20 April 2014
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

A visit to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam is an unforgettable experience – moving, heartbreaking and provocative. 

For anyone visiting Amsterdam, the Anne Frank Museum is invariably described as a “must see”. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, attracting over 1 million visitors every year. As evidence of its popularity, it’s open almost every day of the year. When I visited Amsterdam this Easter, it was top of my list too, in a way that seemed almost automatic – but then, the visit had been a long time in the planning.

I first read The Diary of Anne Frank in the mid 1980s when I was around 12. Coincidentally, my eldest brother and his wife had just visited Amsterdam, and sent home a postcard with a canalside view, describing climbing the steep narrow stairs into the Secret Annexe where Anne’s family hid from the Nazis from July 1942 to August 1944. Though Anne described the physical world of her confinement so precisely in her diary that I, like most other readers, felt able to visualise the space in my mind, it seemed miraculous that the hiding place was still in existence and could be visited. I made a plan then and there to visit Amsterdam one day and climb the stairs myself. I didn’t quite expect it to take this long, but as an old Dutch cheesemaker once said, sometimes good things take time.

In the entrance hall at the Rijksmuseum, I was warned by a sweet-faced Brazilian woman of German origin (bratwurst and caipirinhas – Olá!) to expect long queues at the Anne Frank Museum and to book in advance if possible. With all online tickets sold out a week in advance, it was time to do things as we did in the now near-unimaginable olden days before the internet: form an orderly queue outside and wait my turn.

My first attempt didn’t quite work. I got to the Museum at about 7.30pm on Saturday night, assuming (foolishly) that every other tourist in Amsterdam would be at dinner or trying to solicit a hooker in the Red Light District. The queue stretched down the street and around the corner, into the courtyard of a neighbouring church. By happy coincidence this was the site of Amsterdam’s memorial to the Homomonument: a memorial to gay and lesbian victims of persecution, and the first publicly funded memorial of its kind in the world. It’s in the shape of an enormous pink triangle – the top point is angled directly to point at the Anne Frank House.

After about half an hour the queue wasn’t moving (though it was getting longer behind me). It was a glorious evening – warm and sunny and blue-skied, with warm evening sunlight turning all the building fronts to gold. I cut my losses, and headed off down the Prinsengracht , found a canalside pub, had a beer and some croquettes, tried flirting with the extremely cute waiter, and toasted the silver-haired old people passing by in the canal boats.

I was back on Frank-Watch the following morning, and was there by 8.40pm, just before it opened at 9am. The queue was just as long, though with the expectant buzz of a sunny morning. Like every other aspect of my trip to Amsterdam, the organisation of the exhibition was impeccable. There was free wifi available for queuers, and a small woman with a face like Vermeer’s milkmaid wheeled around a trolley giving out free brochures on the museum in 10 languages. Two more volunteers appeared handing out chocolate eggs and wishing us a Happy Easter in charmingly accented English. As the bells of Westekerk church chimed 10am, I was inside.

A long time queuing gave me an opportunity to consider why Anne Frank’s story holds such a powerful appeal for so many people. The diary is required reading in schools over the world – but so are many books that are soon discarded and forgotten after the lesson is over. Part of the appeal is, I think, that most readers encounter the diary in their early teens, at around the same age that Anne was when she started writing it. Books read in childhood, whether it’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Dr Suess seem to work their way into our DNA and stay there. Similarly, books that speak to the experience of adolescence – that part of life when it feels like you’re out of step with the rhythm of the world and no one understands you – can leave a powerful impression. Anne’s diary is that most rare of things – a convincing story of adolescence written by an adolescent, admittedly one living in circumstances more extreme than many of her readers could imagine. It’s not a work that Anne would necessarily have wanted published in her lifetime, and the secretive nature of the diary brings a voyeuristic charge to the reading experience, just as the horrible circumstances of her death suffuse it with sadness. But despite the grim context of the book’s creation and its afterlife, it still holds up as a great work of literature by a talented young writer. As writer Kate Camp described in a radio review on Radio New Zealand, Frank’s diary “is more Jane Austen than Primo Levi”, and Frank writes about family dynamics with wit, perception and a great sense of character and human drama.

