I’ve never been one for holidays which are all about lying on a beach.
I don’t tan (when exposed to heat and light, my paper-white English skin responds like something out of Fahrenheit 451) and my boredom threshold is pretty low: I once spent a couple of weeks holidaying in a French beach resort with some friends, and after about three days of lying in the sun, I felt as if my higher brain functions were shutting down – I may have been in the land that brought us the work of Rimbaud, but by the end of the fortnight, I was intellectually more suited to the oeuvre of Rambo.
So: I prefer to take breaks which involve a few sights, a bit of activity, and some kind of exposure to foreign languages and culture, at the very least.
An example of this was when I went to Amsterdam – and don’t get your hopes up, this won’t be the tale of how my wander down the walletjes led to me being exposed to the kind of foreign culture which you normally see on Petri dish or microscope slide – a few years ago.
Amsterdam is a beautiful city, and there’s something very relaxed about the general atmosphere (insert inevitable dope-smoking joke here), and generally laid-back (ditto a legalised prostitution gag here). That, though, was all overshadowed for me by the visit I made to the Anne Frank House.
Located at 263-265 Prinsengracht, the Anne Frank House is just that – the house where the Franks and van Pels hid between 1942 and 1944, when their hiding-place was betrayed. If you don’t know the story – and I’d be surprised if that’s the case – I strongly urge you to read the Definitive Edition of Anne’s diary (which contains a lot of material expunged from previous editions), which was published about a decade ago. And then, when you’ve read it, do visit the House and Museum if you can.
Because it makes it all seem even more real; I always feel that things like the Holocaust are so vast and terrible that the mind often shuts out the scale of them, but the Diary of Anne Frank makes it all seem so human, and the up-and-downs of despair and hope which she writes about are so relatable, that if you read the diary and then think that those feelings were shared by millions of people whose names many of us will never know, then … well, it’s not a nice thing to know and read about or understand, but it’s an insight into the depths to which humanity can sink, and it’s as sobering as it is a warning.
And if Anne’s diary makes it feel real and relatable, then actually walking in the house where it all happened brings it home; you walk up the stairs and pass behind the hinged bookcase that separated the families from the outside world, and seeing the size of the rooms where a total of eight people hid for two years, it’s hard to imagine how they coped; I’ve been in shared houses where people have started to get a bit stir crazy if they’ve stayed in over a weekend working on an essay or whatever, but ultimately they had the choice, as we so often do now. The Franks had no such choice.
I was with someone when I went to the Frank House, but it’s not the kind of place you go round in pairs – you take your time, looking at bits of it and lingering as the mood or the moment takes you – so she and I were separated, and we met up again at the top of the house, in the Front-House Attic. I was standing at the window, looking out at the view, and feeling a sense of stepping into someone else’s space, like sitting on a chair still-warm from it’s previous occupant, at the realisation that Anne Frank (and the others in hiding) must have stood in exactly the same spot at various points, looking out at a city whose streets they might never walk again. I was feeling vague and kind of weird, rather overwhelmed by the way the Franks’ story had been made so concrete and real to me, and thankfully she didn’t try to jolly me along or make a joke or anything, just left me there to look out of the window for a minute or so.
As well as the house, there’s a bookshop (understandably), and also some exhibition rooms, one of which contains the original diary. Impressively, the museum doesn’t try to pretend that the obvious lessons of World War II have necessarily been learned – there’s a photo on the wall of a statue of Anne Frank on which someone has spray-painted a swastika, and an accompanying caption discusses the threat of neo-nazism. Henry Jones was right – goose-stepping morons would be better off reading books, instead of just burning them.
And nowhere is that sentiment more clear than the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Definitely worth your time.