There are some places so inherent in their power that they’re no longer places; they are living lessons.
The realization came to me last summer, following a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
I stood at the entrance of 267 Prinsengracht, waiting on line in the hot July sun as gangs of tourists disembarked from sightseeing boats on the canal in front of me.
As the line inched forward, my mind went decades back in time, to when I first became aware of Anne Frank’s story.
Raised in a Presbyterian household, I was 10 when I first learned of Anne Frank and her diary. The story of her life in hiding spread like wildfire through my elementary school back in the 1970s. There was a waiting list at the library, and every two weeks I’d see “The Diary of Anne Frank” on the desk of a different classmate.
When my turn came, I read each page, astonished at how different it was from my own diary. I tried to imagine what it was like for Anne and her family to live a life of confinement; what it was like not even to be able to look out the living room window; how frustrating it must have been for Anne when her thoughts wandered inevitably to what to her friends on the outside were doing.
That day, as I waited at the end of the long line, I began to notice something about the visitors who exited the building every few minutes. They looked dazed, as if they’d just emerged from one of those cyclone rides at the county fair. Each one stopped for a moment to get his bearings, squinting from the sudden contact with daylight, and then emitted an audible sigh before continuing on.
When my turn to enter finally came, I found the first floor of the museum packed wall to wall with visitors, the air a cacophony of European, Asian and Middle Eastern languages bubbling up in excitement. I studied such sobering artifacts as the yellow Stars of David that were sewn onto the coats of Jews, and black-and-white photos of rifle-toting Nazi soldiers marching captured families single-file down the streets of Amsterdam.
But the din of conversation suddenly quieted as we approached the second floor and came upon the hidden door, located behind a bookcase in the hallway, that led to the secret annex. The passageway was dark and narrow, and the stairway leading to the living room was so steep that it may as well have been a ladder.
The sunlight barely filtered through the thick, gauzy shields that overlaid the windows. Everything was left just as it was when the family was in hiding. The communal living room was plain and sparse, but Anne’s bedroom bore evidence of a young girl’s optimism. She did what she could to make her nearly two years in hiding more bearable by pasting the walls with brightly colored postcards and publicity stills of a beaming Shirley Temple.
Nearby were the toilet that the family could flush only at night, and the tiny stairwell where Anne loved to sit quietly in the moonlight — the closest she would ever get to her former world.
The only noise in the annex that day came from the slow shuffling of tourists’ feet as an unbroken chain of visitors snaked through each room, as silently as monks on a pilgrimage.
Above the annex was the white-walled third floor, a space devoted to the Nazi death camps. I approached the first display case and laid my eyes on what would be my emotional breaking point: a white 3 inch by 5 inch index card used to catalog the Frank family upon the entrance into Auschwitz on September 3, 1944.
In another context it might have been used as a recipe card, or as a medical record in a doctor’s office. But there before me were the typewritten words that are now the symbolic beginning of the end for Anne Frank:
Name: Anne Frank
Age : 15
Parents : Otto and Edith Frank
That’s when I realized that “museum” isn’t an adequate word for the Anne Frank House. The index card, so simple and innocuous, is a living monument to the pointlessness and insanity of hatred.
Nearby was Otto Frank’s written account of being separated forever from his wife and daughters at the camp’s train platform the day they arrived. Suddenly I was bent over, crying.
There were photos and videos of Holocaust scenes to be viewed, but I couldn’t bear them all. Instead, I found myself focusing on a quote from Anne’s diary, etched into the wall: “I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people. And therefore I am so grateful to God for giving me this gift of writing, of expressing all that is in me!”
Later, while browsing in the museum’s gift store, I asked the redheaded woman behind the counter what it was like to work at the Anne Frank House. “Do you ever feel sad?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, looking suddenly as if she might cry. “Not so much in the store, but in the house. Especially when those who lost people in the Holocaust are here.”
I walked out of the Anne Frank House into the sudden glare of the sun, every bit as dazed as the visitors before me. I continued slowly down the block, but didn’t get far. There was a cloak of sadness around me — the kind that saps my energy after a funeral.
I took a seat on an empty park bench, looking at the long line of tourists waiting to enter the museum. The streets of Amsterdam looked new to me now, more alive than they had been two hours before. The streetcars, canal boats, even the pigeons all looked wondrous. I let the tears come again, took a deep breath and continued on my way.
Stacey Morris is a freelance writer living in Queensbury, N.Y.