[UPDATE: A slightly tweaked version of this essay appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in February 2010. Click here to read that version.]
Frommer gives the Anne Frank House its own section, under the heading "The Unforgettable." He calls the effect of visiting "searing, heartbreaking, infuriating beyond belief"; he then adds, "Let none of us ever pass through Amsterdam without making a pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House."
But I’d seen the line—out the door, down the block. And I’d seen the tourists posing in front of the house with wide grins, casually leaning on the doorway like it was Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. No matter how serious the subject matter, the experience was bound to be rich with irony and cheesiness.
Lee and I joined the line just behind four British women in their early twenties. We watched them dig hungrily into their bag of potato chips and listened to their stories of drunkenness at various moments in their lives and, the preceding day, of getting stoned at one of the coffee shops here. It was, frankly, the precise type of vapid conversation you’d stereotypically expect of tourists of that age. One woman was particularly quick with the tales of debauchery. She had bleach-blonde hair, pulled into a ponytail with a small pink ribbon, and wore huge sunglasses, an astonishing amount of makeup, flip-flops and a tight black outfit that left little to the imagination. She was, in short, a tourist in all the stereotypical and pejorative meanings of the term.
So amusingly inane was the conversation that midway through our half-hour in line, I discreetly switched on my voice recorder. The topic switched to bad sushi, and the prevalence thereof in London and Amsterdam, then back to drunkenness. Lee and I exchanged looks of amusement and confusion.
"I bet there’ll be some precious comments inside the museum, too," Lee said.
I grinned. This was gonna be epic comedy.
Well . . . it wasn’t. Sure, the crowds were thick, and people said some silly things, like the woman cooing with delight at the bathroom in the hiding space—"Ooh, what a lovely toilet!" Yet even so, the house was so haunting, its story so jarring—even though I’d already heard it, knew it backwards and forwards—that all the snark drained from my body within a few minutes.
It was, as Frommer says, heartbreaking, infuriating beyond belief, even in spite of the crowds. There are quotes from Anne’s diaries on many of the walls in the lower part of the house, and they are of course lyrical and melancholy in equal measure. But once you climb the steep staircase beyond the famous bookshelf, you enter a place that just should not exist, that should not have to exist—and whose very existence tugs at your soul and makes you despair in some elemental way.
There were two things that struck me most. First was the section of wall, now covered in glass, on which the Frank family measured the growth of Anne and her sister, Margot. It’s such a mundane thing, which is what makes it so immediately identifiable—somehow, this detail can’t help but make you think of your own family, your own growth, your own youth. More disturbing, though, is your realization that they weren’t just in here for a few hours or a few weeks—there was enough time for the kids to grow, for the passing and loss of their youth to be documented inch by inch.
And then there was a line from Anne’s diary, dated December 24, 1943 and printed on the wall in the secret apartment: "I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I’m free."
To read that quote in the midst of my own six-week, trans-continental journey—one that is, essentially, an expression of freedom and youth—is a jarring reminder that life is not always like this for everyone, not an endless stream of new discoveries and delights. For us tourists, the Anne Frank House is a destination to be checked off and posed in front of before we head on to the Heineken Experience or the Van Gogh Museum—it’s a place of fleeting interest in our journeys. We rarely pause to appreciate the fact that to see all these places is a luxury, that travel is a freedom not available to everyone. For Anne—and, more to the point, for way too many other nameless, forgotten individuals, then and now—travel wasn’t an option, not even a journey across the street. Home was prison.
That’s why it’s not the bookshelf that is most haunting, or Anne’s diary entries about having to be quiet and not open the curtains, "not even an inch"—it’s the mundane details, the ones so symbolic of our everyday existence. These are what make you realize that the Frank family passed their days and lived their lives—every aspect, every moment—in this space, in constant fear but also constantly trying to transcend that fear and create something akin to the humdrum happiness of normalcy. The concentration camps are not something that tourists can begin to fathom, so we really don’t even try. But this hiding space—this living space—is something we can relate to, which makes it, in a peculiar way, more real, more searing, more heartbreaking.
So while the house might start off as just another place to visit and check off, it ends up genuinely moving, chilling, enraging. History has come alive in the most unsettling way.
I know that some people leave somehow uplifted and inspired by Anne’s hopeful words, buoyed by their lyricism and introspection in the face of great evil. That’s not how I felt. I left disconcerted and upset by the ending of the story—I’m sorry, but no matter how positive Anne’s sentiments, and how admirable her ability to see the good in humanity, the fact is, she was a prisoner in her own house for years, and then she was captured and killed. Life’s pretty fucked-up: that’s my take-away message. It’s impossible to leave the house without being at least a bit pissed off and teary-eyed.
Near the end of the tour, I saw the British woman who had been in line in front of us, the Stereotypical Tourist with the flip-flops and tales of getting plastered all over the world. Now, her sunglasses were off and her makeup was streaked.
I followed her to the exit and we stepped out into the sunlight, young and free.