The House Behind
I’ve been gallivanting, and it’s been a while. See, I went to Europe for 12 days at the end of August and it’s messed with my brain a bit. Part of me is back at a desk in Boulder, Colorado, and another part is wandering the streets of Berlin, Amsterdam, and Prague.
While I was abroad, I made a 24-hour pilgrimage of sorts to what has now become one of my all-time favorite cities, Amsterdam. It’s a fascinating place, and Amsterdam in August is one of the most glorious things I’ve ever seen. People on bikes. Huge drooping trees. Perfect weather, and plenty of people out and about, enjoying it. As we hurried across the city on foot, losing ourselves over the canals and winding, narrow streets, I thought of Anne Frank before she went into hiding, walking down the street with her arm around a friend, balancing her book bag on a bike in the years before all of the bikes were confiscated from Dutch Jews.
Cobblestones. Statues. Throngs of people, punctuated by calm glimpses of houseboats. And then we were there, standing in front of a building I had never seen, but knew intimately.
We rang the little doorbell (I highly recommend that you skip the long lines and make a reservation) and were buzzed in. We were at the Anne Frank House.
I’m still processing what I saw there. I had many Strong Opinions on the way the museum was laid out, the information that was given visitors, the flow of bodies from one empty room to the other. I felt myself gulping breath as I peeked out the heavy curtains in the front office where various occupants of the Secret Annex took baths, did filing and mundane office work to help their hiders. Outside the window, I was mere inches away from someone’s head. The entire street was so close that I felt terrified. I started to realize how dramatic it must have been to hide away in the busy center of a bustling city, how constant and oppressive it must have felt to hide every minute, especially when you are a thirteen-year-old girl who just came in to the damp, narrow house from the gorgeous green of the summer streets. (They went into hiding in July and were betrayed in August, two years later.)
One of the things that surprised and impressed me about the museum was that it featured photos taken by ordinary Dutch people. They were surprisingly mundane, and taken under extremely dangerous circumstances: Photos of tiny clusters of Jewish men and women being rounded up and taken away.
Now it was time to go upstairs. I stole behind the bookcase, or rather trudged. I have never seen such stairs—as narrow and steep as a ladder. Here, the tall men hit their heads. Here, a rain of beans made everyone laugh. Up in the rooms, I felt muffled and dull. The blackout curtains cast a cool pall on the map showing the progress of the Allies, the thin lines indicating Margot and Anne’s massive growth during the Annex years. They were taller than I’d thought.
Amidst the throng of tourists, armed with pamphlets and surreptitious cameras (I was too dutiful to take photos inside), I kind of lost track of myself. It was all becoming a bit more real, the configuration of bedrooms, the surprisingly large bathroom where a teenaged girl experimented with pin curls and checked out her developing body, the big, light attic that must have felt like the only thing to live for. I heard the clangy, ancient-sounding bells of the Westerkirk, bells that drove Edith and Margot crazy and that Anne and Otto loved. I listened to a horrible tape of Otto Frank, the only survivor of eight, describing his experience as he read his dead daughter’s diary: “Most people don’t know, really, their children.” I thought of Miep, the workhorse, dragging rotting vegetables and ersatz food and little gifts up and down those narrow, scary stairs, gulping down her own fear as she entered the house behind.
In an hour or so, it was over. We were back on the street, mute and a bit drained, drinking up the canal view.