Anne Frank, Her Life in Letters

by Claudia Clemente

I first encountered Anne Frank by reading her diary, when I, like her, was a voracious adolescent reader dreaming of future careers and loves.  Years later, as a new resident of Amsterdam, I was to experience another, three-dimensional, view of Anne. For the first time, the Anne Frank-Fonds has opened a public exhibit of Anne’s letters and diaries and the Frank family correspondence from 1933 to 1942. “Anne Frank: Her Life in Letters” at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, reveals Anne as a giddy schoolgirl who played in the open spaces and relative freedom of Amsterdam.

I visited the new exhibit on May 5 to celebrate Bevrijdingsdag, the Dutch Liberation Day, which marks the end of Germany’s five-year occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. The night before, I had joined thousands of spectators in Amsterdam’s Dam Square for Herdenkingsdag, or Remembrance Day, to remember those lost in World War II, the Holocaust, and later wars. As we bowed our heads at 8pm sharp for two minutes of silence, I realized the thought and taste invested in these holidays. The next day, I handed over my Museumjaarkaart (a membership card which allows free entrance to many participating museums in the Netherlands) at the Amsterdam Historical Museum and dropped by to see an old friend, Anne Frank, the lump still in my throat from the night before.

The first hall in the exhibit is constructed to convey the relative openness and freedom that Anne experienced in her first years in Amsterdam after fleeing Germany with her family in 1933. At the room’s head, the space narrows at a large photograph of an image of the building that towered over the Merwedeplein square, where Anne lived while in hiding. Here, physical remnants of Anne’s early life testify to the community spirit built into her refuge at the Merwedeplein in the Rivierenbuurt, the neighborhood of Amsterdam South, where Otto and Edith Frank moved 4-year-old Anne and her sister, Margot, from Frankfurt.

The first glass case in the exhibit shows a piece of lined stationary, decorated with a cartooned dog tugging a kite from a boy’s grasp.  Here, in prim cursive German, Anne wishes her Grandmother in Basel a happy birthday.  This first letter, only two steps into the exhibit, stands as gatekeeper, as if to say:  This exhibit will illustrate Anne’s transformation.  The exchange of German for Dutch is only the beginning of Anne’s transformation.

Ties to the old neighbors in Frankfurt were still strong. In one display case, set alongside postcards to Frankfurt, is a handmade cape given to Anne by her former neighbor Gertrude Naumann; in another, photos of young Anne playing in sandboxes.  But Anne easily adapted to Amsterdam, learned Dutch, and built a network consisting of German-Jewish and Christian-Dutch friends. In one photograph, Anne is seen side-by-side with the daughter of a German sympathizer, which attests to the fact that her community was not exclusive to German-Jewish immigrant friends.

In this room, one glimpses the beginnings of Anne’s youthful ambitions and budding desires. There is a display case devoted to her dream of film acting, showing glossy magazines that she collected for clippings of her favorite stars.  We also hear testimony from Helmuth “Hello” Silberman, the boyfriend Anne’s friends snickered about.  He says that Anne was “very articulate,” and, had he been older when they were friends, he would have qualified her as fascinating.  In this open space, we are shown a communicative, playful, and creative Anne who has found a nurturing community in her newfound home.

Turn the corner, and at once the light becomes more restricted. The atmosphere closes in as the displays begin to track Anne entering the turbulent waters of adolescence.  In a letter dated May 12, 1939, Otto Frank celebrates his 50th birthday and writes to 10-year-old Anne that she needed to learn about self-control.

In the next room hang skates that might have fulfilled figure skating dreams, along with letters and postcards from Anne’s middle-school days.  Video screens show testimony from Anne’s now septuagenarian friends from the Joodse Montessouri and Joodse Lyceum, the Jewish Montessori and secondary schools.  Her friends describe other sides to Anne, some quite critically attesting to an over-inflated sense of her own popularity in school.  When Anne entered hiding on the Prinsengracht canal, these school friends believed that the Franks had fled to Switzerland.