What strikes me most about the diary is how it insists on the reality of Anne as a person – unusually intelligent and perceptive, perhaps, but in many other ways an ordinary teenage girl: filled with romantic fantasies, eager plans for her future as a writer, irritated by her mother and the stupidity of adults, eager to please but also craving a life independent from her family. Despite the deification of Anne as a martyr to the Holocaust, it’s the clarity of her insight into herself and the inconsistencies of her personality that makes her human, and therefore relatable to her readers.

The same soberness of vision and commitment to the everyday details of Anne’s life is evident in the museum. Dating from 1960, it was largely designed by Anne’s father Otto, the only member of the Frank family to survive the Holocaust, and the first editor of the diary. When the house was first made available as a museum, Otto stipulated that the rooms should remain empty – no diorama-style reconstructions of the furniture, just empty rooms in an old house. There are dollhouse-sized reconstructions of the house as it would have been furnished on display, and photo reconstructions of the rooms, which are helpful, but the visitor is required to enter the space in a spirit of imagination and quiet perception.

I was immediately struck by how small and dark the rooms of the Annexe were. The windows are blacked out and covered with curtains, as they were when the Franks were in hiding there. Although the Franks were living in relative comfort for the time, it must have been horrifyingly claustrophobic it must have been when filled with furniture, especially during the day when the family had to sit in silence and not move around so as not to alert the factory workers below.

The only additions to the room are placards and the occasional TV screen, playing excerpts of documentaries of Anne’s story, and the occasional heart-breaking remnant of the past: photos of film stars that Anne posted onto her bedroom wall, and pencil markings against a door frame where Otto measured Anne and her sister Margot’s growth spurts. The emptiness of the rooms, small and dark and oppressive, creates a deep melancholy, but gives visitors silence and space in which to confront the experience and be alone with their thoughts. I was impressed at how everyone in the rooms instantly fell into a respectful silence. For twenty minutes, the only words I heard spoken was an elderly American woman who whispered “I’d love it if you could take my hand, dear”, as I helped her climb up the narrow stairs into the Annexe.

Janet Malcolm writes in The Silent Woman, her brilliant book about Sylvia Plath, that as humans we invariably identify with the dead. “We choose the dead because of our tie to them, our identification with them. Their helplessness, passivity, vulnerability is our own.” In Anne’s case it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for her, because of her youth and helplessness in the face of a brutal totalitarian regime. While the museum gives the horror of Anne’s life and death its full due – in a long gallery just beyond the Annexe, there’s a gallery showing how each member of the family died – I was impressed by how much focus was given to Anne’s life, and especially her life as a writer.

In a large gallery built in the house next door to the Frank house, display cases show Anne’s original diary with the red-checked cover, given to her by her parents as a 13th birthday present, and pages from the notebooks in which she wrote short stories and reworked the earlier extracts of her diaries into the start of a novel. In the diary, Anne describes listening to a radio broadcast by the Dutch government, encouraging people to save their diaries and letters of life in wartime for collection in an archive after the war was over. This seems to have encouraged Anne to think of a future career as a writer, and she started a novel about life in the Secret Annexe soon after. While the context of the museum reminds us that Anne was denied the opportunity to fulfil her ambitions, it’s a remarkably inspiring testament to the power of writing to give shape and meaning to our lives, and the possibility of creativity existing even in the most unbearable circumstances. I wasn’t expecting to leave the Anne Frank House feeling inspired or even vaguely like doing something like wanting to write, but that’s the note I left on – leading to the writing of this piece.

It’s quite something to step out of the austerity and gloom of the Annexe and into the bustle and noise of Amsterdam on an Easter Sunday morning. The sun was shining, the skies were blue and cloudless and everything was in bloom and resonating with life and colour. I thought of the passages in Anne’s diary where she longed to be able to go outside, run around, ride her bike and be alone – all things that most of us take for granted. I felt privileged to be able to sit in the sunshine nursing a caffe latte in a lovely café overlooking the Singel, drinking in the relaxed pace of the Dam district on a Sunday morning, before meeting my friend Katherine for lunch.

