More than once during the early days of the COVID lockdown, I heard someone make reference to Anne Frank. The significance was obvious. As we Americans, who are so accustomed to being free, had to hole up inside our homes to save our lives, it gave us a window of insight into what it must have been like for a 13-year old Jewish girl. A girl whose family had to hide out in an attic apartment for two years to avoid being dragged off to a concentration camp where they would most likely be killed.
The implications were that, as strange and difficult as was what we were going through with the COVID lockdown, what Anne Frank’s family went through was immeasurably worse.
The mere mention of the name brings a flood of horrifying memories of a life that was captured in elegant, sensitive prose by a young girl who was a fine literary talent even at an early age, and who died tragically because of her only crime: being Jewish.
One Horror Story of Millions
The Diary of Anne Frank captures vividly the experience of being hidden in an attic and having to stay silent all day every day to avoid detection of anyone who worked in the business downstairs; knowing that, if she were discovered, the penalty would probably be a horrible death.
The diary has been the basis for several cinematic productions, including a highly acclaimed 1959 movie made from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a 2001 mini-series, an animated film, and a five-part BBC series in 2009. But the crowning touch to understanding the Anne Frank experience is a visit to the actual house where the Frank family had to hide in Amsterdam. It’s one of the city’s most popular attractions.
It’s so popular that when a friend and I decided to visit one afternoon, as we were exploring Amsterdam, we navigated our way to the location only to find that the line extended for literally blocks from the site itself. We realized it was not a place you just popped in on. It took some planning.
So that afternoon we found other things to do, and the next morning we headed to the museum in time to arrive at 8:30 in hopes of getting in. And it worked. At that hour, the line only extended half a block and we got in.
A visit to the Anne Frank House is a very strange experience. If you have read the book or seen one of the movies, it takes some effort when you are in that place to even begin to put your mind into a frame in which you can grasp that you are in the actual place where that horrible series of events took place. Though you know it to be true, it is still hard to imagine that it was not just a movie or a book, but a real happening in a real world that seemed to be coming apart at the seams in that horrifying time.
Hide for Your Life
To set the scene, Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929 and grew up during the period when Germany’s economy collapsed and the demagogue Adolf Hitler capitalized on the country’s grief to engineer a rise in political power – based, in part, on his hatred of the Jewish people. He used them as a scapegoat for Germany’s problems.
As the Nazis consolidated power and instituted increasingly hateful and murderous policies, Anne Frank’s parents decided to move to the Netherlands to start over. Once in Amsterdam, her father Otto started a business selling pectin, a gelling agent used for canning fruit. They found refuge there from the horrors of Germany as the Nazis were taking over. But unfortunately, it didn’t last.
In May 1940, the Nazis unleashed their Blitzkrieg on Holland, turning the full force of their instruments of violence on the country and wiping out any resistance within a few days.
The Nazis started instituting their racist policies and tightening the clamps day by day. Jews were prohibited from visiting parks, movie theaters, and non-Jewish shops. Her father was forced to give up his business. Jews were forced to wear stars identifying themselves as Jewish.
When Anne’s older sister Margot received a notice that she was required to go to a labor camp in Germany, her parents decided it was time to go into hiding. Her father had prepared a space in a building that had been an annex for his business, and in the summer of 1942 the family moved in with four other people. Just before the family went into hiding, Anne was given a diary in which she started to make notes of her experiences and feelings.
The building is now preserved as a museum and it must be one of the oddest tourist sites in the world. It’s barren and dingy. After the family was discovered and forced to go to concentration camps, the furniture the Frank family had used was confiscated. Anne Frank’s father Otto, who survived the war, requested that the house be left in that barren state after being ravaged by the Nazis, rather than to move in furniture to try to recreate what it had been like when they lived there.
Heading up toward the attic, we came to the door to the secret hiding place, which had been covered by a bookcase built on the door. Upstairs, in the space where Anne had slept, some photographs of movie stars and postcards that she had posted on the wall are still there. Some quotes from her diary are painted on the walls, connecting the physical space to her descriptions. Video monitors are mounted playing footage of interviews with people who knew Anne, each describing her from their various points of view. The screens also played some grainy black-and-white footage from the contemporaneous period, to bring to life the situation as it was from 1942 through 1944 when the family was living there.
One of the interviews on a video monitor shows Anne’s father describing his experience of discovering the diary for the first time, and realizing that his child had so much more insight and depth than he had ever suspected.
Another interview showed a friend of Anne’s who had known her when she was at the Bergen-Belsen camp, where Anne and her sister Margot were sent after they had spent time at Auschwitz-Birkenau labor and extermination camp. Starved and exhausted, and huddled closely with others in an overcrowded train car, they both contracted typhus. The friend said that after Margot died, Anne believed her whole family was dead. She speculated sadly that if Anne had known her father still survived at that time, she may have found the strength to hold on. She passed in February of 1945, only a few months before the end of the war.
The last quote on the wall before you exit the museum is not from Anne’s diaries, but from Auschwitz survivor and author Primo Levi. It serves as a final conclusion to the experience.
“One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose faces have remained in the shadows,” he wrote. “Perhaps it is better that way: if we were capable of taking in the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”
The Anne Frank story provides valuable perspective in a tough time and shows that good people have been through much worse.
As exciting as Amsterdam is with its many wonders, including the sublimely beautiful canals and parks throughout the city, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum, the lively Red Light District and the cannabis coffee shops, the experience of Amsterdam that stuck with me most and had the most profound effect was the dingy little attic space where such a silent, protracted horror played out.
If we are ever looking for reasons to feel fortunate, there is a big one.
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.