Monday, June 30, 2014

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam

The line forms before the 9 a.m. opening and remains hundreds of people long the entire day until closing time at 9 pm.  Could an historic site ask for anything more?  For those who work in public history and historic preservation, is this not the stuff of our dreams?

Or is there something disturbing about the allure of this place?

The Anne Frank House, Amsterdam.

I continue to believe that the Diary of Anne Frank was manipulated by virtually everyone that touched it after the war, including her father, Otto Frank, but also a lineup of translators, playwrights, Hollywood producers, politicians, Holocaust memory activists -- everyone.  They removed references to Judaism, her fury toward the Nazis, her disgust with her parents, and her dark view of humanity, in order to reconstruct a more politically palatable and useful image for a 1950s United States.  That images has continued to prove useful.  I largely agree with Cynthia Ozick, who used a New Yorker essay (reviewing among other books, an excellent revisionist history of the diary by Ralph Melnick, an historian from western Massachusetts) to eviscerate the misuse of the story of Anne Frank to promote, in her mind, a forgetting about the Holocaust, cloaked in a story of adolescent struggle and good wishes for all humanity.  She said it in her usual uncompromising way:   "The diary has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, arrogantly denied."  And her 1997 New Yorker piece ends with this breathtaking line: 

"It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it), but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil."

This was the line in my mind as I approached my visit.  I was prepared to be disgusted and to scoff at the universalizing sentimentality of the displays and the responses of visitors.  When I heard the American college students gasp "This is messed up!" and "Can you imagine having to live in such a small space?," I cringed.

And yet, I found the procession up through the warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht to the "secret annex" deeply moving.  There, I said it.  In spite of my knowledge about the history and manipulation of the Diary, I found the Anne Frank House very moving.

The Nazis emptied out virtually everything from the Secret Annex and Otto Frank, who retained virtual veto power over the museum's displays during his life, insisted that the annex not be recreated. The irony is that the curators did recreate the annex in painstaking detail, photographed it, and placed some of those images on the wall.  Around the world, other Anne Frank museums used those images to make the recreations not allowed in Amsterdam.  In general, I believe in this approach and am skeptical of the attempt to recreate a moment in time, as if we can remake the past.  Because there is no effort to rebuild the scene in Amsterdam, visitors must focus on the procession through the space, up the stairs, through the hidden entrance, up the steep ladder stairs, and let the few remnants from that time -- the pencil markings showing the two girls' changing heights over the two years in hiding, the magazine pictures and postcards Anne pasted onto the wall -- spur the imagination. You do find yourself thinking not abstractly about the Holocaust but about one family, and one young woman's energetic mind, full of aspiration for a life of writing, and love.

This is aided by the museum's clear editing of its interpretive program, perhaps in response to critics like Ozick and Melnick.  The very first words in the museum come from Anne's Diary:  "I have opinions, a religion, and love," and "We will always be Jews as well."  The emphasis on Anne's Jewish heritage is almost too much, as we know that the Frank's were German Reform Jews, and with a limited commitment to Jewish practice.  (Ozick herself has been criticized for inventing Anne Frank as well in her own wishful image -- as a young woman who felt herself to be first and foremost a Jew). The museum also has an extensive section on the aftermath, so that the story does not end nebulously with the betrayal of the secret annex.  Videos show images of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and an interview with one of her friends who saw her just days before she died.  All this is anticipated at the start of the museum visit with the first video, which opens with scenes of piles of dead bodies at one of the concentration camps.  One cannot leave the Anne Frank house thinking that it was simply a generic story of exciting if dangerous wartime hiding.  The murder of this family and millions of others is made patently and graphically clear.

I did not leave pleased, however.  There is a stunning omission, which carries over into the inevitable gift shop that concludes even this museum experience.  We hear Otto Frank, interviewed on television after the war, speaking about the surprise of reading his daughter's diary.  He is given the almost final word in the museum, when he declares that "most parents don't know, really, their children."  In the same room, are some of the first editions of the diary in English, with Eleanor Roosevelt's endorsement of the diary as displaying a "shining nobility of spirit."  But nowhere is the editing of the diary discussed, other than a small note that Otto Frank produced a diary for publication based on the initial diary, Anne's revisions, and other notes she wrote.  There is no discussion of the five additional pages discovered more than a decade ago which reveal Anne's feelings about her father and mother. In the bookstore, there are copies of the diary in a dozen different languages, but, if I am not mistaken, they are the so-called "definitive" edition which is, despite its name, neither definitive nor complete.  And finally, in a bookstore filled with dozens of books about Anne, the secret annex, and Amsterdam in wartime -- many in English -- there are no copies of the books by Ralph Melnick and Lawrence Graver, the revisionist historians of the diary.  Rather than acknowledging the ongoing controversy over this most famous of books from World War II, the experience is wrapped up neatly for visitors, along with postcards and blank replicas of Anne's red plaid diary.

This may be no accident.  For the Anne Frank Museum has served a very important purpose, which is to perpetuate -- if not always consciously or intentionally -- the image of the Dutch as saviors to so many Jews.  It is true that some 25,000 Jews were hidden and protected by courageous citizens.  But I only learned on this visit -- and this is a testament to my ignorance, but is also indicative of the power of the mythology of Dutch bravery and goodness -- that a greater percentage of Jewish citizens of Holland were sent to Nazi concentration camps than from any other country in Europe.

Will the tourists who make this the number one attraction in Amsterdam leave the Anne Frank knowing this fact?  Or will they leave with a warm flush of emotion, that will quickly be displaced by a canal-side beer or a bite of stroopwafel?

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