged Anne Frank was incomparably more cruel and barbaric. Her achievement as a writer and chronicler against such overwhelming odds is beyond comprehension.

The effect crept up on me. It takes some time to rise above the distraction of negotiating your way through the crowds to begin to come to terms with the fact that you are in the very space where a young girl and several other people hid for two years to avoid being taken by Nazis to a concentration camp and almost certain death.

We saw the bookcase that was built onto a door to disguise the entryway to the attic where the families lived over Anne’s fathers’ business. We saw the wall where Anne pasted post cards and pictures of her favorite movie stars to brighten up the stark environment. Some actual samples of her handwritten diary pages were displayed in glass cases. Quotes from her diary were painted onto walls. Video monitors played interviews with people who knew her, each of whom told the story from a different point of view. Relevant period footage was shown of the horrors of the Nazi conquest of Europe and the Holocaust.

One monitor showed an interview with Anne’s father in which he describes how he encountered in the diaries a person of much greater insight and maturity than he had known in his little daughter. A friend of Anne’s who knew her near the end said that when she died only two weeks before the liberation, she thought all of her family was dead. She did not realize that her father still lived when she succumbed to illness. If she had known, she may have had enough hope to hold on.

At some point the images of the old news footage merged in my imagination with what I was seeing around me and it sunk in that I was standing in the actual place where the story took place. And although the films are dark and grainy, creating a safe psychological distance, the actual room is full color, and much as it was in the 1940s. The sun must have shone as beautifully outdoors in Anne’s day as it did when I was there. The canal across the street was probably as beautiful as it is now. And for two years this poor young girl could never go out to the sunshine and fresh air.

The last quote on the wall before walking out of the museum was not of Anne Frank, but of Primo Levi. “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose faces have remained in the shadows,” he wrote. “Perhaps it is better that way: if we were capable of taking in the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”

It was a lot to absorb. I got hold of a copy of the definitive text of the diaries as preserved by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, and I have been poring over it. I found a paragraph from an article written in the 1940s just after the diaries were discovered that probably sums up the feeling of outrage and horror as well as anything.

“That this girl could have been abducted and murdered proves to me that we have lost the fight against human bestiality. And for the same reason we shall lose it again and again in whatever form inhumanity may reach out to us, if we are unable to put something positive in its place. The promise that we shall never forget or forgive is not enough. It is not even enough to keep that promise. Passive and negative rejection is too little, it is as nothing. Active and positive 'total' democracy -- politically, socially, economically and culturally -- is the only solution: the building of a society in which talent is no longer destroyed, repressed and oppressed, but discovered, nurtured and assisted, wherever it may appear. And with all our good intentions, we are still as far from that democracy as we were before the war.”

It seems to me as true now as it was when it was written.

-- David Cogswell

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