1000 words worth a picture: Amsterdam and an empty house
Amsterdam was a surprise destination for me. I was never really on my ‘dream travel list.’ But because I’d booked my last spring trip so late in the year, the London, Paris and Amsterdam trip was one of the only Contiki trips that was still available and fit in that time period. So, without much build-up or expectation, I found myself in Amsterdam. Now, when I think of Amsterdam, I remember it as my least favourite place on that trip, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I actually really loved Amsterdam, it just had the unfortunate luck of coming after Paris and London, and well, Paris and London, right.
Though as I said, I did really enjoy Amsterdam. I found it’s appeal much like the appeal of Newfoundland: a place with a unique culture and feel. Amsterdam was all overground trams, quaint canals, Van Gogh (a lovely museum), the Red Light district, tulips and tall, thin houses.
Also weed, but I don’t have any pictures of that unfortunately 😉 Amsterdam was also the first time I’d traveled without a guide or a planned itinerary, and so I had more opportunity to plan where I wanted to go for my time there. That said, I didn’t have much planned: the only place I knew I needed to see was the Anne Frank House.
Most people have some knowledge of Anne Frank: a young jewish girl who hid with her family in Amsterdam, was discovered and taken to a concentration camp and died there. Later, her father, the only survivor of the family, came back and published her diary – The Diary of Anne Frank – into a book that has been a worldwide best seller. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is, it then follows, the house that Anne Frank and her family hid in from the Nazi’s, which has been converted into a museum/memorial.
On that knowledge, I lined up with two girls I’d befriended from my tour group on the one cold, rainy day that we had on our entire trip, to enter the House. At that time, we were all there because well, that’s what you did in Amsterdam: you went to The Anne Frank House. I came to realize that attitude does the House a real disservice, but it was enough to keep us in the extremely long line for 2.5 hours in the wet and cold, and for that, I am grateful to that ‘touristy’ stubbornness. I’m going to recommend that if you ever find yourself in Amsterdam you go to the House not just to tick off a box, but because it is an experience that is one of those rare ones that truly has the potential to touch you to your core, but I’d be happy if you went for whatever reason.
Now, what I’ve written above is mostly the knowledge I had on the Anne Frank House: I’d read The Diary of Anne Frank, but I had very little knowledge about what the Anne Frank House was like. I’d imagined it like the other houses that had been converted into museums I’d been to – furniture arranged, kept out of reach by clear dividers, where you traverse the rooms and look at a mostly full picture of what that home looked like.
The Anne Frank House is not like that at all.
From the outside, the House is not so impressive, especially after you’ve crept up to finally being able to see it from a long and winding line. It’s just a house, on a nice canal street.
The only picture I have of the House – as I mentioned we were asked not to take photos inside – is of this little model of the house that sits at the ticket stall. It’s a cute little model, empty as models are, and as museums are not usually.
The Anne Frank House is like that model.
It’s almost entirely empty. No furniture, no clothing in closets, no dishes on tables, nothing.
It’s an empty house.
Now, on trying to pitch this idea as a tourist attraction, this seems unwise: an empty house? What is everyone going to look at? And then, of course, you learn why the house is empty.
The house is empty because when the Nazi’s came and took the Frank family away, they didn’t just take the people. They took everything, and when Otto Frank returned to the house, having lost his entire family – his everything – he wanted the house to stay that way. He wanted to the emptiness to be it’s own statement, wanted people who came to the house to feel that emptiness.
And you do.
Walking through the Anne Frank House, there’s a stillness you can’t avoid. No one speaks, and honestly, no one wants to. There’s a heaviness in that House that transcends religion, race or creed, and I too was caught in it. Perhaps saddest for me was Anne’s room: not because it was her diary, and thus her room was ‘the one to see,’ but because in her room – the only things in her room – on the walls are clippings and photos of celebrities that Otto Frank had given to his daughter, and that Anne had used to make the room look “much more cheerful.”
Too often, I think, we forgot that Anne Frank was just a young girl, who did the things young girls did – had crushes on boys and idolized celebrities. The pictures left on her wall force you, even more so – at least for me – than her diary, to confront the reality that she was just a young girl who had her life tragically and prematurely ended – a mere couple of months before the camp was liberated – and sparks in you the bitter unfairness of that.
There was another image that stayed with me, after I’d finished my tour of the House and was looking, rather soberly, through the gift shop. My grandmother – a seasoned traveller – had suggested that I buy postcards at each city and attraction I went to. I found this to be great advice: postcards are an easy to carry visual medium, and a great inexpensive souvenir that can really capture the mood of a place. As such, I was looking for a postcard to buy from the Anne Frank House, and once I saw this one, I knew I’d find no better one to capture the mood of the House.
This is a picture of Otto Frank, Anne’s father, standing in the attic of the house in 1960, after the war had ended of course. He’s standing in the area that was once full with his family, and the flotsam and jetsam of their lives, but he’s standing alone, because he’s all that remains of his family and their lives. And now, years after Otto Frank passed away, only the house remains.
The empty house.