In the museum attached to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, there is an exhibit called “Free2Choose.” Videos pose various scenarios: Should YouTube ban Holocaust denial? Should public schools allow Muslim girls to wear head scarves? The visitors are asked to vote, and the tallies are projected on a screen. “There are many lessons to be learned from the past,” the museum guidebook explains. “The fate of Anne Frank, as well as the millions of other victims of the Nazis, shows that violating human rights can have far-reaching effects.”
But there is something hugely unsatisfying about the exercise. Each of the scenarios presents what we call First Amendment dilemmas — freedom of speech, religious expression, censorship. But Nazism wasn’t just creeping infringement on civil liberties — it was a wholesale assault on the existence of its victims. Nazism isn’t a “dilemma,” but an obscenity. While the exhibit is a good civics lesson, it is an unfair use of Anne’s story.
But that is the fate of The Diary of a Young Girl, whose message and lessons have been debated ever since it came to wide public attention in the 1950s. I visited Anne Frank House for the first time last month, and in preparation I read Francine Prose’s indispensable book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife. Prose lays out the controversies surrounding the book, its uses and misuses. At one end of the spectrum is the Broadway play and movie, and the optimistic Anne who believes, “in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” At the other end is Cynthia Ozick, who rails against those who have “falsified, kitschified, and in fact, blatantly denied” the truth of the diary: that its young author was sent to a fate that “blotted out the possibility of courage.” The Anne Frank Foundation has been criticized for its universalist agenda, although, counters Prose, “It has yet to be explained to me how the existence of a human rights foundation denies and negates the suffering of Anne Frank and so many others.”
I tried to lay these debates aside as I followed the long line of visitors through the carefully preserved rooms at 263 Prinsengracht, the four-story headquarters of Otto Frank’s jam-making company on one of Amsterdam’s prettiest canals. The exhibit is designed to move people quickly through the rooms and up the “leg-breaking” (Anne’s term) staircases that lead to the hiding place. The climb is a reverse metaphor — you ascend into hell.
The hinged bookcase that hid the annex is a shocking sight. Early in the diary, Anne writes about having to duck to keep from “banging our heads against the low doorway.” You have no choice but to reenact this — a physical gesture as electric as kissing the Kotel. At Otto’s request the rooms are empty of furniture. But the carefully curated objects on display are all the more powerful as a result: the movie stills and postcards Anne pasted on the walls of her room, the pencil marks showing Anne and Margot’s growth during their time in hiding.
The attic is off limits, but you can peek up to where a mirror reflects what Anne and the others would have seen from the small windows, minus the chestnut tree that succumbed to disease a few years ago.
A glass tunnel connects the hiding place to the museum complex next door where, unlike the diary itself, the story continues. A video features Hanneli Goslar’s chilling account of seeing Anne, deprived of hope, at Bergen-Belsen. Another video shows Otto in his old age, describing how he found the diary and offering the unexpected lesson that “parents never really know their children.” The original diary, the cloth-covered notebook given to Anne on her 12th birthday, sits on a simple white plinth under a heavy glass cover. Elsewhere are the multicolored pages Anne used when she sat down to revise the diary during her last few months in hiding. The exhibit emphasizes what is often ignored or overlooked: Hardly an accidental piece of literature, the diary is the work of a precocious young writer who planned to publish it, perhaps as a novel, after the war.
The tears finally came in an exhibit featuring photos and artifacts from each of Anne’s 14 years. In videos, her surviving classmates remember Anne before the war, before her murder, before her sainthood. “She could be a bit mean,” says one. “Oh no, here come Anne,” says another, remembering how the other kids would brace themselves for her outsize entrances. In short, the girl was a pistol.
That perhaps, is the strongest message of Anne Frank House: that its namesake was a real person; that the diary described a real, frightening place; that the evil that killed her can’t be denied.
And there’s one more message, contained in a film clip that runs on a loop in the former offices of Otto Frank’s company. Miep Gies, who fed and protected her boss’s family and friends during their terrifying two years in hiding, recalls what she told Otto when he first asked if she could help them. “Yes, of course,” she said. “That goes without saying.”