Monday, May 11, 2009

Anne Frank's house

On Sunday morning, despite approximately four hours of interrupted sleep thanks to my hotel neighbors coming in in drips and drabs from their various nocturnal activities, I woke up and decided to visit the house that Anne Frank lived in before her untimely death. In retrospect probably not an ideal excursion what with being severely sleep deprived and hungry, but given that I only had a couple of hours to spare before our flight, I felt it was a more worthy use of my time than sleeping or eating breakfast. I bet Maslow would have something to say about that.

After waiting in the queue for 30 mins (getting there early has been an advantage) I entered with a tight feeling in my chest, knowing I was setting myself up for a difficult and painful experience.

For some people I think going to the house is a thing you do when you visit Amsterdam so you can say you've 'done' it. For others it is an integral part of their culture and past, (indeed isn't it an integral part of all of our pasts?) a concrete place to visit, meditate, and remember grandparents, relatives, and friends for whom no such place exists. For others still, and perhaps a category I fit into, it is about visiting an important historical landmark and paying your respects. To remember, and by doing so, become aware, and perhaps try and gain some understanding of the spirit of humanity, both good and evil.

It is no surprise that the experience left me feeling profoundly upset. Shaken in an archetypal sort of way that is hard to explain here. It wasn't just seeing a place that these people had lived and hidden in, both in fear and hope, for such a long time. The height charts still on the wall showing the children's growth. Anne's pictures (the subject matter not that different to things that interested me at that age) cut from magazines and pasted onto her bedroom wall, to try and approximate an outside world and freedom she had no access to. The windows perpetually covered so those people never felt the sun on their face for two long years.

More so, it was a painful template, giving a concrete reality to the millions of faceless families that were systematically torn apart and murdered. Just imagine for a moment, your children and or loved ones being ripped from your arms and taken to their certain slaughter. That feeling that you instinctively experience when you imagine that - that is the feeling that accompanies you when you walk through that house and which lingers long after you have left it.

What is desperately upsetting and deeply worrying, is that this is not just the story of this one family, or of the Jews, so we can reflect, 'Yes that was a terrible terrible thing that happened to them,' and then move on with our lives. Racism, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing are alive and well and happening today. People are being slaughtered en masse as I write this, just look at Darfur. And there's the disappearing of people in Sri Lanka, again, happening right now. And and and. This is not just history then, this is humanity at its worst playing this nightmarish drama over and over again, and one wonders if it will ever end.

As a teenager I asked my grandmother, who had lived through the war in South Africa. "But didn't people know about the Jews being murdered? Why didn't anyone stop it?" "We heard stories," she said, "but what could we do?" Indeed, what are we doing from stopping it happening today? How are the people in Darfur and Sri Lanka, and countless other places were such atrocities are taking place, any different to Anne Frank and her family? What are we doing to help these people?

It was also a very sharp reminder to me of the extraordinarily fine line between casual racist, discriminatory, and bigoted remarks and opinions, and the blanket depersonalisation and objectification of people which led to the Nazi's and their sympathisers doing what they did. How, I ask myself, could you kill all those people? How could you kill children and babies? These terrible cold blooded evils, perpetuated by men and women with their own families and children sitting at home awaiting their return each day.

It is important that we face these dark thoughts, and ask these questions, so that we can remember, become aware, and in doing so keep ourselves in check and teach our children. It is also true that at some point I had to stop myself from fixating on it, and indeed since my return, keep myself from returning to those thoughts, because it is too much. You need to step out of that place from time to time, because the alternative is drowning in it. As Primo Levi said, "One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live."

More positively, the experience was also strangely and surprisingly life affirming, not unlike surviving an accident. I came out of it acutely sensitised to my life and what fills it. It made me feel profoundly grateful for my family, for my daughter (who was showered with kisses and held a bit too tightly on my return), for Robert, for the fact that I live in a democratic society that allows me to voice these thoughts and opinions. That I can live my life without fear. That I can step outside and feel the sun on my face. That I can, god willing, see my child grow and have children of her own. That I am free. That I am free.


Happy Snapper said...

Wow. I had exactly the same feelings from the moment I stepped through that bookcase and your blog brought it all back. I'm so glad you went. It IS a life-changing experience.

I particularly like the Primo Levi quote.

letters from london said...

Thank you.