I have taught the play The Diary of Anne Frank to my 8th graders for the past three years now, and I know the story by heart and have many of the quotes used in the play, online exhibitions, and movie that I use to teach it memorized. So naturally, a trip to Europe would not have been complete for me without a stop in Amsterdam and a visit to the Anne Frank house.
I may have even chosen our Amsterdam hostel because it was located really close to the house.
Sunday morning, we joined the line for entry to the house before the museum opened at 9am. But the line moved quickly, and soon, we were inside.
We saw a sign that said no photographs, and I respected that, though it pained me to do so. There were plenty of things I wish I could have photographed, and no guards to catch me if I’d done so, but it was a place that deserves a lot of respect, and so I followed the flow of the crowd solemnly taking in each room and each exhibit.
The exhibits started with quotes painted on the walls and some background information on the Frank family and why and how they’d gone into hiding. Then we progressed through to the jam factory, treading the very rooms where Miep and Mr. Kleiman and Mr. Kugler and Bep used to sit and work each day. Some rooms played video interviews on a loop. In the room where Miep’s desk once was (all the rooms are unfurnished now) she explained on the screen how she’d come to work for Mr. Frank, and how she’d immediately agreed to help the family when he’d told her they would go into hiding. Seeing her on video, standing in her office, looking out the window at the view of canal she would have seen over 60 years ago, it all gave me chills.
And then we passed behind the bookcase hiding the stairs (the original bookcase is still in place—I think the only piece of furniture which is still in the house) and took the giant step up. Edging around to the left of the steep stairs leading to the Van Daans’ quarters, we found ourselves in Mr. and Mrs. Frank and Margot’s room. On one wall, you can still see where Margot and Anne’s height was marked progressively over the two years when they were there. Anne was almost as tall as me at last marking.
Talk about history coming alive. Even writing it makes my eyes go a little misty for some reason.
Then on into Anne and Dussel’s shared room. Anne’s photographs of her movie stars are still on the walls, the window still blacked out. It’s a small room, and it was interesting for me to imagine it filled with two beds and a desk. From the bedroom, we passed into the bathroom (reading the play, I wouldn’t have remembered/realized that Anne’s room connected to the bathroom, but it does). Then up the steep steps to the room where the Van Daans slept and where the kitchen and dining room existed. Peter’s room is just as small as one would guess, with the stairs to the attic cutting the room almost in half. We were only able to glance up to the attic and not go up there, but there’s a mirror placed so that from the top of the stairs, you can see the tree top Anne wrote about.
That’s the end of the tour of the rooms, but the museum goes on. There is a room dedicated to the fates of those in the Secret Annex, with a video interview of Hannah Goslar, Anne’s best friend, who was also in Bergen-Belsen at the end. The actual diary is on display, and Otto Frank speaks in a video about fulfilling Anne’s wish to be a published author by compiling the diary into a book. Next to that video, there’s a display of the book in its many translations. I can’t help but wish Anne could see that not only is she a published author, but she’s one of the most famous in the world, her book one of the most read after the Bible. There’s a wall of photographs tracking Anne from birth until age 13, and a rolling video with interviews from her classmates. This I really found touching, because it was a reminder that Anne was a real person and not some saint. Some of her classmates say things like, “She could be a bit mean.” Or “She was often pushy when playing. Not in a mean way, of course, but she liked to be in control.” They all agreed she was full of life and energy, as you’d guess from reading her writing. Anne’s boyfriend from pre-hiding, Hello (he’s in the movie I show my students and I’d never verified whether he was real or not) speaks too, about how he went to Anne’s house for the first time after the Franks had left and felt in his heart that he’d never see Anne again when she didn’t answer the door.
All of the exhibits made the story come alive. They made it real. The Franks and Van Daans and Mr. Dussel (Anne’s pseudonyms for them in her diary, not their real names) were real people. The attic where they stayed—without ever going outside or making loud noises—really exists, and it’s small and would have been cramped, and it’s a miracle they went unnoticed for so long.
And I think most of the visitors get that. Visiting the house and museum was not like visiting Versailles or the Vatican. Though there were plenty of people, there was no pushing or shoving, no shuffling your way to the front to read the next bit of information. The whole place was filled with a mood of solemn respect. People waited their turn and took their time. And I think maybe that was the best part, and proof that the museum is functioning as it should in spreading Anne’s story.