In this room, Anne’s postcards to friends and her letters home from holidays show a devoted chronicler of experience.  Her letters show the ramblings of a slightly superficial girl. In June 1941, Anne writes that she’s upset that she won’t come home tan because restrictions have banned her–along with all Jews–from swimming pools.  Albert de Mosquita testifies that Anne was bothered about not being able to wear a new coat.  Her friend Nannie Blitz corroborates this image of a garrulous and slightly frivolous girl in her video testimony, calling Anne a “chatterbox.” Above all, you see a girl almost obsessively attached to expressing herself in writing: in one summertime letter home she reported she’d spent 1.80 guilders on stamps, when a postcard cost 5 cents to send.

A copy of the official letter from July 5, 1942, ordering Anne’s sister Margot to report for work duty hangs in the corridor leading upstairs to the next section of the exhibit.  Here begins the Frank’s flight into hiding and we see the last, coded correspondence: a postcard to Switzerland in which Otto Frank wishes Anne’s Aunt Leni a happy birthday, though her birthday would not be for a few months.  Otto would be the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust.  Only 25% of the 140,000 Dutch-Jewish population would survive.

The next floor of the exhibit is devoted to Anne’s years in hiding, and mainly, her diaries.  If the first floor describes Anne and the Franks reliance on the written word and correspondence, the second shows how utterly at a loss she was for communication with the outside world.  Her fictional interlocutor Kitty–a character borrowed from her and her friends favorite novels by Lissy van Marnexveldt–replaces Anne’s school friends. Starved for open ears, Anne reverts to fantasy. These fantasies and every intimate thought that passed through Anne Frank’s mind and pen until the moment of her family’s arrest on August 4, 1944 have become the stuff of world literature.

The exhibit compels you deeper and grows darker, heavier, more claustrophobic with each step.  In the dim light, Anne’s diaries stand in glass cases, themselves reason enough to visit.

A surround-screen film stands at the exit; you may not leave the exhibit without walking through a dramatic presentation of quotations from Anne’s Diary and photographs from the exhibit and Anne’s life.  Pictures of the sky, of the Westerkerk tower, of Anne, pass in a stunning surround-montage as a voice reads selections from the diary.

The last stop, before descending the stairs and exiting the exhibit, is video testimony of Nannie Blitz, the last friend known to have spoken to Anne, when she was in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  She tells us, “We saw each other for what we were, skeletons.”  The skeletal Anne clung to life through her ambitions. She told Nannie she’d continued with her writing and that when she was released, she would turn it into a book.  Months before her 16th birthday, and months before the end of WWII, Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen.

At the end of my visit to the galleries, I stopped to listen to another run of the media presentation.  When the Jewish community had been barred from attending public shows, Anne had issued handmade tickets to a makeshift film theater in her home. One surviving ticket is on display in the exhibit. Now, Anne is larger than life and fills the room, in her own theater, having accomplished all the dreams of her short life.

Today, immigration is a hot issue in the Netherlands.  Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician with a decidedly anti-immigration stance, was murdered in May 2002.  Filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in November 2004 for directing a film by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch parliamentarian who criticized the Islamic treatment of women.  Subsequently, Somali-born Hirsi Ali received regular death threats and resigned from Parliament in May 2006 when the grounds for her asylum application–which led to her Dutch residence and naturalization–were publicly questioned by a television program.  In this highly charged atmosphere, a Dutch agenda of tolerance is key to education.  Anne Frank, having found respite, though not rescue, in Amsterdam, may help this agenda.

Meanwhile, busloads of tourists wrap along the Prinsengracht canal, pooling at the foot of the Westerkerk, whose clock Anne made famous in her diaries as they patiently await entry to the Anne Frank House, the museum on the site of the Frank family hiding place. Many visitors to the Anne Frank House have already read Anne’s diary, feel they know her intimately, and are profoundly touched when entering the back house.

“Anne Frank: Her Life in Letters,” which runs until September 3, 2006, may allow visitors to deepen their understanding of Amsterdam and the way it offered a semblance of a free, untroubled childhood to Anne and other Jewish immigrants, if only for a few years.  And perhaps the universal figure of Anne Frank will come to the minds of these visitors, wherever on Earth they may be on May 4th and 5th next year.

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