Never having been inside a traditional Amsterdam house before, I was surprised by the steep steps. It felt more like climbing a ladder than walking up stairs. I used my hands to stay balanced. It was hot and stuffy, almost suffocating, compared to the fresh morning air I’d barely noticed outside. Did I remember correctly? A line from Anne’s diary about them not being able to open the windows in summer?
Wednesday, May 31, 1944: “If only it wasn’t quite so warm, in the afternoon when the windows had to be closed” (page 243).
The outside world disappeared. I was carried through the small rooms in a wave of school children. All I could hear were the dozens of feet shuffling along the floors. Each student grasped a sheet of paper. They were busy looking around, consulting each other in soft voices, scribbling answers to questions. I guessed their ages to be eleven or twelve.
In spite of the bright July day outside and the electric lighting inside, the blackout curtains that covered the windows successfully simulated the semi-darkness Anne had lived in. I studied the photographs of her movie stars hanging on the walls in her long, narrow room. The one she shared with the dentist. I noticed the wallpaper peeling away at the edges and the careful pencil marks, indicating her and Margot’s physical growth.
I stood for a long time at the base of the wooden ladder leading up to Peter’s attic room. Visitors were not allowed up there and in fact, separated from it by a substantial piece of glass. But a large mirror had been placed in such a way that I could see the view Anne described that she and Peter once shared.
Wednesday, April 19, 1944: “Is there anything more beautiful in the world than to sit before an open window and enjoy nature, to listen to the birds singing, feel the sun on your cheeks and have a darling boy in your arms? It is so soothing and peaceful to feel his arms around me, to know that he is close by and yet to remain silent, it can’t be bad, for this tranquility is good. Oh, never to be disturbed again, not even by Mouschi” (page 214).
Seeing the reflection of the summer sky through the window in the roof immediately lifted my spirits. I could even see the green leaves of the surrounding trees, bright against the dark wood of the rafters and open beams.
Tuesday, April 18, 1944: “We are having a superb spring…Our chestnut tree is already quite greenish and you can even see little blooms here and there” (page 213). Saturday, May 13, 1944: “Our horse chestnut is in full bloom, thickly covered with leaves and much more beautiful than last year” (page 233).
I would have liked to climb that ladder, to stand at the window or even sit on the floor below it, and feel the breeze and warmth of the sun. I would have breathed for them, for Anne and Peter, maybe even for the whole world, a bodhisattva gesture. Eventually I stepped away, against my will, to make space for other visitors who wanted to look.
I slowly and obediently followed the others in front of me, and suddenly found myself in the gift shop on the ground floor. That was it. It was over. According to my watch, barely three quarters of an hour had passed. But it felt to me like a heartbeat.
Not ready for it to be over, I looked around at the different covers of Anne’s diary, published in so many languages. I perused the black and white images in the postcard rack and decided to buy one. Photography was not allowed, so this would be my souvenir. Then I gave the woman at the cash register some Dutch Guilders and she handed me the thin, white paper sack. I thanked her, wondering what it must be like to go to work there each day. Did it feel strange to be there day in and day out? Did she have her own keys so she could just let herself in any time? Was she ever there alone?
I stood there. There was nothing else for me to do. I could not go back in for a second look. It was time to leave. I stepped through the exit door and into the narrow street. At least a hundred people were waiting next to the canal for their turn to enter the house, all ages and all nationalities. Anne wrote that she wanted to live on after her death.
Tuesday, April 4, 1944: “I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me” (page 197).
Still not knowing what to do, I walked towards the church, Anne’s Westerkerk.
Saturday, July 11, 1942: “Daddy, Mummy, and Margot can’t get used to the sound of the Westertoren clock yet, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. I can. I loved it from the start, and especially in the night it’s like a faithful friend.” (page 20). Tuesday, August 10, 1943: “For the last week we’ve all been in a bit of a muddle about time, because our dear and beloved Westertoren clock bell has apparently been taken away for war purposes, so that neither by day nor night do we ever know the exact time. I still have some hope that they will think up a substitute (tin, copper or some such thing) to remind the neighborhood of the clock” (page 103).
Why did she love the church bells? Were they important to her because they connected her to the outside world? Did they remind her of the “normal” life she once had? Was she enchanted by the ringing of church bells before she was forced into hiding, so this is just who she was?
- Anne Frank House in Amsterdam;
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Page numbers reference this English version of the diary: New York: Bantam Books, 1993.