Saturday, January 21, 2012

Holiday Travels; Part 3: The Anne Frank House

The building now known as the Anne Frank House looks more or less like every other tall, narrow brick building lining Amsterdam's canals. I actually walked past it once without noticing, though once I was looking for it, it was fairly obvious by the remodeled facade and the short line outside the door. There's a rather steep entrance fee (with no student or youth discounts--the Netherlands is not as generous to the young and cheap as France), but it's worth it, and I'm pretty sure much of it goes toward preservation of the building and the museum's educational outreach, so there's that.

For those of you a little fuzzy on your history, the "house" was actually an office building in the WWII era and housed the business that belonged to Otto Frank (Anne's father) until Dutch Jews were no longer permitted to own businesses, at which point he legally signed it over to his partner but continued to be involved in its day-to-day operations, behind the scenes. And when the family decided to go into hiding for the duration of the war, it was in a "secret annex" on the top two floors of an addition at the back of the property. They lived there secretly for two years. Several employees who worked in the offices below were responsible for bringing them food and information, but the majority had no idea there were eight people hiding upstairs.

Now it's a museum, established in the 1950s with a lot of effort and input from Otto Frank, who was the only one of the eight to survive the war.

When you enter, on the ground floor, it looks like a museum. Everything is very clean and modern and shiny--lots of tile and glass and metal. Tickets are carefully checked (within six feet of the purchase counter, mind you) and bored security guards peer into your bags. You walk past restrooms and a bookstore and even a café (I thought that was weird, do you think that's weird?) before entering the exhibit. The first stop is a dark, empty room where several TV screens are playing a short introduction--much of it Anne's own words being read over film clips and photographs--on a continuous loop. The film (as well as most of the text elsewhere in the museum) is in English; a scattering of telephone-like speakers offers a choice of translations.

Once rendered appropriately somber, visitors file past a row of photographs of Anne, taken just before the family went into hiding, and into the office building itself. There, they move through a series of storerooms and offices where various photographs and documents and artifacts are displayed. Everywhere, there are photographs of the people in question and of the building as it looked in the 1930s and 40s. Poignant quotes from Anne's diary are painted on the walls, adding tidbits of first-person narration to the story told by the materials on display. Some of the windows in the front of the building, overlooking the canal, have faint photographic images on the glass, superimposing the 1940s view over the present-day one.

In the first room there is background information about the business, and also about what was happening in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in the months leading up to the Franks' decision to go into hiding. A display case holds a faded yellow star and a "Jews forbidden" sign. Later rooms are devoted to the role of the "helpers" who knew about the secret hiding place and risked their own safety to help those living there survive. Another film clip shows an interview with an elderly Miep Gies, who explains that when Otto Frank approached her to ask if she would be willing to help the family in hiding, she answered yes without even considering.

By the time you have taken in the backstory--the reasons for hiding in the annex, the preparation for it, the functioning of Otto Frank's business while he was hidden away upstairs, the burden on the few trusted individuals who helped the people in hiding--you have moved up several stories. There, you find a detailed scale model of the Secret Annex showing exactly how it looked during the two years it was inhabited. It is complete down to the tiny pillows on the tiny beds and the tiny photographs pasted on Anne's walls.

The model is necessary not just to help the visitor get a sense of the layout of the annex, but because the annex today is completely empty. Except for being briefly refurnished for the purpose of taking photographs that now hang on the walls to help visitors visualize the way the rooms would have looked, all of the rooms have stood empty since the arrest of the people in hiding. So the model shows us how things would have been. How functional--and how crowded.

After you have studied the model, tried to memorize its details so that you can imagine them in their place in the rooms of the real annex, you pass through a short corridor lined with photographs of the eight people in hiding. Plaques give both their real names and the pseudonyms Anne used for them in her writing.

Then, you enter the Secret Annex.

The movable bookcase that once hid the door from prying eyes now stands aside. The door is squat. There is a big step up, and most people of at least average height (not me) will have to duck while making it to avoid the low lintel. Seemingly perilously close is a steep* back staircase leading down to the floors below, once used by the helpers and now covered by thick glass, presumably to keep tourists from falling down it while trying to get past the bookcase and into the annex.

The annex is dark. Imagine two years in which not only can you not venture outdoors, but you cannot look out of your window at the outdoors. The curtains are always drawn. No sunlight.

