Sorry for missing last week! Things have been busy here. Work is busy and will remain so until mid-December, and I’ve started working out with a trainer at lunch three days a week. I’ll blog more about that later, but I wanted to talk about my Amsterdam trip and share some photos with you.
After a nine-hour flight on KLM, I arrived in Amsterdam at 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 26. The sun had not even come up yet as I picked up my luggage and went through customs. Even though I had to wait a bit, the airport shuttle had dropped me at my hotel before 9 a.m. My room wasn’t ready, but the hotel staff agreed to store my luggage so I could get a jumpstart on seeing Amsterdam.
On the advice of the staff, I headed directly to the one thing I always planned to see if I visited Amsterdam — the Secret Annex where Anne Frank hid with her family from the Nazis during World War II. One of my colleagues thought it was really depressing that I decided to see it, and I do agree with his point of view. But after studying her diary in school and seeing countless versions of the play about her family’s time in hiding, I felt like I had to go.
The Secret Annex — hidden in a back apartment in the building that housed her father’s business — is no longer secret. In fact, hundreds of thousands of visitors line up to walk through the tiny set of rooms where she hid for two years. I showed up at 9 a.m. when they opened, and was greeted by a line already wrapped around the block.
I did have a nice conversation with a man who was in town attending the same work conference as me. He also is a marathoner, so we talked about races we had done. His daughter, in her 20s, had taken the train over from Germany to visit him, and we had a nice chat about all the food you can buy in Europe versus home (and what you can’t get in Europe, like brown sugar, a real problem if you want to bake using an American recipe). Apparently, her dad brings brown sugar — and other food items — over in large quantities when he visits.
The conversation helped the wait go faster, and soon I was buying my ticket to see the building where Anne, her family, the Van Pels (another family that hid with them, known as the Van Daans in the diary) and a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer (called Albert Dussel in Anne’s diary) hid for two years. As Jews, they were subject to persecution by the Nazis in occupied Holland. By the end of World War II, most of the Jews in Holland had been deported to and perished in Hitler’s death camps, and were among the six million Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s plan to eradicate Jews from Europe.
The outside of the building has been remodeled, but the nearby church that would chime the hour (Anne references it in her diary) are still there. The building is located on a charming canal, with house boats and quaint row houses. I’ve included a couple of pictures below.
Having read the diary, I knew that the rooms they hid in were small, but you don’t appreciate how cramped the space was until you see it in person. Walking around the floor, I could hear boards creak, so I fully understood why they couldn’t move around during the day (or run water) because the workmen in the warehouse below would definitely have heard them. Seeing the room that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer (her movie star and photo collection still decorates the walls), I found it hard to imagine myself sleeping in the small bed that was in there, night after night, and writing in a diary, day after day, hoping to persevere and stay out of the Nazis clutches until Holland was liberated. The size of the room they shared would equal a luxurious walk-in closet of a modern home today.
Inside, it was just as crowded with tourists from every nation, listening to multiple audio translations of the tour. We snaked through the house, winding through until we finally came upon the bookcase that hid the door. I had to duck my head while I stepped up into the Secret Annex, like Anne had done so many year ago. I felt like I was squeezing into a closet, and the feeling of claustrophobia would only get worse.
I could hear people starting to comment on how tight it was inside, and this was only after 20 or 30 minutes. At one point, I was on the stairs going from the first floor of the Secret Annex to the second, and the smallness of the place got to me. The staircase I was standing on was really more of a ladder, and very steep. The fact that I hadn’t slept at all on the flight suddenly hit me, and I felt tired and boxed in. But I steeled myself, thinking, If Anne and the other occupants of the Secret Annex did this for two years, you can do this for an hour. So I climbed on.
The rooms were small, gray, and dimly lit in some corners. For two years, the Franks and the daughter slept in what was also doubled as a living room. Upstairs, the Van Pels’ bedroom also doubled as the kitchen. I got to see Peter’s small room, and the ladder leading to the attic where they could climb up and get some sunshine. I could imagine them tiptoeing around during the day, trying to cook meals with an ever-dwindling food supply, and trying to keep the fact that they were getting on each other’s nerves from undoing them.
Because Anne and her diary are so famous, I realized that, to me, they almost seemed larger than life. But then I saw something in the Secret Annex that changed that. In one corner of a room, the Franks had measured their daughters’ height on the wall to track their growth. Seeing the markings, I noted that both of them would have been shorter than me if we were to have somehow met.
In that moment, I could suddenly see them not as these famous people, but ordinary people that I might see on the street. People with hopes, fears, insecurities, annoying habits, and moments of imperfection. Two teenage sisters who didn’t always get along, but eventually grew close. The older sister, Margot, who was quiet and studious, and Anne, the boisterous, opinionated younger one who always was being told she should be more like Margot. Two fragile human beings who would succumb to typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, not realizing that their father had been liberated by the Russians in Auschwitz and was still alive.
Another friend one commented that she thought Anne Frank was a spoiled brat. I could see that, and she probably did have her bratty moments. But her time in the Secret Annex forced her to grow up, and in the process, resulted in a diary that remains a well-regarded work today. Like a diamond that results from the great pressure placed on coal, Anne created a masterpiece, and fulfilled her wish to go on living after her death.
Many people may have thought her a silly girl who wouldn’t amount to much, but people can surprise you. I think her father was very surprised — he later said that, after reading her diary, he realized he hadn’t known his daughter. It makes me wonder sometimes how well we really know people, or even how well we really know ourselves.
Studying the Holocaust in school often made me think about how I would have reacted if I had lived in occupied Europe before and during World War II — would I have stood up and tried to help those being persecuted, or would I have looked the other way? After touring the Secret Annex and revisiting Anne’s tragic history, I realize that I have not and probably would never be tested to this limit. All I can hope is that I would be able to choose what was right to do, and not what was easy.
I still remember her famous line — how in spite of everything, she really believed people were good at heart. I wonder how Anne felt when she was in the camps and faced with its horrors, and if she still believed what she had written. Even today, I think about this line and the terrible things that are happening (particularly ISIS), and it can be easy to lose hope in humanity. But by losing our hope, we’re only giving what groups like ISIS want and the Nazis wanted — to fill our hearts with fear and minds with the idea that only certain types of people or races are worthy of life. Despite our flaws and faults, if we start judging and treating people the way that these groups did, then we will ultimately lose in the marathon of life.
Are people really good at heart? I would like to think so. And ultimately, I think we need to believe in the good of humanity to keep going.