My Experience Visiting the Anne Frank House

For a long time, I hid that I was Jewish. Not in the obvious, conscious way you might hide a pimple. It was subconscious embarrassment, the type of embarrassment so subtle that it had no one real clear root cause. It just kind of existed, present and unexplained.

Outside the Anne Frank House, everything feels oddly modern. The bricks you stand on are neatly aligned and certainly not the same ones present in the 1930’s and 40’s. There are benches with perfectly perpendicular corners in front of the house. Everybody entering the building enters through a revolving door. Families sitting on the geometrically satisfying benches all follow the same tropes. Dad with the camera. Mom with a purse full of candy or Dutch cheese. Kids wearing sunglasses, either on their phone or leaning on a parent. Prinsengracht, which translates to “Prince’s Canal,” one of Amsterdam’s main three canals, is right next to the Anne Frank House. Tour boats run through the water every couple of minutes, usually rotating between a few different tour companies, all of which serve champagne at some sort of bar-like thing. You spend enough time waiting outside, even if you buy tickets beforehand, that everything becomes cyclical. The smell of weed vanishes and returns. Families disappear and are immediately replaced by new ones, the only changes being insignificant things, like maybe one family has parents sitting on the outside of the children while another has an alternating pattern.

It’s easy to get lost on the outside, but as soon as you enter the building, it gets serious fast. The line moves quickly and just before you walk into the informational, historical part of the museum, a staff member hands you a handheld device. This, she explains, is the audio tour guide. You hold it up to little white sensors mounted on the walls of every room and it begins playing an only slightly mechanical narration giving information about the exhibit. What isn’t mentioned is that the device makes a beep whenever you hold it to the wall, so every room is filled with echoing beeps, not unlike a hospital.

Hiding my Jewish roots was a process as subtle as the social forces which caused me to hide them in the first place. In some sense, it was easy. We only really ate Kosher around Passover. We sung prayers for Chanukah and dipped apples in honey during Rosh Hashanah but only visited synagogues for special events. My Dad, who was raised in a Catholic home, let my Mom, born to Jewish parents, lead our home’s religious activity. All this, however, happened at home, with my sister, parents, and grandparents being the only real company. The question of my religious background never really arose during school. And so I developed a connection to Jewish culture in secret, made sure nobody came over during Chanukah when our Menorah was out in the open, pretended not to know the answers when my teachers asked about Yom Kippur or other Jewish traditions.

In the first few rooms, there’s a lot of expository information, stuff about World Wars and geopolitics. Everything is always surrounded by beeping, again giving the Anne Frank House an odd hint of modernity, maybe even futuristic in nature.
In the corner of one room, right on the wall, surrounded visually by white and auditorily by beeping, distant and near, there’s an eye level glass box. Behind the glass: a yellow star with “Jood,” the Dutch word for “Jew,” written on the front in what isn’t exactly calligraphy. But the most surprising part about the star is that its folded over a little bit, visibly and clearly fabric. It’s a stupid thing to notice, but it’s all you can think about. If you’re like most American high school students, you’ve seen these before, you know the history, the segregation and all. But there’s some abstract but powerful difference between seeing pixels or shiny textbook paper and seeing drooping fabric, faded ink, folds and creases in the star. Suddenly and all at once, the obvious fact that history, all of it, really happened becomes not only obvious but true. The Nazis, Blitzkrieg, people wearing stars because of their faith, concentration camps, starvation, book burnings, Kristallnacht, bombings, death everywhere, U-boats, all of it, really happened, on the same ground where you were just standing, separated temporally by only a lifetime and spatially by mere feet. In a weird, almost spiritual way, you can feel this. It loads your bones and forces you to take a second and sit, or at least stand very still. There are not enough neurons in the entire museum, let alone your own head, to even imagine what took place not even a century ago.

