Thursday, October 6, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

You have to get in line


The line has only one other couple. Young and bright-faced. The docent takes them under her wing and gently guides them through the exhibit. We follow after. The birth, life and death of Anne Frank are on display for all to see. Made famous by her diary of two years hiding in the secret annex. And her ignoble death a few months later. Her story is told in this quiet, small exhibit at the Viaduct Gallery of the Des Moines Social Club until April 26. It is an exhibit put together by the folks that run the Anne Frank House. You can find it on the first floor of the old fire station. Don’t worry, there is hardly any line.joes1

Half a continent away from Des Moines, the crowd stood patiently in a line stretching several blocks to get into the Anne Frank House. Young women. Old men. Families. Foreigners and natives. It appeared that they stood without any forward movement as the morning ticked past. Only the shifting feet in the wet and cold indicated they were not escapees from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum down the street. Umbrellas and raincoats and good shoes were prerequisites as the rain drizzled steadily throughout the morning. Oh, and don’t forget the chill that was alive and well and looking for the slightest opening. But everyone remained. Waiting.

“This museum is 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, there are 60,000 of these empty places.” So the executive director of the Anne Frank House, Ronald Leopold, told me last fall of the strangeness of his museum.joes2

“The house represents what happened in Amsterdam, what happened in this whole country, and what happened in many places of Europe when people returned and found emptiness. Here at the Anne Frank House, you can feel that very emptiness. The emptiness of those returning, and all those who remained, and all of us who should be aware of the emptiness.”

The train lines at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp are also about remembrance. On this side of the tracks, you went to the gas chamber. On that side of the tracks, you were worked to death. Anne Frank was placed on the side of the track that would be allowed to live a few more months. What remains are empty tracks. No trains come to this dead end now. Only the birds singing in those birch trees at the end of the line sing the same song.

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“We don’t know what Anne Frank thought when she was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen,” Ronald Leopold patiently explained to me. We don’t know whether she kept her hope, her optimism, her idealism, or whether she lost it in the terrible circumstances she was in. We don’t know. I don’t want to speculate about it. What is important is to be sure to know that part of the history as well.”joes3

The same day I talked to Ronald Leopold in Amsterdam, I was in a neighborhood bar in another city. A line of men flowed out the front door. Chanting and singing and excited. I flowed out with them. The chant became more raucous. I smiled and watched on the other side of the street. I later asked my friend, who spoke the language, what the group was chanting.

“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”


“After pessimism, what? When I see the incredible energy of young people, and how they strive to make the world a better place and how they are inspired by Anne Frank, that is still very hopeful.” Ronald Leopold sat quietly for a moment. “Perhaps you saw the line in the front of this museum. The interest is only increasing. There is a young generation growing up very much committed to build their future. We as grownups have a responsibility to help them.”

But you have to get in line. CV


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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