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.