By Sean Carman, intrepid travel correspondent for Maudnewton.com
Whether you walk along the Prinsengracht Canal from the town center, or step off the nearest tram, which runs on the bridge across the canal, the first thing you will find is her statue. It stands on a tall pedestal outside the church next door, along a brick sidewalk so broad it’s really a public square. She has one arm behind her back in a young girl’s pose, and her head is slightly, almost proudly, raised. Anne Frank’s hair is thick and her eyes are a little rough, like soft hollows that never completely formed.
It’s a busy square. I was there early but the tourists were already crossing the open space and lining up at the herring cart and flower stall. It had rained the night before. Pigeons circled the church and flocked on benches. The dramatic morning light made it a striking scene, something to convince you that getting up early is not always so bad. Anne Frank’s memorial statue is beautiful, but you also wish she could jump down from her pedestal and run off to find her friends.
The house looks like a lot of other elegant canal houses in Amsterdam. It is marked only by a plaque that says, “Anne Frank Huis.” Most tourists walk straight by and only realize their mistake a block or two later, which is what I did. Maybe you don’t expect it to be so close to such a regal church.
The entrance is in the renovated and modernized house next door, but even it doesn’t have a noticeable sign. After I stepped inside a group of rowdy grade school kids poured in, so I let them get a little ahead. Apart from them there wasn’t a crowd.
In the entrance lobby a short film shows workers tossing scores of thin white bodies into a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen on the day of its liberation. Anne Frank had died at the camp just one month before. “One of these might be the body of Anne Frank,” you are told.
From the lobby you cross into the original house. Its ground floor is the former warehouse of the jam factory. There are barrels lying around, and a few cans and jars, and the room still has its wooden warehouse doors. In a quote painted on the wall, Anne remarks that her father entered the wrong line of work. Why make jam? she asks. If you’re going to run a factory, why not make something fun, like candy?
Upstairs are the offices where Miep Gies, Joe Kleiman, Victor Kugler, and Bep Voskuijl kept everything running after Otto Frank, the former managing director of the factory, took his family, the van Pels family, and Albert Dussel into hiding. There is a film with a testimonial by Miep Gies. She recalls that when Mr. Frank asked for her help, she agreed without hesitation. “We didn’t even think about it,” she says. “Of course we would do it.”
The “Secret Annex,” as Anne called it, was hidden in the back of the top two floors. The bookcase that covered its entrance stands ajar, so you can duck your head and hop over the step leading inside, just as Anne’s diary describes.
The Annex’s rooms are still furnished as they were when the Franks hid out. There are the same simple tables and chairs, the same photographs and news clippings on the walls in Anne’s and Peter van Pels’ rooms. The floors and stairs still creak and sound, they are audible from everywhere. Anne’s room is a sacred space. All you can hear from there are the church bells, the creaking house, and the birds outside.
You can’t move through the Annex, see how the gauze on the windows makes everything outside so dark, breathe the stale air, and read Anne’s words on the walls without being overcome by sadness. It’s the sadness of Anne Frank’s dying but determined hope, which still lives in her last real home. Walking through those rooms you only want to help, to make some gesture to show you are sorry.
By the time the tour ended on the Annex’s top floor the grade school kids were no longer yelling and pushing each other. They walked around deliberately, in bewildered silence. My head felt heavy, and the other older visitors were visibly shaken. Nearby a couple held hands. Their faces had softened, their eyes were wet, and the woman shook her head.
I tromped down the steps, to the cafe and bookstore, where they seem to understand if you don’t want to linger for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. There was a place down the street, they said, that would be easy to find.
Outside were the usual stream of bicycles whizzing by, and the traffic, and the birds and the church tower’s bell. On the little square on the corner Anne Frank stared into oblivion, the way statues do, the night’s rain on her cheek in small drops that might have been tears.