|Anne Frank Memorial statue in Amsterdam|
I’m sitting with a friend on our holiday to Amsterdam. She’s drinking ginger ale, I have a cappuccino and we’re sharing a brownie. We’re both silent, taking advantage of free wifi to catch up on Facebook on our smartphones. “This feels very wrong,” she says suddenly. I know what she means. We’re not just in any old cafe or bar. We’re in the cafe at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, decompressing after walking through the museum and Secret Annex where Anne and seven other people spent two years in hiding before being betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo.
It’s difficult to put into words what the experience of visiting the Anne Frank House is like. I don’t need to tell you that the story of Anne Frank is tragic, or that the Holocaust is a difficult and incomprehensible moment in our history. Amsterdam is famously tolerant and laidback, and yet it was only 70 years ago that people living there were forced to hide or face execution because of their religion, or sexual preference or any of the other reasons that were used to persecute innocent people.
Walking through the empty rooms of the Secret Annex is a strange experience. The rooms have been left unfurnished to better describe the absence the Holocaust created, but it’s hard to hang on to this void as the museum is packed with visitors.* The walls however still bear reminders of exactly who is missing. On one, Anne and her sister Margot’s heights are marked in pencil and in Anne’s bedroom, the walls are covered with cuttings and pictures of movie stars and celebrities she admired. The most poignant sight for me personally, was a mirror positioned at the entrance to the loft where Anne spent a great deal of time looking out the only clear window in the Secret Annex. Visitors cannot access the loft, but this mirror allows visitors below to see the view that was Anne’s only visual link to the outside world.
Was it then appropriate, after seeing a site that is representative of great evil, to sit in a cafe, eating and drinking and checking in with the online world? I honestly don’t know. On the one hand it felt frivolous, as though we hadn’t fully appreciated what we’d just seen. But then I thought that maybe these actions were in some way exactly appropriate. In her diary, Anne longed for freedom and the ability to express herself without fear of persecution. Now 70 years later, I can connect with my friends and the rest of the world from a device I can carry in my pocket.
Obviously, freedom of expression is still challenged and modern technology has created new problems and issues that need to be negotiated, but it made me realise how lucky I am. I am free in a way that Anne was never and could never have imagined. I have no idea if she would have liked Facebook, but I think she may have appreciated a world where so many people are able to share their experiences freely without fear of persecution.
*If you are planning to visit, I would recommend booking a ticket in advance, either online or at tourist information offices in Amsterdam as there was a very long queue to get inside.
Girl Museum Inc.