Growing up in Chicago, thankfully, there are relatively few memorials to wars and military action as had taken place on that very ground – though there are many tributes to soldiers who gave their lives in foreign wars.
Perhaps, that’s why, in Paris, I had seen so many reminders of World War II. They seemed to be everywhere like scars: memorial plaques of clandestine meetings, arches to victory or to the fallen, bouquets of flowers. The past felt not so far away.
I take it as a given that every kid everywhere reads Anne Frank’s diary in school. But that is not the case. I met other visitors in Amsterdam who hadn’t studied Anne’s diary, and others who knew the story too well with the histories of their own families. Underlining this disparity in knowledge about the Holocaust recently is the scores of Beliebers – or, fans of pop star Justin Bieber – tweeting over the “mysterious” Anne Frank. Today, April 30, is the day in 1952 when Anne’s diary was first printed in English.
Anne was thirteen years old when she started her now-famous diary.
The secret annex where Anne, her family, the van Pels family and dentist Fritz Pfeffer hid and lived for two years is above the office and warehouse where Otto Frank ran his business in Amsterdam. It’s now known as the Anne Frank House.
The Anne Frank House is located on the Prinsengracht canal, a few short meters from the Westerkerk, or West Church. The peals of church bells sound throughout present-day Amsterdam. Anne wrote about how hearing the bells were a comfort to her, marking the regular passage of time in an otherwise monotonous confinement. The day the Nazi Germans stopped the Westerkerk bells must have been sad for Anne. Reportedly the Nazi melted down the bells and used them for munitions.
At the beginning of the museum, in what used to be Otto Frank’s offices and warehouse, visitors learn through short films, photographs and small exhibits how World War II began, the rise of Hitler and Nazism and the history of the Frank family. In the bookkeeping room, a false bookshelf hides a small stairwell, the entrance to the Secret annex.
No photography is allowed inside. Once the house was to be turned into a museum, Anne’s father, Otto, requested that the premises remain empty. When the Germans had discovered them, they took away the occupants of the secret attic to concentration camps and confiscated everything they owned. What visitors then feel when they enter the Secret Annex rooms is the void, the emptiness not just of material things but of souls. How dark it is inside from the blacked-out window coverings. Anne’s words throughout the museum illuminate the lives of the eight people hiding there but especially share the psychological toll it must have taken on everyone in the Secret Annex to be always in the dark, to have to keep quiet, to be alive, but yet at the same time, not free and truly living.
Anne wrote volumes. Her many diaries and other writings are all on display. An inspiring sight for a new writer like myself.
The museum brings the lessons of tolerance, free speech and religious freedom to bear on the present day. The final feature of the museum showcases five to seven short vignettes that build to yes/no ethical questions, all inspired, it appears, by actual events. For example, should neo-Nazis be allowed to form political parties, hold parades and public rallies? Should prayer be allowed in public schools? Scattered throughout the room are voting machines, where viewers can vote for 30 seconds after each short story. The exhibit displays the percentage of how people in the room voted, and as the questions were quite complex, the votes were fairly split. As a final note, it’s a great notion to keep these conversations about human rights going beyond the walls of the museum and into the civil and robust discussions of the public sphere, as my friends and I did that day we visited the Anne Frank House.
“We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.” – Anne Frank
- German redditors: How is the Holocaust taught in schools? (Reddit.com)
- Holocaust Education in Germany: An Interview (PBS.org, Frontline)