A few months ago, in preparation for a trip to Amsterdam and a planned visit to the Anne Frank House, I read Anne’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I blogged about my reactions to the book then. I noted too, that my wife, Jo, and I had tried to visit the Anne Frank House on a previous visit to Amsterdam. We had not expected block-long line-ups to get in, and rather than spend the better part of a day in line, we opted to visit one the city’s many museums instead.
This time, we secured tickets online well ahead of our visit. We also purchased tickets to an optional 30-minute information session given prior to the start of the tour.
Sarah, our presenter, used a timeline to show key points about the rise of Nazism in Germany, the factors that contributed to antisemitism, and the plight of Jews, gays, people of color, and others who were oppressed during Hitler’s time in power. Sarah used the same timeline to show how the Frank family responded to these conditions. She traced their move from Germany to Amsterdam when oppression deepened. She traced their move from the house in Amsterdam where they first lived, to the house at 263 Prinsengrachton where they sought refuge after the German occupation of the Netherlands in 1942.
Later, we were given audio devices for the tour of the house. Cameras were banned and while that was initially a disappointment, it kept crowds moving and focused. We wound through various levels of the house, up steep stairs, through the passageway hidden by a bookcase that led to the secret annex that housed 9 people for 2 years, including 4 members of the Frank family.
At every turn, excerpts from Anne’s diary were on display. Voices of actors in the audio guide – or in some cases, the voices of actual survivors – added another layer of information and authenticity to the experience. Photographs of the rooms’ interiors as they were used during the two-year period were mounted on walls. Display cases featured books, papers and implements used by the Franks and others.
Moving through the house, I was reminded of many passages I had read in the book. What Anne expressed in words became hauntingly real. The rooms were small. The staircases were narrow and tight. The blinds were drawn, mimicking the way they needed to be in order to prevent light from escaping and revealing the hiding place to Nazis patrolling the streets. The bathroom, which could only be used in the evenings when workers in the floors below were gone, was small and sparsely furnished. With every creak of the floorboards, I felt some of the same fears of detection that Anne had expressed in her diary.
Perhaps the most moving segment of the tour was saved to the end. In a meeting space, a video played on a continuous loop. Dignitaries and celebrities from Nelson Mandela to Stephen Spielberg, as well as ordinary visitors like ourselves spoke about the impact of Anne Frank’s words.
Also featured were friends and acquaintances from Anne’s life, many of them survivors themselves. Among others, we heard from Hanneli Elizabeth Pick-Goslar, who attended Sixth Public Montessori School with Anne in Amsterdam, and Miep Gies who hid the diaries until they could be returned to Otto Frank, the only member of the Frank family to survive.
The exterior of the Anne Frank complex looks very different than when we saw it on our first visit to Amsterdam. The building next to the original house is now part of the Anne Frank Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to education and the eradication of racism, bigotry and prejudice in all its forms. The new wing houses an extensive library, meeting rooms, and a cafeteria.
From our tour and the session before it, I learned much about the conditions leading up to the war that I didn’t know before. I didn’t know, for example, that Germany bore the weight of retribution after World War I, or how those escalating payments sent the German economy into a tailspin. I learned more about how Hitler seized the moment to blame the Jews for the country’s economic woes. He preached a message of false hope to desperate Germans that essentially said, elect me, rid the world of Jews, gays, gypsies and others on the fringes of society, and things will improve.
So much of what happened before and during World War II sounded eerily familiar. The rise of white supremacy. Leaders promising better futures by stoking fear and pointing blame at pockets of society. Oppressed people on the run, seeking refuge in new countries, but blocked at every turn.
Isn’t this much the same today as then?