The Anne Frank House — from Hiding Place to Museum
AMSTERDAM —My wife and I had talked about visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam for years. Now, on our way to East Africa, was the perfect opportunity - for it would afford us the chance to make a convenient interim stop over in the Netherlands and avoid the long direct flight to Nairobi.
Fortunately, Jan Colijn, our friend and Dean of General Studies at Stockton College, is from the Netherlands. Jan put us in touch with Dienke Hondius, Professor of History at VU University in Amsterdam where she is involved with the Frank House and the international department there.
What many don’t know is that since 1967 the Anne Frank House, which welcomes over one million visitors each year, has provided world-wide traveling tours of exhibitions in 67 countries and 1200 cities promoting tolerance. They have produced books, theater presentations and teacher training materials - teaching acceptance of all people regardless of ethnicity, religion or race. They use film clips, debates and classroom discussions. In fact, Janet and I attended one college-level class being conducted in the Anne Frank House property and found it to be most stimulating. It’s similar to the work at the Tolerance Museum of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California.
During the 15th century Jews came from Spain – some through France and the numbers increased. In the 17th century Amsterdam became an international commercial center with a dynamic shipping industry and Jews – particularly the Sephardim - became very wealthy. Amsterdam was also a leading city for the production of Hebrew books.
Today there are Jews in thirty communities with most of them in Amsterdam. There is the “MIK,” similar to our Federation system, which helps with welfare, the Jewish hospital and other social action organizations. And, the Dutch government also gives to the Jewish Welfare Groups. The government also provides some funds for the magnificent 300-year-old Spanish Portuguese Synagogue. It was illuminated with candle light and designed with a gorgeous ark and bimah of polished wood - and though today it is a museum, it’s still inspiring to visit this imposing edifice. The shul is located just across the street from the large and impressive Jewish Museum, which depicts the culture - the life and times of the Jews of the Netherlands. It’s a “must-see” when you visit Amsterdam. It also contains models of the “new” shul of 1752 and has an impressive library. Lonnie Stgrink, the Museum librarian told us they have over 120,000 visitors each year. And, she reports, there is a kosher butcher, a weekly Jewish newspaper and an active Jewish community.
The night before we left we attended an International Jewish Music Festival performance at the Amsterdam Conservatory - a new performance hall near the central station. Small musical groups came from European countries - South America - and the states to compete. Not only did the jury select a winner but also the audience was given plastic chips (1 each) so we too could vote for one of the six finalists. Unfortunately the USA team did not make the finals.
In retrospect I thought of our experience of being in the very presence of Otto Frank and his family and of their long travail. True we were there - but were we really there? How could we imagine the anxiety of living on a daily basis with the constant thought of an unexpected worker hearing our toilet flush when we were in hiding? How could we be there not hearing the haunting sound of the police sirens in the neighboring streets –or the barking German Shepard dogs that the S/S troops utilized so tauntingly to reproach their victims - or the Gestapo pounding on the door at any moment to discover our hiding place.
Yes – we were there – and it’s a memory we’ll never forget - but to fully appreciate the fear and anxious moments Anne Frank and the other seven lived with seems an impossibility now. For that we are grateful. Perhaps that’s why so many thousands patiently stand in the queue on a daily basis. At least that gives us hope.