The rain comes down steadily in Amsterdam. No surprise really. It is the Netherlands in late October. The walk from the train station up past three canals was too much for my shoes, as they now release a telltale squish. But still, there’s the line for the Anne Frank House, stretching all the way from one canal to the next. And even more surprising than the length of the line is that no one is raising a fuss, as they all wait patiently while the rain drips steadily from the brims of their hats. Open umbrellas are the only concession to the wet that I can see. Perhaps a little discomfort is appropriate.
“Our freedom (in Amsterdam) was severely restricted by a series of anti-Jewish degrees: Jews were required to wear a yellow star; Jews were required to turn in their bicycles; Jews were forbidden to use streetcars; Jews were forbidden to ride in cars, even their own.” Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.
Anne Frank’s story of hiding from the Nazis for two years in the Secret Annex, and then of her death in the concentration camps, compels 1.2 million people a year to want to see behind the moveable bookcase into the hidden rooms where eight people ate and slept and survived. That is, until they didn’t. Only Anne’s father Otto returned from the camps alive.
“Jews were required to do their shopping between 3 and 5 p.m.; Jews were required to frequent only Jewish-owned barbershops and beauty parlors; Jews were forbidden to be out on the streets between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.” Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.
Anne Frank’s neighborhood is no longer warehouses but million-dollar canal homes. And that price even includes the homes that lean precariously one way or the other. Literally shifting with the sands of time.
Amsterdam has more than 62 miles of canals (more than Venice) and more than 1,200 bridges. But these defensive rings of canals, built in the 16th and 17th centuries as moats, didn’t save the Jews. Of the 80,000 Jews who lived in Amsterdam, about 60,000 were murdered by the Nazis — men, women and children. That’s about every person living in West Des Moines. And don’t forget Anne Frank. She and her sister and her mother and father all ended up in Auschwitz. Anne and her sister were transferred from there and died in Bergen-Belsen — shortly before the camp was liberated.
“Jews were forbidden to go to the theaters, movies or any other forms of entertainment; Jews were forbidden to use swimming pools, tennis courts, hockey fields or any other athletic fields; Jews were forbidden to go rowing; Jews were forbidden to take part in any athletic activity in public.” Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.
The Anne Frank House is an unusual museum. Just ask the executive director, Ronald Leopold:
“This museum is basically an empty house. It’s empty because it reflects the absence of people that should be here. The same is true for 60,000 other places in this city. There are, underneath the reality of Amsterdam that you experience right now in 2014, there are 60,000 of these empty places. This sight, this house, this position, reflects the history of these 60,000 empty places here in Amsterdam. What does this mean in 2014? I think this has to do with identity. Who am I? Who is the other? The way I perceive myself. The way I perceive others. Why do I use prejudice in categorizing people? Why is it important to be aware of that? What is the step from prejudice to discrimination? Basic questions for everybody.”
So people line up to see the Secret Annex, to remember the past and to reflect about today.
“Jews were forbidden to sit in their gardens or those of their friends after 8 p.m.; Jews were forbidden to visit Christians in their homes; Jews were required to attend Jewish Schools.” Anne Frank, Saturday, June 20, 1942.
Ronald Leopold explains: “They had to go to separate schools in 1941. In Anne’s class there were every week and every month, fewer and fewer pupils. Fewer and fewer students. And it all ended up in 1942 when there was nobody left. The same for teachers. Today, you might miss class for one thing or another, but not because you were on your way to your death.”
“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Anne Frank, Saturday, July 15, 1944.
Anne Frank was arrested a few weeks after she wrote those words. And she was dead by March of 1945.
As for “never again?” Notice the windows to the Anne Frank House. Giant steel shutters on a rolling track. They’re not steel because of the rain. I ask Ronald Leopold about the shutters.
“Do you mind if I prefer not to answer?… But we’re not naive.” He shakes his head.
And the rain keeps falling.CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com. Joe can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.