Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Anne Frank House: "I Don't Want to Have Lived in Vain"

I walked briskly up Prinsengracht, away from Westerkerk and toward Huidenstraat, a woman on a mission. And what better mission: the chocolate boutique, Pompadour. So I barely noticed the three young men coming toward me on bicycles until they swung to a stop by my side.

"Anne Frank?" asked one, in heavily-accented English.

Pleased to look like someone in the know, I pointed back behind me. "Straight down this road and on the right. You'll see it." My ticket entrance was timed for two hours later that day, and I'd already scoped out the place.

He smiled and nodded his thanks, and off they zipped.

The Anne Frank House (or Anne Frankhuis) is a top attraction in Amsterdam, as you might imagine. Tanya, my friend with whom I'd be meeting up in Newcastle the next evening, had tried to visit on two other layovers, but the entrance lines had been too long. For this layover, she'd bought her ticket online, as I had, before leaving home. Neither one of us was going to miss it this time.

When I arrived at my appointed time, there was no line, and the museum was blissfully uncrowded. I was further pleased to find it well conceived and organized. I moved through the downstairs exhibits at my leisure. I then made my way up the narrow and steep stairs to the secret rooms where eight people had hidden themselves away.

I was surprised to find that crowds of people quickly caught up with me. They hovered over certain displays and moved on, flowing around me, missing many of each room's highlights. I had the distinct impression that many visitors were there to run their eyes over the rooms and check the "done that" box on their bucket lists. Thanks to my pre-trip research, I knew what things I wanted to see particularly, like the penciled height measurements of Anne and her sister, Margot, on one of the walls. So many visitors rushed past without even noticing. What an irony, I thought. How many others rushed past without noticing in 1940s Amsterdam?
While the children's height measurements (I measure my own children's heights on a door jamb in our cabin) and the photos and magazine pictures left hanging where Anne herself tacked them all squeezed my heart, I was prepared for those. It was the unexpected that made me catch my breath:
  • Photos of Jewish families lined up in the street for removal, the same street I'd just walked down
  • Anne's actual diary and her notebooks, which she began carefully editing with an eye to publication after the war ended; her handwriting; that these had been kept safe by friends and given to Otto Frank, Anne's father, when he made his way back to Amsterdam after the war
  • The three-minute interview with Otto Frank, Anne's father, the only immediate family member to survive; made in 1969; he was surprised at many elements in Anne's diary; she did not give voice to many of her thoughts; he concluded by saying that no parent ever knows his child completely.
  • Photos of the ones in hiding and the people who helped them; real people

I stood before the photos, the journal pages, the video screen as a crush of people pushed past me. I couldn't absorb as much as I would have liked. And my window of time was closing; I had a train to catch back to the airport. I felt vaguely let down.

I learned later that Tanya's experience had been much the same as mine. She'd been irritated by the hordes thickly surrounding displays, pushing through, carrying her along with them. She'd not been able to engage fully with what she was seeing.

Thankfully, there's much more to it. The Anne Frank House website is marvelous. Through it, I can revisit the house any time I like. I can take the time to process everything I saw in person; I can see it again online and more as well. This museum's materials and offerings need to settle into one's full self: mind, heart, and spirit. And that takes time. The website gives me an avenue to further explore, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to you.

Go. Read. Look. Study. Think.

Each day, the website posts a quote from Anne's writings. Today's is this:

“Even though I'm only fourteen, I know what I want, I know who's right and who's wrong, I have my own opinions, ideas and principles.”  -- March 17, 1944
And she did.


  1. Thanks for this very interesting post. I've been thinking a lot about Anne Frank, and wanting to re-read her diaries (when I last did, I think her family had taken some bits own - I have the newer edition). But, perhaps because my own daughter is 14, perhaps because we've had so much worry and struggle lately, perhaps because I'm a wimp, I just can't right now.

    But I think about Anne Frank all the time. She was amazing and she didn't live in vain at all.

    Did you learn about the chestnut tree? I read that it's dying, but that people have been planting from its seeds, and that there are tiny trees now growing - its children - all over the world.

  2. Great post, Ellen--really well written and moving. I was surprised at the interview with Otto Frank too--I think most of all--but unlike you I missed the growth markings on the wall, which would have moved me.

    Christine, the chestnut tree did die, I think. There was some controversy about taking it down a couple of years ago (as I remember--I haven't checked this before writing).

    LOVED traveling with you, Ellen.


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