Amsterdam must be the only European city whose most popular tourist attractions occupy different ends of the sliding scale that begins with virtue and ends with vice. It is likely that many of those who wait patiently in the queues that snake daily around the canal-side block where the Anne Frank Huis stand will make a similar pilgrimage in the evening to the red-light district on the east side of the old town. Doubtless no disrespect is intended, it is just that voyeurism is too powerful an urge to resist, and Amsterdam is a very small city indeed.
The two places are within walking distance of each other, so close indeed that the residents of each quarter can hear the bells of the 13th-century Old Church as they chime out the hour. Its belfry is the highest structure in this low-lying city, and in its shadow stands 263 Prinsengracht. This 17th-century merchant house was where Anne Frank, her family and four others hid in a secret annex from July 6, 1942, until they were betrayed on Aug. 4, 1944 — no one knows by whom or why. The sound of the bells were her only way of knowing the time and as one climbs through the bare rooms of the house, it is details like this that root the experience in the imagination as well as in present time.
This is a museum where there are few artifacts in the traditional sense of the word. Those expecting to see the table at which Anne Frank sat to write her diary or the sagging bed on which she slept will be disappointed. One of the only direct traces of her presence are the picture postcards and photos of film stars that she stuck to the walls in the room that she reluctantly shared with the dentist Fritz Pfeffer.
“The Secret Annex,” as it is called, was emptied of furniture by the order of the German occupier upon the Frank family’s arrest. In its wisdom, the foundation that runs the house/museum has respected Otto Frank’s wish and left the rooms bare. They have not filled them with replicas in the spirit of “authenticity” that pervades the Heritage industry. Thus, the few sparse objects, such as the map of Normandy on which Otto Frank kept track of the Allied invasion or the pencil lines on the wall of the room that mark the growth of Anne and her elder sister Margot, serve to concentrate the mind. As one visitor wrote in the guest book, “I have never been so moved by so little.”
What remains is aided skilfully by extracts from Anne’s diary and by video testimony that is both personal and universal to the experience of the Holocaust. The museum shop is similarly austere — you will find no T-shirts, pens, mugs or postcards bearing the portrait of Anne Frank. The only things on sale are books, videos and educational materials that focus equally on the private tragedy and wider context: Anne Frank was only one of 1.5 million Jewish children killed as well.
As the foundation’s director Hans Westra explained, “On the one hand, we want to show who this young girl was no saint, but a teenager with good and bad qualities, a victim, a writer of an overwhelming diary. On the other hand, using her life story as the point of departure, we try to talk about the Holocaust and all the other people who were murdered. The challenge is to keep this in balance — one aspect should not prevail at the expense of the other.”
Thus the last area that visitors walk through as they leave the house is a temporary exhibition area and multimedia presentation on the Holocaust and its subsequent manifestations elsewhere.
This latter area was completed this year, as was the restoration of Otto Frank’s business and office space at the front of the house to its original style during World War II. At the back, in the four small rooms and one bathroom shared by the Frank and van Pel families and Fritz Pfeffer, are those objects that did survive. Some were found again under the most extraordinary circumstances. In 1985, an employee of the Anne Frank House found a pile of documents, books and photographs belonging to Fritz Pfeffer at Waterloopen, the famous flea market of Amsterdam. Until then they only had one photograph of him in their possession. That find provided a more rounded picture of Anne’s roommate.
The rest of the items on display are the prosaic minutiae of the daily life of people living under extreme circumstances for a prolonged period of time. There are letters, language textbooks and shopping lists for Miep Gies, who with Victor Kugler, Jo Kleiman and Bep Voskuijl sustained the annex dwellers. As Gies says in video testimony: “I always emphasize that we were not heroes. We fulfilled our human duty. Helping people in need.”
These four worked in the office upstairs behind which the secret annex was located. They kept its inhabitants’ presence secret even from the staff in the warehouse down below. It was here that the jelling agents and jam was made for Otto Frank’s two companies and the spices ground for special mixtures sold by Gies and Co.
But someone knew they were there. In her diary Anne Frank describes four break-ins during their confinement, but it was only after one of the culprits phoned the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation that the mystery surrounding the first incident was resolved — a 9-year-old boy Hans Wijnberg and his younger sister Els lived close to the secret annex. The backyard and those of the other houses were their playground and they were curious. One March day in 1943, they climbed into the spice warehouse through a small window but fled when the heard the sound of the toilet flushing. “I immediately understood,” Hans recalled, “that there were people in the house and I thought: Let’s get out of here!”
Eight-hundred thousand people visit the Anne Frank House every year, among them are many children. It is for them that many educational programs to develop multicultural understanding are run by the foundation. Europe, on the eve of the millennium, is in sore need of them.