As you move forward through the museum, everyone but the Italian woman who can’t seem to grasp the concept of silence is crying. It’s odd and uncomfortable, so at first most of the tears are shed in the corners of rooms, an activity so common you can actually see tears on the floor in a few places. But pretty soon, watching others walk through the exhibits, eyes glossy and noses somehow tight, you realize how badly you want to give them a hug or maybe just both lean into each other and cry for a moment and then say goodbye. A father looks at his kids for a moment then wipes his cheeks. A French woman is squeezing her husband’s arm so tight you can hear it. The faces are blank and in such disbelief that mouths literally drop and eyes fall to the floor. And so you think about how maybe the world would be different in a good way if we spent more time crying in front of each other.
It takes a little while before the expository rooms give way to the main exhibit. A secret entrance behind a bookcase represents the real shift from museum to Annex. There’s a steep stairway before the main part of the Annex. The stairs are old and wooden and go nearly straight upwards. You look behind you and nobody is near. So you go up the stairs slowly, carefully placing each step, and imagine what it would’ve been like to walk these stairs in total silence, with death, or worse, waiting as punishment for a stomp or creak. The ascent is slow by necessity. Up ahead, a young girl and someone who must be an older brother peer over the bathroom. You can’t see them well or make out much but you catch a bit of their whisper: “no way.”
The museum is full of people, but it becomes particularly apparent in the smaller, less modern Annex. The loud Italian woman is still there. A German family, each of which had their hands clasped together behind their backs, stood over the dining table where the Franks ate from 1942-1944. A teenage American wearing athletic shorts stands in the corner, overlooking the kitchen set up. He is absolutely dead silent. His hands make their way from his side to his chest to his head in a pattern. It feels almost like he’s sucking noise out of the air. An older woman, maybe Chinese, is arm in arm with a younger woman who is likely her daughter. They both have simple black hair and slowly make their way through. The older woman coughs occasionally. Holding tissues, a middle aged man stops in the center of the room and does a sort of slow rotation. You notice he does this weird think where he nods his head slightly before bringing the tissues to his face. Everywhere you look, there are people, and, with the Star of David and its folded fabric still floating through your head, it’s hard not to break down and stare and think about whether or not any of the people in the kitchen with you will end up taking the same canal boat tour later or eating at the same restaurant tomorrow or maybe even board the same flight home in a few days.
The Annex is silent. Inside your head is whatever the opposite of completely silent is.

I’ve never invited a friend to Passover. Every year, the time would come and my Mom would ask me if I wanted to invite any friends and, so far, I’ve never said yes. One day this will change. And I think that day is countably near.

The last exhibits contain bits of Anne’s diary and a thicker, more official looking book, which upon closer inspection is a book logging the dead. Anne Frank’s name is on the upper half of the left page in very small font. Typewriter font. Everything, all the names, in perfect rows. It’s clinical. The beeping is back. And you listen to Otto Frank, years later, describe how he was unaware of all the deep thoughts inside his daughter’s head. Just before the final exit, you see a family, each with cheesy red shirts that say “Miller Family Vacation 2018,” all huddled together, arm in arm in arm.
As you exit the Anne Frank House, a video room with a complex projection system waits. The video is a collection of quotes, oddly critical at times, oddly lighthearted in others. Whoopi Goldberg says something about teenagers in general that doesn’t make very much sense. Anne Frank’s boyfriend, from before the Annex, says something about how he wonders what would’ve happened had other things not happened. A few of the quotes are of random visitors. A few talk about romanticizing a single individual of a tragedy that killed millions. John Green talks about the four Aron Franks below Anne who didn’t receive museums or fame.
Immediately outside, a young, tall man with veins bulging out of his arms waves a tour boat to the side of the canal. He’s wearing a bright orange shirt and stands next to a sign advertising fifteen Euro canal tours. For a moment, you want to scream at him and ask how he could live with himself knowing he used the Anne Frank House’s popularity for profit, knowing he looked the Holocaust straight in the eye and decided he could use it for monetary gain. But instead everything gets quiet for a second and you have this inexplicable and odd urge to give him a hug.

By Colton Wills
Photos by author

1 comment

  1. this was really powerful to read, i felt like i was there with you. this kind of experience is odd to put into words and you did it really beautifully