The Secret Annex on Prinsengracht

This morning I visited the Anne Frank House here in Amsterdam. Actually, it’s the building where her father’s warehouse stood on the canal on Prinsengracht. It’s a charming street, lined with leaning buildings (I learned this was not necessarily due to subsidence. Tilting the front of the buildings forward makes it easier to hoist goods to upper stories and take them through the windows instead of trying to negotiate steep or winding interior stairs.)

As I walked the narrow streets, I tried to imagine what it must have been like when Holland was under Nazi occupation. Would I have seen people wearing yellow stars? Would I have had the courage to stand up for them when they were denied the right to use their own bicycles, to visit Christians, or ride street cars?

I hope so. For you see, today I visited the home of a dead friend. When I first read Anne’s diary, I was in 5th or 6th grade, very close to her age when her family went into hiding. I loved reading about her life in the “secret annex” over the Frank warehouse. The idea of a moveable bookcase concealing the steep stairs that led to the rooms appealed to my sense of adventure. Even though her life was very different from mine, Anne’s dreams were not so different. I totally related to her self-doubt. I internalized her fear when she and her family crept around during the daytime, “quiet as baby mice,” to avoid being heard by workmen below. I wept off and on for days when I learned she died in Bergen-Belsen barely a month before the Allies arrived.

I’d visualized the Secret Annex in my mind. Actually seeing the small rooms where 8 souls lived in quiet fear for a little over 2 years brought home the reality of Anne’s story. When I saw the blackout shades over the windows, which couldn’t be moved an inch during the day, I remembered her longing for fresh air and sunshine. She described herself as “quicksilver Anne.” How tedious the enforced inactivity must have been for her. During the day, they couldn’t run water, couldn’t flush the toilet, couldn’t walk more than absolutely necessary and their only speech had to be in whispers. Sneaking down to the office on a Saturday to listen to the radio was an event.

How did she bear it? She wrote. She made sense of an insane world by capturing the small doings of her life in a plaid covered diary.

“When I write, I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived.” April 5, 1944, Anne Frank

Near the end of the exhibits, the museum offers some thought-provoking questions about prejudice and discrimination all over the world. Quite often, freedom of speech seems to clash with the idea of acceptance of others.

As an American, I’m firmly in the freedom of speech camp. I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it. However, there are some sorts of speech that are not protected. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire, for example. How do we determine what rises to the level of “fire yelling?”

Here’s one of the questions they asked at the Anne Frank Museum. In Japan, manga is so popular many classic works of literature are now produced in comic book form, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Should it be?

My knee-jerk response is against banning books, even books I despise. Ideas sharpen ideas. When I read something I disagree with, my own world view is challenged and strengthened. However, I’m an adult. Manga appeals to much younger readers who may not have as grounded a set of beliefs as mine. When it comes to what’s readily available to young skulls whose frontal lobes are nowhere near fully developed, my black-and-white “no book banning” stance gets decidedly murky and gray.

At what point does an ideology become too dangerous to protect under freedom of speech? When does it move from simply a viewpoint to something tinged with evil? I would argue when it advocates violence against others.

People have asked for decades how the German people could have let the Holocaust happen. The answer is very slowly. First anti-semitism was simply an idea. Then it was a movement. Then a political party that became a power backed by a modern military. It might have been stopped along the way if enough people had risen up and said no. But each time the words of hate washed over the land, it became harder to speak against them, and in the end, the NO had to be delivered with blood, not words.

I’m sorry to get so serious on the blog. It’s not usual for me. But this hasn’t been a usual day. You see, today I visited the home of a dead friend.

12 thoughts on “The Secret Annex on Prinsengracht

  1. MiaMarlowe says:

    Mary–I hate to come down on the side of book banning. It doesn#39;t feel right, but I#39;d rather kids encounter some ideas when they can read well enough not to get in in comic form. Hopefully by then, they have the critical skills to evaluate as they read.

  2. MiaMarlowe says:

    Marcy–Yes, the sacrifice and the risk taken by the Christians who helped the Franks in hiding was tremendous. Imagine trying to scrounge enough food for 8 more mouths during a time of rationing. Several of them were arrested when the Franks were taken as well.

  3. MiaMarlowe says:

    Nynke–YOu sound like me. We lived in North Carolina for 11 years and never made it out to Kitty Hawk to see where the Wright brothers first flew. We always thought there would be another time. br /br /These days I think the time is now for just about everything. My uncle has a great way of expressing it. quot;It#39;s time to get out the good china,quot; he says. What am I waiting for?

  4. MiaMarlowe says:

    Jeanne–YOu make a lot of sense to me.

  5. MiaMarlowe says:

    Linda–I haven#39;t gotten out of the city yet, so I haven#39;t seen any lighthouses. My DH and I plan to take the train to Utrect to meet up with Nynke on Saturday, but I don#39;t think that will put us closer to the coast.

