Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Amsterdamming It Up, Part 3: The Anne Frank House

The view from 263 Prinsengracht - the building where the Frank family hid for over two years

It sounds strange to say I am a huge fan of Anne Frank, because her legacy stretches so far beyond that of most writers that 'fan' seems like the wrong word. But I'm not sure there's another word. Let's just say I'm a huge fan of her writing, I admire her, and I am fascinated by her story.

Nope, still not quite hyperbolic enough. But anyway.

I didn't read Anne Frank's diary until I was fourteen or fifteen, although I learned about her in school long before that. I still remember sitting on the steps at the back of our old house that summer, looking up from a book about a period of confinement and darkness at the bright sunlight. It made what Anne lost seem so much more immediate.

But I'm just as fascinated by the story behind the diary - how it was found, how it was published, and the terrible stories of what happened to everyone afterwards. This was my second visit to the Anne Frank House and if anything, it was more moving than the first. The first time, I was a little overwhelmed by the fact I was there ('OMG I AM IN THE SECRET ANNEXE!!') to notice details as much.

This time, the same thing happened with the Anne Frank House as the Van Gogh Museum - an epic queue awaited us. Writer Friend and I arrived at 10.15 on a wet Sunday morning and the queue was already around the block (it opens at 9). We decided to go back in the evening - the Anne Frank House recently extended their opening hours to 9pm every night. Lucky for us, because it was our last full day in Amsterdam and this was our one must-do.

When we went back, there was no queue. The Annexe itself is quite small and cramped and I imagine it would be claustrophobic if it was too crowded, so I really recommend going in the evening. We arrived around ten past eight, which only gave us just under an hour to do the whole House - Annexe and museum.

The Annexe itself has remained unfurnished at Otto Frank's request. It makes it a little harder to relate the rooms to the diary (remember all those disagreements over the kitchen table!) but I think it actually increases the sense of confinement. Standing in a tiny, empty room and imagining it with two beds, a desk, a bedside locker. . . somehow it seems smaller than just standing in a small, furnished room could. The film star pictures that Anne pasted on her wall are still there (I spotted Greta Garbo and Deanna Durbin - lots of the others were European and I didn't know them) along with postcards of the Queen of England and her sister (Anne loved royal geneaology). You can even see the patch of wallpaper where Anne and Margot's heights were recorded in pencil during the twenty-five months they spent in hiding. When the building with threatened with demolition in the late 1950s, Otto Frank cut out that piece of wallpaper. It was returned to the Annexe when it opened as a museum.

The stairs up to the second level of the Annexe are scary (I'm not great with heights). Amsterdam staircases are all a bit scary, even for normal people - they're steep, twisty and narrow. This staircase is straight, which is something, but it's steeper than any ladder I've ever been on. I looked up at it for some time before I got the courage up to climb it (I refused point-blank until Writer Friend was behind me), and I went up it practically on all fours, one hand on the rail and one on whatever step was level with my eyes. No way was I looking up or down, not even when I could hear Writer Friend mumble about not being dressed for this kind of thing. Halfway up, something interesting dawned on me. 'A book made me do this. I'm here because of something someone wrote.' And yes, there is more to it than that - really, I was there because a teenage girl died, along with millions of others - but a book started it all. Which was a nice thought, and it got me to the top of the stairs without incident :)

We were there for just the right amount of time for us, because we didn't want to linger in the gift shop too long (both Writer Friend and I are dangerous in gift shops!) and we skipped the videos of Hanneli Goslar and others talking about what happened to Anne after the arrest - I already knew about it from my previous visit and we were more interested in rushing past to the newest part of the exhibition.

And this is the really cool part. We booked our trip back in January, not knowing that the day before we arrived in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House was closing for a day (this is unusual. It normally only closes on Yom Kippur). It was closed to launch the museum's newest collection - as well as Anne's first iconic green and red diary, her other papers are now on display. I only discovered this when I was checking the House's opening hours two days before we flew out and I was *so* chuffed.

