On visiting the Anne Frank House

For a long time now, I have been wanting to visit the Anne Frank House. This Monday past, I finally got the opportunity. My experience, however, was different to what I had expected. Let me explain.

Like most, if not all of us, I had read Anne Frank’s diary as a child. I remember being struck by her ability to capture her experiences in such a thoughtful and powerful way. She made me get it, in ways all those facts that we were being taught in history class about the Second World War never could. Anne made it claustrophobically real and gave it a voice I could relate to. I also realised the importance of her having kept her diary so I could read it all these years later and understand a dark, horrible part not just of humanity’s, but my own country’s history. Reading Anne Frank’s diary also introduced a lasting habit into my personal life: to this day I keep a diary.

In other words, Anne Frank’s diary touched me. It made a difference.

Years later my wish emerged to visit the museum. Since for various reasons I never seemed to get around to it, I have logged onto the website of the Anne Frank House on several occasions to take the virtual tour. This was really fascinating, to virtually walk through the Secret Annex, see what it looked like with all the furniture, and click on objects to read further information or watch a short clip. I really engaged with the Secret Annex through that virtual tour and felt I was getting a real sense of everyone who had been forced to hide there. I would literally spend more than an hour each time exploring the virtual annex and the additional information I found there. Each time, I shut down the computer with a new impression of the terror the people in the Annex along with their helpers must have felt. How horrible it must have been to have watched the world around them descend into such cruel madness until they felt they had no other choice than to leave behind all light and air and freedom to save their lives, and still the horror caught up with them, with the most terrible and saddest end.

In other words, the virtual tour touched me. It made a difference.

Now, I am not suggesting that visiting the actual place did not touch me or not make a difference. It did, and I am truly grateful to have been able to visit.

And there were moments when I physically experienced something that I had not experienced in reading Anne Frank’s diaries or virtually exploring the Secret Annex. Suddenly standing on the little landing confronted by the bookcase in front of me was like a punch to the chest, both because I had not expected it yet and because the image of that half-opened bookcase to me is the most iconic image of the story of the Secret Annex. And here it was. Behind this unassuming piece of furniture all of these people hoped to stay alive.

I had a similar moment of getting it when I stood at the bottom of the ladder into the attic and saw the tree beyond the famed attic window, branches waving calmly in the air. I suppose the experience up to that point – of cramped rooms (mostly because of all the visitors), the lack of light and fresh air – contributed to my sense of relief to finally see some life and at the same time to feel that it remained out of my reach. This was their daily life. Just – horrible. And brave. Courageous. Inspiring.

These were the direct impacts of physically being in the space. This physicality of heritage, not just in terms of the physical properties of space but also our own physical, or bodily engagement with it, the way we inhabit a heritage space by bringing our bodies and all our experiences into it, has been a topic of several conversations and projects I have recently been involved in. And only last week I joined someone else on their physical exploration of a (family history) space and was struck again by how it can shape our connection to the heritage or story in question.

So visiting the Anne Frank House in person, I probably expected to feel that physical connection at all times. But I didn’t. And I’m trying to understand why that was.

The interpretation provided was excellent: inobtrusive, allowing the space to be. So it wasn’t that.

Maybe it was the number of visitors; the queuing and shuffling through the rooms in lines determined by the sheer crowds changed how the space could be interacted with. We couldn’t live it [1]. We visited, our movements controlled not by ourselves but the (unavoidable) constraints of what the Secret Annex (and the office rooms in front) have become today.

Lastly, the place today isn’t what it was like when Anne Frank and the others hid there. All the furniture was removed by the Nazis, and this is how Otto Frank wanted it to remain. I cannot imagine the pain Otto Frank must have felt, losing his family and then preserving where they had hoped to survive the occupation and the war. Of course I do not question his decision. And I do think that if one moved through the space by themselves, the absence of all furnishings coupled with the few, very few remaining original objects – the posters on the wall, the kitchen work top – would invoke a greater and more devastating absence. Unfortunately, the crowds did not allow that experience to arise in me.

At the end of the day, like I wrote before, I am truly grateful that the house and the Secret Annex are still there. I am glad I visited. Still, when I returned to the hotel, the first thing I did was take the virtual tour, again.


[1] I am so conscious writing this that of course, nobody ever could live it like its inhabitants had done. We will always, hopefully, have the luxury of knowing that we’re safe and that we can leave as soon as we wish to. They never had that luxury. The distinction I’m trying to draw by juxtaposing the words to live and to visit is that the former intends to suggest a more immediate imagining of how we might have lived here, while the latter is us following the behavioural rules of a museum visit, in this case with the additional time pressure of having to move on according to the crowds’ pace.


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