I was in two minds about making the three tram trek over to the Anne Frank Huis in the heaviest rain since I got to The Netherlands. This trip was meant to be relaxing, stimulating and fun. Why spoil it by going to a place like that? Aren’t there funner places to be at in Amsterdam? The Netherlands and neighboring countries look like picture-perfect postcards at all times. Why should I put myself thru a visit to a house that evokes a deep sense of sorrow and mourning while not teaching me anything new? I already know the story and I know how it ends. Why go?
Well I am glad I did. Here’s what I learned in my three hours there – –
1. Anne’s father Otto did not really know her that well
A visit to the Anne Frank huis, museum and book store costs 9 Euros. It takes you thru the house that has been preserved/restored to its original 1940s version. There are quotes from Anne Frank on the walls and some background text. The quotes have a certain flow to them and the overall picture of a cramped and severely constrained accommodation is conveyed accurately thru the house. In certain rooms, there’s short videos playing of interviews with people who survived the war and also knew Anne.
One such video is a clip of Anne’s father Otto (who survived and lived until 1980) talking to a journalist in the 1960’s. Otto talks about how long he waited before he felt strong enough to open the diary and actually read it. He then said something that blew my mind. He said that after reading thru the diary he realized he didn’t know Anne at all. He talks about how brave and knowledgable she sounded on paper and how little he knew of her grasp of the social and political situation around her. Nothing in their daily interactions in that cramped and confined shelter for over two years told him anything that resembled the words she’d written down during the exact same time.
I stayed in the room and watched the video again a couple of times. The words are really powerful. Otto does not weep or show much emotion and yet what he is stating is that he didn’t have a conversation with Anne or think too much about her words and deeds for the entire time they were trapped in their make-shift house.
This really resonated with me and later had me staring into the canal outside the house (view in pic below) for a long while. How much do I really know about the people in my life that I interact with a lot? How much of me do they really know? Did my dad really know me once I left home for college? Does my mom know me now when we disagree on stuff? Did my parents know anything about me when I grew up as a kid? My dad travelled a lot. What chance did he have of really knowing me when Otto Frank was clueless about his daughter who spent may hours a day drafting her diary?
It also spoke to me in really powerful terms about the effect of fear on the human psyche. I am scared of a lot of things. And I can see how much such fear holds me back from living. Otto Frank and Anne Frank lived in so much fear and uncertainty that they would be captured by the Germans at any moment that they did not really talk to each other. I hope that I truly know the people I care about and those that care about me. Superficiality of many work and social settings and technology have made having the real conversations harder (for me). I don’t ever want to say that I understood someone I knew, better after he/she left the world.
Otto and Anne Frank taught me that today.
2. Anne really really wanted to be a journalist and a writer
There are quotes from Anne in one of the rooms in the house. It talks about how as she was writing the diary, she realized she wanted to be a journalist and a writer. That was her dream. She valued the profession enough at the age of 15 . So she started proof reading and rewriting all of her earlier entries to make sure they were journalistically and grammatical sound. How cool is that? To have that sort of rigor and vision at such a young age while being in isolation from society is amazing. How I wish she had somehow survived her ordeals or been rescued before! How much more depth could she have added to our understanding of the holocaust? Already and deservedly she is one of the most influential and popular writers of all time. My mind went to the million wannabe journalists and writers doing work today on sites unseen and journals and diaries locked away in cabinets. Not all of them are writing things that change the world terribly but am sure a lot of them have a voice or vision that supersedes anything that is out on popular sites. I worry that there’s an Anne Frank somewhere in the blogosphere now that I am not reading.
Lastly it pains me so much that the two Amsterdam heroes who have museums and streets and houses named after them (Van Gogh and Anne Frank) died so young before they had so much more to offer to all of us. Amsterdam is an amazing city and the Netherlands is a beautiful country. The people have been friendly and warm at all times. Amsterdam has a reputation. But, man has it seen some pain. There’s many ways to deal with loss and the city of Amsterdam may just be dealing with it by being more generous and more joyful to its guests than history has been to it.