It is also, as I said, empty. And yet--not empty. There are the few photographs showing the rooms as they looked in 1942-44, and short texts to remind us which room was used for what, but there are also traces of life there. For the most part there is no furniture, but the bathroom sink and the kitchen counter remain. A map still hangs on one wall, still with pins marking the advance of the Allied invasion. On another wall there are pencil marks, still legible, tracking the growth of Anne and her sister. And on the walls of Anne's narrow room, protected under sheets of plexiglass, are, still, all of the postcards and magazine pictures she pasted there to try to cheer up the little space.

These are not just empty rooms. They are a strange sort of hollow shrine.

They are also very, very small.

You think you understand that. You think you realize that with eight people living in five rooms, day in and day out, there must never be any privacy. There must never be anywhere to go. But nothing, not reading the diary, not even studying the model of the annex on the floor below, can actually prepare you for just how small that space is. Every room serves more than one purpose. Every room sleeps at least two people. One person sleeps under the attic stairs. The "big" common room on the upper story looks reasonably sized until you look around and try to envision it as living room, dining room, kitchen, pantry, AND bedroom for two. Imagine eight people there, constantly. The staircase is long and uncomfortably narrow and treacherously steep.** Imagine walking up and down it multiple times each day.

Standing in the center of the room where Anne slept, you can almost touch the walls on either side with your outstretched hands.

Two years. Imagine two years in this place. Two years of fear and hope. And in the end--it's all for nothing.

I defy anyone to stand in those rooms and not want to cry.

That part where you actually cry, though--that comes later.

You leave the Secret Annex by a tunnel that takes you back into the attic of the main part of the building. It is bright and open. The light is a relief--and also jarring. Then you emerge from the passageway and come face to face with the epilogue. A sign explains what you already knew, but had forgotten*** while absorbing the realities of the annex: Eventually, the hiding place was betrayed, and raided, and all eight people were arrested and deported. Here you file past their photographs again, this time interspersed with graphic images from liberated concentration camps. This time their captions tell you where and when each person died. Near the far end of the room, another heartbreaking video clip plays, this one an interview with a childhood friend of Anne's who encountered her again at Bergen-Belsen just days before she died.

The next part of the exhibit details Otto Frank's return to Amsterdam, his decision to publish Anne's diary, and his efforts to open the Secret Annex to the public as a museum. It's pretty amazing how much he was able to pick up and move on with his life after Auschwitz, and even more amazing how willing he was to share his family's story.

And the most heartbreaking of the heartbreaking video clips: Otto Frank talks about his reaction to reading Anne's diary for the first time, and informs us that parents never really know their children.

The last part of the main exhibit is all about Anne's writing. There are original pages on display, including the original first diary, and also a neat display of some of the many, many editions and translations of the diary that have been published over the years.

At the very end, back on the ground floor of the museum, there's a small exhibit dedicated to the life of Anne's mother. I didn't spend a lot of time with it, but I thought that was a good idea. I would imagine there are very few mothers in the world who look good viewed through the lens of their teenage daughters' diaries, so offering a more neutral perspective is a really nice gesture on the part of the museum.

Overall, I think it's a very well-designed museum. I really like that it manages to be both chronological and thematic. It's also very thorough, in a way that manages to be sensitive withut shying away from the gruesome details. It's depressing as all hell, of course, but it's powerful. Nothing really drives home the message of the Holocaust like seeing the remnants of its destructiveness, and the fact that end of the narrative at the Anne Frank House is Otto's post-war activism and Anne's legacy as a writer is really inspiring. Humanity overcomes.

** It's a little like climbing up a steep hill that's also in a tunnel. I have pretty small feet, and I still felt unbalanced because the steps are so narrow and steep. I also, as I've mentioned before, am afraid of heights, complete with vertigo. This is normally an issue for things like cliffs and ladders and bridges. It's not normally a problem on an enclosed staircase. It was on this one.
*** But actually, I kind of did. I don't know if I was just so focused on imagining life in the annex that I stopped thinking about it, or if being in the annex just makes you want so much to believe that it was all for a purpose, that it worked, that you briefly slip into denial. Either way, for some reason I was feeling like leaving the annex was the end, and walking out into the rest of the story was kind of a suckerpunch.

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