There are some characters in history with whom we feel a particular kinship. When many of us were adolescents we read the story of a young girl whose words rang true with the longings, the questions, the frustrations and the hope we felt in this often turbulent life season. In whichever English class we were required to read The Diary of Anne Frank, most of us became intrigued with the ways in which she wrote of her life held captive in the attic of an Amsterdam building. Whether male or female, our classrooms buzzed with her telling of a time that was not far from the memories of parents. If we were paying attention we made this connection and, what may have been lost on us in history class about war and the profiling of certain groups of people, awakened in a literature class. Anne’s arguments with parents and other adults and her love interest in Peter who shared her captivity was something we understood. Her tragic death sealed her life story forever in our memory.
Today I was privileged to visit the Anne Frank house and museum in this city ripe with canals and bicycles. The simple and profound way in which this experience has been created is a marvel. Beginning on the lower floor, we were able to see pictures of Anne, her family and those who had risked their lives to hide them full of life. These people looked ordinary and not heroic at all. Snippets of interviews with Anne’s father and others who survived seemed to lure us further and further up the narrow and winding stairs.
At one point I was keenly aware of how the wood on the steps was worn, a little valley of footsteps going upward. I thought of the fact that my feet were now being added to all those who have come to pay homage in this place and also the footsteps of Anne herself. All this walking led us past the bookshelves built to hide the entrance to the secret rooms and into the living quarters, now empty of furniture and decoration save for the pictures of movie stars and postcards Anne had glued to the walls more than seventy years ago. I was reminded of the teenagers rooms I have seen and how this pattern is in many ways universal…..the need to make a space with an imprint, a way of saying ‘this is my space….I am here…..I am alive.’
Finally the curving hallway leads into a room with the actual diaries. Ink on paper, blue and black, words that tell a story of a young girl’s hope of being a famous writer. Red ink is used to edit some of her writing, her own edits, a young writer hoping to be a better one. Without the benefit of a teacher, Anne edited and corrected her own words. Her desire to learn, to stay in touch with a world that was walled off to her fills me with awe. Her sister Margot continued studying Latin through a correspondence course and had one of the women who hid them act as if they were her lessons. This furthers my amazement.
And yet this is the power of hope. With their world as they knew it crumbling around them, they kept up the pursuits of education, intellect and plans for a life of freedom. My amazement comes from their courage and my wondering. Would I, under similar circumstances, do the same? Can you even imagine it? I find it difficult to do so.
As we walked through both the house and museum, there were languages being spoken from all around the world. The visitors were made up of all ages. Young girls looked at photos of someone not far from their own age. Young boys read words much like those of their classmates and sisters. Parents held their children’s hands perhaps a little tighter. Grandparents,many of whom had real memories of this historical time, had faces of a knowing sadness.
On one wall, pencil marks were visible…..the accounting of Anne and her sister Margot’s growth while they lived in these close quarters above a business and behind a fake bookshelf. I thought of all the doorways and closet walls around the world that hold similar marks. In one diary entry Anne said: “I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… I think… peace and tranquillity will return again.”
For all those places in the world where there is no peace today. For all those places where children suffer and are in fear. For all those places where parents and grandparents are frightened for their children. For all the young girls and young boys whose future is uncertain. May the God of mercy bless and keep them all safe from harm this day. And may their future open in tranquility before them.