  6. Mary Anne Landers says:

    Thank you for your post, Mia. It really hit home with me. br /br /I spent part of my formative years in The Netherlands at a time when the shadow of WWII still hung over Europe. Everyone of legal age could remember the war. Everyone had a story to tell. Everyone#39;s life had been changed by what they went through during those terrible years. br /br /And since that time when I lived there was an especially tense phase of the Cold War, there was also the fear that what had happened before could happen again. Or it could be even worse. Which is better: for a nation to slowly bleed to death in a conventional war, or to be wiped out by a nuclear bomb at the push of a button? I hope against hope we#39;ll never find out.br /br /Yes, the topics we#39;re discussing are pretty heavy. But they should be discussed. br /br /When you brought up the bit about how someone wanted to publish a manga version of quot;Mein Kampfquot;—well, part of me wanted to wisecrack that it was a comic book anyhow. But I catch your drift. And coincidentally, only a few hours ago I learned from a news website that Amazon.com was drawing fire for selling a how-to guide for pedophiles.br /br /Like you, I enthusiastically support freedom of expression. But even the best legal/ethical principles can be taken to absurd extremes. br /br /Given the possible effects a manga version of Hitler#39;s warped, hate-filled screed might have on impressionable young minds, especially those with inadequate adult guidance, I think the whole idea is terrible. Whoever is considering this project should rethink and reject it.br /br /As for the other aforementioned tome, which has already been published, I think no reputable bookseller should even touch it. They should consider the catastrophic effects it can have on the lives of the most vulnerable among us, our children. br /br /Jeanne, Nynke, Marcy—I don#39;t think consideration for other people is old-fashioned. I think it#39;s timeless. And without it, the human race has no future.br /br /I#39;m looking forward to your upcoming posts about your travels in Europe, Mia. Keep up the good work!

  7. Marcy W says:

    Mia, thank you for sharing your experience of today. I too read Anne#39;s diary when I was about that age, and wept for days at the injustice of her death. It wasn#39;t till later that I understood that I also wept for the world, and what was lost during those terrible times. Then I read Elie Wiesel, and others#39; stories, and learned that we also gained much, as so many people lived up to and beyond the #39;norm#39;, even as others succumbed to or ignored the evil.br /But, actually being there, in those rooms . . . I can only imagine how that would feel!br /Jeanne and Nynke, I know I am old-fashioned, and definitely agree with Jeanne#39;s well-put philosophy. We have to have hope, don#39;t we?!

  8. Nynke says:

    I grew up with Anne Frank#39;s story, but I never read the book and I#39;ve never visited the house. I really should, though!br /br /Jeanne, you don#39;t sound old-fashioned at all! I couldn#39;t agree with you more.

  9. Jeanne M says:

    Mia – br /br /The Diary of Anne Frank has a special place in my heart. I read it when I was about the same age as when you did. Before that I was reading a lot of biography books – I can remember reading about Clara Barton, etc. but nothing that really had touched my sensibilities. My favorite novel at the time was The Secret Garden. br /br /It really was the first time I realized how the written word could expose me to the world and really make my vision take in more than just where I lived and what I had been taught in school.br /br /I don#39;t believe in banning books but I do believe in talking to our children, teaching them values and to respect other people. I believe in learning and respecting other peoples religion and policitics and I agree to disagree in a respectful and courteoud manner.br /br /I guess I#39;m old fashion by today#39;s standards that I believe in raising children to treat others as they would want others to treat them and that we are all equal in the eyes of our creator whether we agree who that god or creator could be. I believe that religion is the group of people who gather together not the church building or the church leaders or the name of the relegion.br /br /I still believe that if we treated others fairly and with concern for their beliefs we would be better for it. I believe that we should admit to ourselves and to others that we don#39;t always know what the right way to do everything.

  10. Linda Henderson says:

    I don#39;t know that anyone who has read the book or watched the movies about her could not be moved by this little girl#39;s plight. I remember trying to explain the situation to my youngest daughter when she read the book. How do you explain such extreme prejudice? I hope you are enjoying your stay in Amsterdam. Do they have any lighthouses there, I#39;ve long had a fascination with lighthouses.

  11. MiaMarlowe says:

    Thank you, Kiki. I do feel myself blessed to have been touched by Anne#39;s life.br /br /I wasn#39;t allowed to take any pictures inside the house, but I did snap a couple of the canal outside. Once my DH shows me where he packed the cords to connect my camera to my computer, I#39;ll upload the pics to my a href=”http://tinyurl.com/364z2px” rel=”nofollow”Facebook page/a

  12. Kiki Howell - Author says:

    Your post brought me to tears for many reasons. I identified on many levels. One was the last line, as I am coming up on the anniversary of losing a dear friend a few years back. I imagined what it would be like to go into her home now (it#39;s been sold, her family moved away). Also, I read Anne#39;s diary about the same age, have now watched my son read it, both of us deeply affected. My husband who teaches Holocaust Lit was on a Tour of Consciousness years back. Amsterdam was one of his stops. I can see the picture he took looking out from her house on my living room wall. I know he was profoundly affected by his visit.br /br /You are blessed to have such a day, to have had such an experience.

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