We walked from the train station to find Anne Frank House. As the GPS showed us getting closer and closer to it, I began to imagine Nazi boots thumping those very cobbled streets in the 1940s. The houses looked disarmingly cozy, the canals picturesque and quaint… A marching army would have looked so out-of-place…
Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the last hiding place of the Jewish Frank family from Frankfurt, is now a restricted-entry museum. This house (actually an office with a secret annexe) comes alive in the Diary of Anne Frank. I had read it back in school and still remembered one line, “listening to the birds sing… and holding a darling boy in your arms.. what could be nicer?” Written by a young girl, locked away for months, hiding for fear of her life.. Resilience doesn’t always show up with loud chest-thumping.
We waited 2 hours for entry in the longest queue I have seen in this part of the world. It was a cold and windy day. I reminded myself, “We are rattled by a minor inconvenience.. Strong winds! Imagine what was suffered by the inmates of this house.” This ‘rational’ understanding didn’t prepare me for what I would actually end up feeling.
The queue quietened as we got closer to the house. A sign requested people to put their cameras away, “because for many people, this visit is a profoundly emotional moment”. I think this simple sign caused a huge shift. For one, it got people to put away their gadgets… and pay attention. I can only speak for myself, and it suddenly overwhelmed me.
Also, the reference to other people’s feelings suddenly made me more aware of their presence. I noticed some old people, looking very sombre.. How had the holocaust impacted them? Did they have a story too?
A smartly dressed soldier stood at the entry, with an arm missing. One soon noticed several people with disabilities. I also remembered Hazel, from the book ‘The Fault in our Stars’ visiting this house as one of her final wishes. Was this is a coincidence? Is there a special pull for those who suffer in some way, to connect with another’s suffering? Does it tell them they are not alone? Does it touch a deep spot that others miss?
The first room has life-size pictures of Anne- the liveliness in her eyes, the genuineness of her smile, make you feel guilty. Of what?
The office chambers have pictures of the office staff, the people who hid the Franks. There are also simple but proud posters advertising the jam they made and sold.. Someone wanted to kill these people who made jam.
A world war video is punctuated by people sniffling in the room. Many are moist eyed walking through the house. They look you in the eye, kindly. They smile, as if saying, “People matter. You matter.”
Then there is the secret annexe. The windows are shut with thick black curtains at all times, as it was then. It unsettles you to be there for some minutes. Eight people lived there for two years, hardly moving. You see their brave efforts to cheer up the rooms with cut-outs of movie stars.
What this museum never lets you forget is the human-ness of the people who lived, and who were killed, and who cannot be painted by a single brush-stroke.
The son of Dr.Pfeffer, Anne’s roommate during the hide-out, asserts that though uncharitably described in the world-famous Diary, Dr.Pfeffer was a wonderful father and a kind person.
You notice Anne’s handwriting in her diaries turning from a child’s careful scribbling to a confident flourish over the years. These diaries show writing serving its true purpose: to cope with living. Her father tells you from a video as you examine these, “Parents don’t really know who their children are as people.”
Anne died just 1 month before liberation, not knowing her father was still alive. Her childhood friend wondered if she could have fought to survive, if she knew she had someone to live for. I’m sure Anne Frank, the symbol of optimism and resilience, also had her threshold of complete heartbreak.
She was human, though today she is a symbol. Anne Frank house reminds you not to forget the story for the symbol. In the impressions of visitors captured on film, a Holocaust survivor reminds us, “This is a cult of personality. There are innumerable similar accounts.” John Green, reads out from his ‘The Fault in our Stars’: “In the list of dead, below Anne Frank, there were four Aron Franks..whom no one mourns.”
Yet it is Emma Thompson’s statement, that for me, explains the symbol most appropriately, “Her would-haves are our opportunities.” Maybe she means creating a world where people are people, and not labels. Maybe she means dreams and aspirations that Anne did not get the chance to pursue, and which we have no excuse not to.
If it is a real story, it is worth listening to. Not for heroism. Not even for inspiration. Just for connection.. and understanding the human condition. “Five million dead,” may not move you to tears. Few minutes in the home of one of them will.