In an ideal world, Anne’s diary would have been published in this format, and the Anne Frank Museum hadn’t needed to come into existence. If Anne had lived a month longer, she would have been one of the prisoners liberated from Auschwitz. It’s possible that she would have been reunited with her father, and eventually had her diary returned to her. (The great Miep Gies found the diary in the Annexe after the Frank family were arrested, and kept them safe with the intention of giving them to Anne after the war). Anne could then have decided what she wanted to do with the diary. It’s likely, I think, that she would have written about her experiences – not in the raw unfiltered format of a diary, but something more considered, and probably published many years after the war. While Otto’s decision to publish the diary was carefully and sensitively done, it’s given a bittersweet edge because of its author’s lack of consent to the publishing process, and her not being alive to benefit from any of the praise that the work has attracted.

Life is, of course, imperfect, and Anne didn’t survive the war. (The Museum notes the incredibly cruel timing of Anne’s death, coming just one month before the war ended and Auschwitz was liberated). Otto debated for some time before choosing to publish the diary, knowing that Anne would have wanted it published in some form. In an achingly sad interview, played on loop in the museum, Otto described his surprise at reading the diary and noting the depth and perception of Anne’s feelings, which he claimed to be unaware of. As his eyes fill with tears and his voice trembles, he reflects that parents don’t really know their children.

Haunted and emboldened by Anne’s testimony, Otto devoted the rest of his life to promoting Anne and the diary as “a universal symbol of tolerance”, and spearheading the restoration of the museum. A year before he died in 1980, he said, “I am now nearly ninety and my powers are slowly waning. But the duty Anne left me continues to give me new strength – to fight for reconciliation and human rights.” And so he did: travelling extensively to promote the book, organising the American Anne Frank Foundation, supervising the construction of a village for refugee families in Germany, and committing to replying personally to every letter he received. “We cannot change what happened anymore”, he said, famously in another interview. “The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realize what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means. I believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility to fight prejudice.’’

Any moral hesitation on Otto’s part about publishing the diary – or any accusations that he was exploiting his daughter – has since been allayed by the huge international popularity of the diary, which stands as one of the foundational accounts of life in World War II. Anne’s most famous line, “I want to go on living even after my death!” has proved creepily prophetic. For many of us, Anne’s diary was our first experience of understanding the Holocaust and beginning to imagine the horrors of prejudice and incarceration. The diary acts as a portal for empathy, from wherein we define our humanity. The Nazis were able to gas and burn Jews, gays, Romani and political subversives because of a long, carefully calibrated programme of dehumanisation: first assigned separate status, then having their civil rights stripped, then finally being assigned a number instead of a name and slaughtered like cattle. Narratives like Anne’s help reverse that process, by letting us into the humanity of one extraordinary person – and for that experience, I am very grateful.

The museum’s final gallery is an unexpected provocation. Various scenarios of moral dilemmas, many of them drawn from contemporary events in Amsterdam, are displayed on video screens – the ban on Muslim schoolgirls wearing headscarves, the rise of far right political parties, or the random stop-and-searching of black people in nightclubs. Onlookers are asked to vote Yes or No on an electronic voting panel, and the results of the group votes are displayed on the screen, then compared to percentages of all visitors at the Museum. Having just spent an hour feeling sadness and outrage at the unfairness of the Frank family’s death and the horrors of the Holocaust, it’s a somewhat heightened state in which to make snap judgments about complex moral issues – but that seems to be the Museum’s point. By asking us difficult questions in that time and place, we’re forced to consider how our decision-making can be influenced by our feelings and the context of the moment. By being asked whether other forms of discrimination and exclusion are permissible, we’re invited to consider what the legacy of Anne’s life and death might be. The argument can go both ways – Anne’s history provides a powerful emotional narrative for banning Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic rhetoric, just as the publication of her diary makes as equally a strong case for opposing all forms of censorship.

Like many other visitors on Sunday, I bought a copy of the diary in the museum’s bookstore. As a latter-day convert to Kindle, it’s been ages since I’ve bought a physical copy of a book. It’s nice to have a tangible memento of my visit, and to have the profits of the sale go to the Anne Frank Museum rather than Amazon. I look forward to re-reading it, and to rediscovering Anne’s life, now that I’ve had an opportunity to walk in her little shoes for an hour.

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