Traveling is often an unintentional pilgrimage. This was especially true of my trip to Amsterdam several years ago. On the first day, I went through my guidebook and checked off all the tourist sites I planned to visit: the museums, the flower markets and oh yes, the Anne Frank House. I had almost forgotten about that. I made a check by the entry. Then I underlined it and decided to go there first.
As I set off in search of the house, I realized that Anne Frank’s diary was one of the most important books of my childhood. I remembered the photograph of Anne on the front cover. It was Anne’s favorite because she thought it made her look like a glamorous, Hollywood movie star. And I remembered Anne’s bright, optimistic vision for the future.
The tall, narrow houses on Prinsengracht canal all looked the same, but the Anne Frank House was easy to spot. A long line of people waited outside. As I took my place at the end, I realized that most of the people in line were women. None of us spoke the same language, but all of us had read Anne Frank’s diary and all of us were on this unintentional pilgrimage together.
Finally the line moved. We entered the building which housed Otto Frank’s business. He sold pectin for jams and jellies and spices for meats and sausages. We climbed a steep Dutch staircase, stepped through the revolving staircase and we were in the “Secret Annex” where Anne, her family and four others hid for over two years.
Traces of the family remain but there is no longer any furniture in the rooms. The Nazis took it all after the family was arrested and shipped it to Germany. On the day the Dutch police discovered their hiding place, the arresting officer grabbed the bag in which Anne kept her diary and schoolbooks. He dumped the contents on the floor and filled the bag with money and jewelry. After the family was arrested and taken away, Miep Gies, the helper who brought them food from the black market, saved the diary, planning to return it to Anne after the war.
In the living room of the Secret Annex there are some faded marks on the doorframe where Anne’s father measured her height. She grew several inches despite the moldy beans, preserved kale and potatoes, which was often all they had to eat. A map on the wall marks the advancing Allies as reported over their secret radio. The space above Anne’s desk is still decorated with her favorite postcards: Hollywood movie stars and a young Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain. Through a crack in the window we could see the Westertoren clock and a chestnut tree, Anne’s only view of the outside world.
My fellow pilgrims and I huddle around a glass case which contains the original diary bound in red-and-white plaid cloth. The fragile lock is broken open. Many women are tearful. Everyone is moved. No one speaks. We feel grief over the tragedy of Anne’s life. But we are also in awe of the power of a single voice, Anne’s voice to reach countless millions across several generations, and in over one hundred languages with her vision of hope and compassion.
On the wall is a list of “Judentransport,” which names all the people on that last train out of Holland bound for Auschwitz. Halfway down the list we find number 309: Frank, Anneliese. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where her mother and the other occupants of the “Secret Annex” were killed. Anne and her sister were later moved to the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen where Anne died in March, 1945, just a few weeks before the Allies liberated that camp.
My fellow pilgrims and I leave the Anne Frank House trying to comprehend the contrast between the unimaginable horrors of Anne’s final months and her powerful, unshaken faith in humanity when she wrote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” – Anne Frank died sixty-nine years ago this month.