Reporting from Amsterdam: The Anne Frank Museum

I last visited the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam 50 years ago, as a kid. It’s a different experience for me now as an adult father of three daughters, but the museum has become a phenomenon (along with Anne’s diary) of universal appeal. It now draws large crowds of visitors from all over the world. How many of these visitors have any sympathy for the state of Israel or the struggle of the Jewish people for survival? I wonder.

During tourist season the visitors stand in lines blocks long winding around the neighborhood waiting to buy a ticket for admission. We tried the line for a while yesterday and resolved to return this morning before the museum opening to beat the crowd. There was already a line of up to a hundred or so visitors when we joined it 30 minutes before the museum was scheduled to open. The museum opened early and we were in by 9:00. By the time we left at 10:00 the line was longer than when we left it yesterday, maybe three blocks long. (We learned yesterday that you can also beat the crowd by buying tickets online. Online tickets, however, were gone through July.)

The museum has grown and the story — the museum aptly describes itself as “the museum with a story” — has been filled in. The story is impossibly sad. It represents tragedy and evil without catharsis. We nevertheless have Miep Gies and her helpers who provided for the families in hiding, and that, at least, is not nothing.

Anne and her family lived in hiding in “the secret annex” above Mr. Frank’s office with four others for just a little over two full years before someone turned them in to the authorities. Who turned them in? Was it for the reward of 7.50 guilders per Jewish head that the Nazis conferred for such tips? Whatever the motive, the act was pure evil. We learn from Melissa Muller’s very good biography of Anne that we have some idea who the perpetrator might have been. This is one aspect of the story that the museum does not touch.

Of the eight who hid in the secret annex, Otto Frank was the only survivor. Anne almost survived. She died within a month of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, where she also lost her mother and older sister before dying herself. She apparently died of typhus and/or starvation.

The museum faithfully preserves the secret annex. The proprietors have gone to great lengths toward preservation in the spirit of Otto Frank’s dictates (which precluded reconstruction of the furnishings as they were). The eight people lived in cramped quarters on two floors.

On one of the walls of the secret annex are pencil markings by which Anne and her older sister measured their growth while in hiding. Those markings stayed with me over the past 50 years. There is no photograph of Anne deriving from the two years in hiding. Today I was struck by how much she had grown in height in those two years.

She also grew spiritually. Anne wanted to become a famous writer. She was a prolific and precocious writer of growing gifts, as Francine Prose demonstrates in her recent book on Anne. She was inspired to begin the project of rewriting the diary in March 1944 when she heard a representative of the Dutch government in exile call for personal accounts of the war period. It is a blessing that Anne has achieved fame as a writer posthumously, but she burned to enjoy the fame as a living author. Her growing gifts impress on us the magnitude of our loss with her murder.