Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Anne Frank's Birthday

No one would go with me to the Anne Frank House. I can’t say that I blame them. It’s a bit hard to plan what you’re going to do next, after visiting the Anne Frank House. Take the Heineken Brewery tour? Get stoned in a coffee shop? I don’t think so.

I’d been to Amsterdam three times before (though never for more than five days at a stretch), so I was overdue for this literary pilgrimage. Also, I’d just read Philip Roth's “The Ghost Writer,” in which Nathan Zuckerman visits the eminent writer E. I. Lonoff in Connecticut and gets snowed in and fantasizes that Lonoff’s protégée, Amy Bellette, is really Anne Frank, who has survived the war but must live under an assumed name, because the fact of her survival would undermine her posthumous literary success. If there was ever a time for me to go to the Anne Frank House, this was it.

The Anne Frank House is on the Prinsengracht, in the neighborhood called the Jordaan. I entered the house behind a troop of scouts from Slovenia or somewhere, in uniforms the color of tiger lilies. Actually, I tried to avoid being behind the Slovene scouts by going into a bagel café next door and killing some time on the Internet, which was free to customers. But I caught up with them, and then they kept catching up with me.

As a travel destination, the Anne Frank House is the opposite of the Alhambra. The building had been the office and warehouse of Otto Frank’s pectin business, Opekta, and on the lower floors there is documentation of the firm and information about the loyal employees who ran it (and who protected the Franks). There are flat-screen TVs with footage of Nazis and Allies to set the historical tone, the voice of an actress with a British accent reading Anne Frank’s words, passages from the diary, in Dutch and English, stencilled on the walls. On the second floor is the bookcase concealing the stairway to the secret annex, at the top floor rear of the building: two floors of small shabby rooms and an attic, the only decoration being the photographs of movie stars and royalty that Anne pasted on the walls of the room she shared with an elderly dentist.

I must have been about thirteen when I read “The Diary of a Young Girl,” as it was called, and I just didn’t get it. I was keeping a diary myself at the time, and had precious little to report (it snowed; I made cheerleader; maybe I would become a nun). I’d never met a Jew. I was simply ignorant. Now I am aghast. How did it escape my awareness that this girl did not go outside for more than two years? I am someone who likes to be outside when the weather’s nice, to sit at sidewalk cafes; I keep the windows open even when it’s raining, and always roll down the windows in the car. Here is Anne Frank on August 10, 1943: “When I get up in the morning ... I leap out of bed, think to myself, ‘You’ll be slipping back under the covers soon,’ walk to the window, take down the black-out screen, sniff at the crack until I feel a bit of fresh air, and I’m awake.”

The attached museum was even more stifling than the annex. I looked at the original diary, under glass, in its red plaid cover, and the documentation of the deaths, at the hands of the Nazis, of all the inhabitants of the annex except Otto Frank, and then Anne Frank said to me, Go outside and get some fresh air. Before I left, I stopped in the bookstore; it was astonishing to see the shelves and shelves of different translations. I bought a paperback copy of the diary—it was the obvious thing to read next. Anne Frank wrote on April 27, 1943, that “the Carlton Hotel has been destroyed. Two British planes loaded with firebombs landed right on top of the German Officers’ Club. The entire corner of Vijzelstraat and Singel has gone up in flames.” That’s exactly where I was propped up in bed reading, in the Carlton Hotel Jolly, on Vijzelstraat and Singel, on a Saturday night. I couldn't sleep because of the noise outside, and I couldn't bring myself to close the windows.

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