There are two versions of Anne's diary. The first one (academics usually call it Version A) is the original diary that Anne wrote as she went along. Then early in 1944, Anne heard a broadcast on radio asking the citizens of the Netherlands to keep any documentation they could - letters, diaries, sermons, etc - for study and publication after the war. Anne started re-writing her diary on loose office paper, with the intention of publishing it, and her re-written diary is Version B. Some pages from Version B are now displayed in rotation, along with Anne's fiction and her favourite quotations notebook ('She was a stationery freak like us!' Writer Friend whispered as we pressed our noses to the glass).

Seeing the physical objects that made up the diary was a strange experience. On the way over, I was waxing pretentious to Writer Friend about how in literature (and music for that matter), we don't have very many individual objects that are venerated. With visual arts, there is an original painting or sculpture, but if you love a novel or a piece of music, you probably won't be too pushed about seeing the original manuscript. Apart from the contents of the British Library's Treasures Gallery in London, there aren't many sacred objects for us book-fiends

But this is one of them.

This is the original copy - and while the author lived, the only copy - of a book that changed how we see the world. Even the handwriting moved me. Biographers and historians have written that Anne's handwriting, during the two years in hiding, changed from childish block letters to proper script (mine still does that once or twice a page), but seeing it myself was a different matter. Anne's handwriting, right there in front of me, almost brought me to tears again.

After the Anne Frank House, we went for dinner, went back to where we were staying, and went to bed. But it's hard to know what to do afterwards. Everything feels slightly disrespectful. It's another good reason to go in the evening, I suppose, but you may not enjoy the easiest sleep.

PS - My personal favourite biography of Anne Frank is Roses From The Earth, by Carol Ann Lee. Melissa Muller's Anne Frank: The Biography is less detailed but also good, and probably better for younger readers.


  1. HOW WONDERFUL! I understand what you mean by being a "fan" of Anne Frank because I too fit the bill! I think the building is amazing and I love that you were able to snap a photo of it!

    I would love to one day be able to experience what you had the opportunity to experience! I had to look up to see what chuffed meant but once I googled it I understood and how exciting that you got to see something lots of people had yet to see!!!

  2. A great post about a fantastic subject. I'l like to visit that place also.

  3. Hi

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful trip to Amsterdam. I remember some of the places from when I went with my best friend. Anne Frank's home was very moving - but we did have to queue for the longest time - which is only to the good. May her story be never ever forgotten.

    Take care

  4. Fantastic post.

    "Fan" does seem far too crass to describe what can be felt for Anne Frank.


    Publish or Perish

  5. Jen, Pat, I really hope you both get the chance to go someday. Amsterdam is a lovely city for so many reasons, and the people are so friendly. If you're ever in the area, the whole city is worth seeing, and the Anne Frank House is a very moving experience.

    Kitty, I agree completely, I was so happy to see the queue and the crowds! But for the fact it was lashing rain and we really weren't dressed for it, I would have been glad to wait. It's so important that this be remembered and honoured.

    Al, I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that. I'm so used to calling myself a fan of writers that it's hard to find a better word, though.

  6. I really enjoyed this post -- I've been fascinated by Anne since fifth grade, when we read her diary. I've always wanted to see the Annex -- it's my sole reason for wanting to go to Amsterdam. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  7. Glad you liked it, Meika - if you haven't read Roses From The Earth I would recommend it if you love the diary. If you do make it to Amsterdam to see the Annexe, allow more time than I did for your first visit - I'd suggest an hour and a half to be safe.

    I popped over to your blog and Mackinac Island looks fantastic! I love the idea of visiting somewhere without motorised transport, just for a change!

    Thanks for stopping by :)

  8. Ellen, how incredible that you were able to see the new exhibit in the Anne Frank house. I went there with my darling daughter and husband a few years ago. Very moving. I love The Netherlands (born there but grew up in North America). I enjoyed my visit to Amsterdam. The canal tours are fun!


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