Like many people, The Diary of Anne Frank is the first book I can remember that gave me a hint of how unjust life can be and how cruel people can be.
I’ve lived in the Netherlands for ten months now, but other than going to the airport or changing trains, I’ve spent very little time in Amsterdam, where Anne Frank and her family hid for a couple of years during the war. When my parents told me they wanted to visit me and Smarty Pants, I knew immediately that it was an opportunity to visit the attic apartment that had lived in my imagination for decades.
The day started out in bizarre fashion. I hadn’t realized that it was Pride week in Amsterdam, or that the day we’d booked our tickets for was when there would be a Pride parade on boats down the canal in front of Anne Frank’s house.
We had booked our tickets to the Anne Frank Museum several days in advance (note to travelers: DO THIS. It saves you from standing in a massive line to buy tickets, and because the space inside is small they don’t seem to let everyone in at once). When we entered, we were warned not to take any photographs, so I’m afraid the only ones I can share with you are of people waiting for the Pride parade to start outside.
The apartment was above Mr. Frank’s business—a detail I’d forgotten since reading the book as a teenager. The strange thing was that when we were in the offices and storerooms—the areas the public knew about—we could hear the thumping music from outside. Very odd looking at photos of the families who hid while “It’s Raining Men” played in the background.
But once we passed through the bookcase that hid stairs up to the third floor, there was no longer any light or sound from outside. This part is at the back of the house and feels completely isolated from the rest of the world.
Anne’s father Otto Frank was the only one who survived the war, and when the house was being turned into a museum he requested that the rooms be empty of all furniture as a symbol of the void left behind by the millions of people murdered by the Nazis. I think because of that the apartment feels a bit more spacious than I was expecting. But once I started picturing it with several adults and teens who couldn’t leave (except to go downstairs at night), it felt claustrophobic.
There were several things that choked me up. First was seeing the pencil markings on the wall where someone measured Anne and her older sister’s growth over the years they hid.
Second was Anne’s room, which she plastered with photos of movie stars ripped from magazines that her dad brought to the apartment for her when he was preparing it for their hiding place.
Next were the video interviews with a couple of survivors—Anne’s father (embedded below) and her childhood friend. Anne’s friend, speaking decades later, said that she saw Anne in the camp. Anne thought that her whole family had died, and her friend recalled that Anne’s spirit seemed to leave her. Anne died within a couple of months, and her friend was left wondering if Anne might have fought harder to survive if she’d known her father was still alive.
What affected me most, though, was Anne’s father—talking as a much older man—recalling how the diary had survived after they were arrested and the apartment ransacked. One of the employees who’d helped them throughout the war found it among papers when she was cleaning up the mess. She held onto it for Anne’s return, and when she found out Anne wouldn’t be coming back, she gave the diary to Anne’s father.
Anne and her father were very close. They went into hiding just after Anne’s 13th birthday and were arrested when she was 15. She had often given him her diary to hide or hold onto, but she made him swear not to read it, so he didn’t. After she was killed and he received the diary, he read it and said he was astounded by how deep and thoughtful his daughter was. She’d often shared observations with him before, but reading her diary made him realize that parents probably never truly know their children.
How tragic is that realization for a man who’s lost his whole family?
When my family and I left this monument to people’s struggle to survive, we walked out into Amsterdam’s celebration of equality, diversity and pride.
And as we headed for the train station, I was hit again by the power of writing. Not only did it help a teenage girl cope with boredom, uncertainty and fear, but it also put a human face on horrific, industrialized slaughter. It enabled generations of people to connect with a girl whose life was cruelly stolen.
But even that left me sad because I realized I’ve never given much thought to Anne’s sister Margot, a girl also murdered but destined to only be remembered in the ways her little sister described her because her diary was destroyed. And I wondered how Anne’s father felt, spending the rest of his life talking about his remarkable youngest child, but probably equally missing his first born and realizing that he never really knew her either, and now never would.
Have you been to Anne Frank’s house? Have you read her diary? How did it make you feel?
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