Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Anne Frank's Huis, Amsterdam

On my recent trip to Amsterdam I went to visit Anne Frank's House. It's not ordinarily something that I'd do, visit a house of someone 'famous', but I'm so pleased that I did.

We all know Anne Frank - or should do. The young Jewish girl who kept a diary while hiding from the nazis in Amsterdam in the Second World War when Holland was invaded. I've never read her diary but I saw the film back in the late 60s or 70s. I suspect that I've always just thought of it as another sad tale, a life needlessly cut short due to war, and not thought beyond that. Visiting the house makes you think. You can't help it - or, at least, I couldn't. And it worried and scared me.

Anne's very literate and mature thoughts were captured in her diary, a diary she made her father promise not to read and, as we hear from his own lips, he didn't during her life. There are video clips of her father talking to camera about how he survived Auschwitz but his daughters didn't survive Bergen-Belsen. He made his way back to Amsterdam to be given his daughter's diary and a box of photos the nazis missed when they cleared out the house. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be him, to see his family and friends wiped out and yet he remained, a solitary man who's seen so much and has to go on living.

The house is incredibly popular as a tourist attraction and is booked online up to 3:30pm after which it's open to buy tickets on the door. Don't wait - the queue at 3:30 was huge so it's best to book online if you want to visit. You're let in in small groups to walk up the incredibly steep stairs and around the small flat shared by the Frank family and their friends. The rooms are small and claustrophobic with carefully noted exhibits and quotes from Anne's diary about life in the flat. It's not actually the house she grew up in in Amsterdam, it's a series of rooms above a warehouse owned by the company of which her father was a director. There are also some small video installations showing films of some of the people who remembered the Franks including people who kept them supplied with food at the risk of their own lives. Such brave people and it's good to see and hear the story from them forever captured by video.

Walking behind that bookcase and up those stairs was quite an eerie experience, treading the same floorboards and stairs that Anne and her family walked on. Very strange and emotional.

I got to the stage when I couldn't just follow the slow moving queue around the flat looking at the exhibits, particularly due to a loud group of laughing Spanish lads, and wandered round drinking in the atmosphere with tears never far from my eyes. How on earth did this happen? How did we allow it to happen? Anne was almost the same age as my mother but my mother didn't have to hide from her neighbours and foreign enemies who hunted people down without thought, like animals. This isn't right. This can't be right, but it happened.

On the way out you pass a video installation in which lots of famous people talk about the influence of Anne's diary, which is nice, but more powerful to me was seeing Shelley Winters' Oscar statue won for her performance in the film about the diary that she donated to the house. It's in a glass case beside the cafe before you go downstairs to the book shop.

Anne isn't faraway history to me. She's a contemporary of my parents and died only 15 years before I was born. She was born in Germany in the late 1920s and was Jewish and that sealed her fate. What would I have done if I was in her position or if I went to school with her in Amsterdam? I don't know.

Despite all the platitudes about understanding history to make sure it doesn't repeat itself I can''t help but feel the circle is turning with votes against migrants and foreigners. In this day and age it's called 'populism' but that doesn't make it any less fascist. Fascism was 'populist' in the 30s in so many countries - including Britain with Moseley's brown shirts - and it must always be fought head on. It's insidious and we can turn round and suddenly realise that it's the norm and wonder what went wrong. We see it too often in the national newspapers owned by multi-millionaires, picking on the minority, the defenceless, and it's up to us - the majority - to defend them at the risk of history repeating itself.

That is why I'm pleased I went to Anne Frank's Huis in Amsterdam. Sometimes we all need to be reminded about what is important and that small warehouse did it for me. I bought her diary and will read it. I will speak out when I see fascism rear it's ugly head when I can and I will support those with louder voices. To quote the cliche, there is one race and it's the human race and we're all part of it.

On the banks of the canal near the back of the house is another monument, this one called the Homomonument. It's in the shape of three triangles, the shape the nazis forced gay men to wear on their clothes to indicate what they were. The triangles represent the past, present and future. The sign beside the monument reads, 'Commemorates all women and men ever oppressed and persecuted because of their homosexuality.' There weren't any queues to see this monument but people had left flowers on it. There are many forms of oppression and hate and all must be resisted. It's quite powerful to find two such monuments mere yards away from each other. Trust those Nederlanders to make an already powerful statement even more powerful.

1 comment:

olderthanelvis said...

I visited the Anne Frank house many years ago and was moved to write "Never again" in the visitor book. Sadly, I fear the lessons have not been learnt.