Sunday, April 11, 2010
Today started out continuing the forgetfulness of yesterday, though it improved quickly. We decided to head to the Anne Frank House first thing this morning, thinking the crowds might be thinner early on a Sunday. We were right, but even after a thorough run-through of our new pre-departure checklist, somehow I managed to forget to put the memory card back into the camera, so I was unable to photograph the Anne Frank House at all. Turns out it didn’t matter, though—photos aren’t allowed at the Anne Frank House.
Besides, the history in the Anne Frank House quickly overshadowed any small lapse of memory I might have had this morning. The museum is a somber place but it is exquisitely presented, with quotes from Frank’s diary painted or mounted in relief on the walls, excellently documented relics from the house and the Franks’ life there, and short video presentations throughout the house. The building itself has been lovingly restored, but wisely, they’ve only restored it to a point: When the Nazis arrested the family, they stripped the cramped living quarters upstairs of all its meager furnishings, and Anne Frank’s father Otto Frank decided to leave the house in that condition; the museum, acting on his wishes, has rejected any attempts to redecorate the rooms with replica furnishings, leaving the house eerily but appropriately empty. Still, they did briefly furnish it for photographic purposes, so we can see what it used to look like, and with Otto Frank’s guidance and Anne Frank’s diary, they also built small models of the furnished rooms, which are on display in the house, to give you a sense of perspective.
But the house isn’t without points of sublime, historic echo. As you leave the from offices and duck into the hidden living quarters, you pass through a reconstruction of the famous swinging bookcase, aged and stocked with period-accurate file boxes and books. On the other side is a worn metal handle the family would have used to pull the door shut behind them. As the crowd moved on up the narrow staircase, I paused to grip the handle, just for a moment, and imagine what it must have felt like to pull that bookcase shut each morning, or swing it carefully open each night. The moment was electric and profound.
Then, on passing through the main living room (which was also the bedroom for the Frank parents and Anne’s older sister Margot), I was stunned to find a faintly penciled height chart on the wall by the door frame, where the Frank family marked the growth of Anne and Margot during their years in hiding. Such a quaint, homey display of family life was shocking, all the moreso because it remains today, never erased. These were no reproductions—these were the actual measures, penciled by Otto or by Anne’s mother, Edith Frank-Holländer. It was for me a moment in which time folded onto itself, the past rushing over me in a physical way so that suddenly the Frank family and I occupied the same space at the same time.
When we arrived in the room Anne shared with the dentist Fritz Pfeffer, I stopped moving.
Sections of the two long walls were covered in protective glass, a kind of shallow clear box attached to the walls. Behind the glass, just inches from my fingertips when I reached out and touch the glass, were the pictures and postcards and magazine cutouts that Anne Frank herself had pasted to the walls to decorate the room. Because she’d had no way to hang up decorations but to glue the paper directly the walls, they remain there still, undisturbed even when the Nazis ransacked and emptied the house. There were Anne’s movie stars, her garden scenes, her drawings, her fashion photos. All the things she’d glued up just to find some cheer and normalcy in her life.
As I type this, I find I still must pause, remembering the sensation.
I believe that sometimes, rooms can absorb or inherit the emotions of those who live in them, that in cases of extreme stress or joy or anger or love, a room can serve as a memory of those emotions. I had expected this whole house, hidden away behind the staircase until the two families were betrayed and arrested and hauled off to die in concentration camps, would feel at best melancholy, claustrophobic, tense. Those emotions were to some extent still present in the upper rooms, and in the stairways. But here in Anne bedroom, glowing through the quiet sadness, I felt a sense of joy, a sense of determined happiness. I think it was probably just the psychological effect of seeing those pictures on the walls, Anne’s own determination to fill her life with whatever beauty and happiness she could manage, but the feeling, whatever its origins, was deeply moving, and I moved more slowly through the rest of the house.
I did cry at the Anne Frank House today. It was inevitable, I think. When you see the quiet, resolute hope those rooms represented and then move into the final museum exhibitions detailing the family’s arrest, their deportation and imprisonment, their murder—mere weeks before British troops liberated the camp—you cannot help but be overwhelmed. So much promise in so young a girl. So much horror for any human being to endure. So much….
I wept openly, and I trembled, but there was more than sorrow at work. I felt rage. I felt abject fury that anyone in the world had ever let the Nazis gain that much power, let alone exercise it, that we all had kept quiet for so long. To see what happened to the Frank family, as just one example among millions—millions!—and to realize our leaders could have prevented it all, before a war was even necessary…. I have rarely felt such anger. Such rage.
But the museum chooses not to end on that note. Otto Frank, who survived the war, chose not to remember his daughter in anger. Instead, they end on notes about Anne Frank’s diary, her determination to become a writer, and, in the midst of all that fear and suffering and uncertainty, her unshakable hope for the future of humanity. Strident, determined hope. I wept again—and am crying now, as I write this—for the compassion necessary to feel such hope, for Anne Frank’s sincere belief, even at so young an age, that through her writing she might one day be able to bring hope to the world. That is the message she wanted to impart in what she viewed as her first novel, her diary. That is the legacy her father wanted her to leave. And so that is the point on which the museum leaves we visitors.
Among the last exhibits in the museum, as you exit toward the gift shop, is a display case showing various editions of Anne’s published diary, and virtually every conceivable language. Dutch and English, French and Spanish, Russian and Romanian. Hebrew and Arabic. Afrikaans and African languages. Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese. Japanese. German.
Despite everything she endured, Anne Frank wrote. She wrote for herself and she wrote for an audience. She wrote with honesty but she also wrote with a purpose—she wrote to inspire hope in others. She wrote because she believed that through writing she might somehow benefit the world. And the world is reading.
This, I thought as I left the museum, is what it means to be a writer.
* * *
Afterward, we tried to unwind with a leisurely walk to and through the Vondelpark, the vast park/nature reserve near the Museum Quarter. It turned out to be the perfect decision. The weather was a bit chilly today, but when the sun peaked through, the park transformed. Joggers, cyclists, scampering dogs, blooming trees, a dozen small ponds rippling in the breeze and shimmering in the sunlight. The park was sometimes full of bird calls—woodland birds chirping, ducks quacking in the ponds, pigeons cooing along the sidewalks as seagulls cried overhead—and other times it was utterly serene, perfectly silent. The birds, the dogs, the people around us content to stop a moment and just enjoy the day in a peaceful hush.
As we made our way back into town for a little shopping and dinner at that Mexican food place we’d tried yesterday, we passed the large Buddhist temple dedicated to Kwan Yin, female bodhisattva of compassion. We’d visited it the other day but it was closed; today, we arrived while it was open, and it seemed too perfect an opportunity, so we ducked inside, where I lit a stick of incense and recited the short Tara mantra before carrying on with our evening. After such an emotional morning yet one that ended on such profound compassion, visiting the temple this evening made perfect sense, and we finished our day in serene satisfaction. I feel it still, and hope it will provide me with a peaceful night’s sleep.
11: 54 pm