The man sitting next to me and rolling his own cigarettes as he sipped a Heineken in a dimly lit bar was talking about the history of Amsterdam.
He worked for a radio station, sometimes played piano in a jazz bar and had lived in the Dutch metropolis all his life.
“Amsterdam was founded as a free city,” he said. “Some people who live here have forgotten that. But if you believe in freedom, you are a true citizen of Amsterdam.”
I promptly declared myself a citizen of the city that I was coming to love during a short stay last summer.
It was an idyllic time. My wife Chrys, our friend Kathleen and I had come to town to cat sit for our friends, the writers Deborah Scroggins and Colin Campbell, who were away in Greece.
Their wonderful old house was conveniently located on a tram line that took us directly into the central city in minutes. We spent our days enjoying the sights and museums, floating along the canals, and, whenever the opportunity arose, striking up conversations with the friendly and tolerant folks the city is known for. We loved the restaurants and became big fans of mustard soup. And, yes, we loved Deborah and Colin’s cat, Jo-Jo, too.
But there was one somber afternoon during our visit — the day we toured the Anne Frank House beside a canal at 263 Prinsengracht.
Thanks to the worldwide popularity of her diary, first published in 1947 and later transformed into a Pulitzer-prize-winning play and a movie, the broad outlines of Anne Frank’s story are familiar to most people. Anne, a teenager during World War II, and her family were forced to go into hiding in this house until they were betrayed, captured by the Nazis and sent off to concentration camps for the sole “crime” of being Jewish. In March of 1945, Anne died of typhoid fever in Germany’s dreaded Bergen-Belsen camp.
If you’ve been to any of the major sites associated with the Holocaust, you know the overwhelming sense of terror and brutality they can evoke. My wife and I visited Auschwitz once and I will never forget the nightmarish sensation of horror and oppression I felt as we left, walking along a gravel path on a cold, dark November night illuminated only by a few naked light bulbs strung overhead.
The Anne Frank house had a different kind of power. Evil had visited there, too — the evil that forced the Franks and their friends into hiding in the first place, the evil of their betrayal and rough arrests. But, even in the midst of a large crowd that was streaming through the house on the day we visited, I experienced a wider, more complex range of emotions. Amid the reminders of our human capacity for cruelty were also reminders of our more humane abilities, made apparent in the warmth and affection Anne conveyed through her writing.
I would never willingly return to Auschwitz, but I would gladly pay another visit to Anne’s hiding place just to share a few moments of communion with her gentle spirit.
While I haven’t returned to Amsterdam, I did have another opportunity to spend some time with Anne — just last week at an exhibit called “Anne Frank in the World: 1929-1945, Lessons for Humanity” at the Old Decatur Courthouse in suburban Atlanta.
Sponsored by the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust, the exhibit is built around photos that put the Anne Frank story in context.
In the first section, covering the period 1929-1933, visitors learn details about Anne’s family and their community. Anne’s father Otto, for instance, was an amateur photography buff who was born in the major German commercial center, Frankfurt am Main. In 1908 and ’09, he worked in a New York department store and, during World War I, he served as a lieutenant in the German army.
The exhibit describes the turmoil in Frankfurt, where Anne was born on June 12, 1929, and the whole of Germany during this period. In the year of her birth, Frankfurt had 540,000 inhabitants, 30,000 of them Jewish. It was “an attractive modern city, economically, socially and culturally,” a caption for one of the pictures says. “The intellectual and political climate is democratic and liberal.” Not for long, however, as economic depression led to social and political tension that the Nazis were quick to capitalize on.
The second phase of the exhibit covers the years 1933-1940. By 1933, the Nazis had taken over Germany’s national government and Frankfurt’s mayor, Ludwig Landmann, a Jew elected in 1924, was forced to flee to the Netherlands. Meanwhile, all over Germany, the political climate was rapidly becoming more oppressive. In March of 1933, 10,000 union members were arrested; soon only a pro-Nazi union was allowed. On April 1, 1933 Joseph Goebbels declared an official boycott of Jewish shopkeepers, doctors and lawyers. On July 14, 1933, all political parties except the Nazis were banned and 150,000 of Hitler’s opponents were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Simply endorsing another political party could get you three years in jail.
Seeking to escape the Nazis, the Frank family — Otto, his wife Edith, Anne and her older sister, Margot — moved to the Netherlands because of its history of political and religious tolerance. Otto started a new business, and Anne and her family had good lives for a few years.
Too few. In 1940, when the exhibit’s next section begins, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The Germans had begun mass arrests of Jews in 1938, and they brought those policies to the new countries they controlled. In 1942, when Margot Frank received an order to report to a work camp, the Frank family went into hiding. For more than two years, as readers of Anne’s diary know, they managed to remain in the secret annex of the building now known as the Anne Frank House along with four other people. But on Aug. 4, 1944, the Nazis stormed into the hiding place and sent all eight of its inhabitants to concentration camps. Of the eight, only Otto survived the camps. In all, more than 75 percent of Holland’s Jews died during this period. Overall, the Nazis killed 6 million Jews in a relentless campaign that also targeted millions of gays, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian prisoners, and any of the Nazis’ political opponents.
Those numbers are shocking. But another number is more encouraging: More than 20 million people have bought copies of Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
“I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want!,” Anne once wrote in her diary. “And if I don’t have the talent to write books or newspaper articles, I can always write for myself. But I want to achieve more than that. … . I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me.”
When a journalist named Jan Romein first wrote about her diary in a Dutch newspaper, he said it “embodies all the hideousness of fascism, more so than all the evidence at Nuremberg put together.”
Many years later Roger Rosenblatt wrote in Time magazine that Anne had become a symbol of “the moral individual mind beset by the machinery of destruction, insisting on the right to live and question and hope for the future of human beings.”
Her diary is mainly the story of only one young girl, just one of millions of victims of the Nazi crimes. But Anne Frank was an especially talented and observant child. And she lives on as a symbol of humanity in a world that had truly gone mad.
In Amsterdam, that city of freedom that has not always been so free, I was honored to be able to spend a little time communing with her spirit. In Decatur, Ga., last week, I was honored to have one more chance to spend time with a girl who, even in death, continues to make a difference.
The Anne Frank exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays, and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Phone 404-370-3056. The exhibit continues until December.
Georgia Commission on the Holocaust:
Anne Frank House: