Monday 17 June 2013

Anne Frank House

Though I mostly bookmarked places in Amsterdam to return to another time, I did find time to visit the Anne Frank House - which is, as most people will know, the preserved building where Anne, her family, the van Pels family and a man called Fritz Pfeffer hid during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.  The heart of the museum is the suite of rooms (the 'secret annex') where the eight hid.

One practical hint: though the line outside appears very long, it did move swiftly.  The ticket office is actually in a neighbouring building (you pay a small admission charge) and there's also an orientation area with a short film about the events leading up to the occupation and the impact it had on Dutch Jews.  Then you move through into the building proper.

Photography is not allowed (not that it felt particularly appropriate to take photos) and, in any case, you don't need photos if you've ever read Anne Frank's Diary.  What I had both expected and dreaded turned out to be true: the house is exactly as Anne describes it.

Walking through the offices of Otto Frank's business helps to prepare you a little bit for what's to come: there are interviews with his employees who undertook to help the families hide.  There's also the surreal experience of looking out the window at the canal - the epitome of gracious, ordered Amsterdam and hearing about people being hunted like vermin.  But then, it must have seemed surreal to the Jewish citizens of Amsterdam, too.

From the offices you go upstairs and encounter one of the famous secret doors of literature.  Except that there are no friendly fauns or Turkish delight on the other side of this one: just six small rooms (if you can even call all of them rooms) and a cubby hole under the staircase.  My memory from reading the book as a teenager was an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia.  Now that I've been in the space I think I should multiply that by a thousand.  It is almost inconceivable that people stayed in this small space for so long with only the briefest glimpses of the outside world.  The attic (used for storing potatoes) where Anne spent much of her time is like a kind of heaven above the other rooms - at least there was a window in it.

Visiting the Secret Annex reminded me of the other strong feeling I had on reading the book - that sense of grief that the hiding, the claustrophobia, the heroic efforts of the 'helpers' were, ultimately, in vain.  Of the eight people who hid, only one, Otto Frank, survived the Holocaust.  There are heartbreaking stories of his search for his daughters after the war and of his decision to publish Anne's book.  Anne was in fact a prolific writer and several copy books and manuscripts of diaries, stories and other writings are on display, including one of 'the' diaries.

When I said that I dreaded discovering the house and the annex were just as Anne described, this is why: reading a book, you can sometimes pretend to yourself that it's just a story ... details are changed ... facts embellished.  But when I visited the Anne Frank House I had to accept that, in the words of one of my favourite poems*, 'the story is true'.

*Robert Creeley, 'Bresson's Movies'

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