Anne Frank

During a tour of Amsterdam’s “Grachten”, the narrow canals which transect this “Venice of the North”, our boat passed 263 Prinsengracht. The many adults and even more children lined up at this famous address had the same goal as I – to visit the place where Anne Frank went into hiding during World War II. Once back at the dock, I joined the queue of tourists snaking around several adjacent structures. The reverential multitudes, among whom my ear discerned a babel of languages, did not appear bothered by having to wait more than an hour before gaining admittance to what is now the Anne Frank House Museum.

Boat tour on Amsterdam’s Grachten

Queue for the Anne Frank House Museum

The narrow, four-story brown brick building once held the warehouse and offices of Mr. Frank’s company, which sold gelling agents for homemade jam and spice mixes for meat. The Frank family fled from Germany to Amsterdam in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power. When German forces occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Jewish ownership was outlawed. Otto Frank transferred directorship to two of his employees, but remained involved in the management of his business. Once anti-Semitic excesses became more egregious, Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, and large numbers were deported, the Frank family left their home for the so-called “Secret Annex”, on the second and third floors of the warehouse. Here they remained from July 6, 1942 until their arrest on August 4, 1944. Anne, her older sister Margot, and their parents Edith and Otto were soon joined by the Van Pels couple, their son Peter, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer.

Anne Frank House Museum

263 Prinsengracht

I reached the secret rooms of the annex just as they did, by stepping through a door on the third floor which could be concealed behind a moveable bookcase. As the warehouse was still actively used while the group was in hiding, they could not afford to make noise until after the workers left at day’s end. Behind blackened windows, they could only let down their guard at night and on weekends. Employees Miep Gies, Johannes Keiman, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl, and two of their family members helped supply the captives with food, news from the outside world and other necessities, at the peril of their own lives.

Anne journaled about the cramped conditions in the tiny four rooms and one lone bathroom, plus the attendant conflicts. Despite dreading detection, deportation and death daily, this group of eight still had to deal with mundane concerns. They all suffered – from repetitive meals, spoiled food, limited space, annoying habits, and petty human traits. Anne and Mr. Pfeffer had frequent arguments about the use of a desk in a shared room. The families accused one another of hoarding food, dishes or clothes. When they finally dumped their assorted chamber pots down the toilet, it frequently clogged.

Anne’s diary entries were an outlet for her frustrations, teenage turmoil, and angst. They show her struggle with self-assertion, while trying to please others, and her frustration with the adults whom she did not consider good role models. At times, these are jolting, as she does not embellish what she perceives as other people’s faults, including her mother’s, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship.

But her writing also reflects her dreams of being free, of conducting a normal life after the war’s end. Her love of learning, books, history, royal lineages and movies is evident throughout her diary, as is her never-ending hope for a bright future. She yearned for nature, felt trapped inside the annex, and longed for the outdoors:

The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity. …I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer (February 23, 1944).

Anne also had a vision for her future:

I need something besides a husband and children to devote myself to. I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people (April 5, 1944).

You’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to be a journalist, and later on, a famous writer. We’ll have to wait and see if these grand illusions (or delusions!) will ever come true, but till now, I’ve had no lack of topics. In any case, after the war I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex (May 11, 1944).

Following the allies’ landing in France in June 1944, and their subsequent advances against German forces, hope for an end to the Nazi terror is tangible in many of her entries. The end of their confinement came on August 4, but it was not the ending anybody had longed for. German and Dutch forces raided their hiding place, arrested its inhabitants, and sent them to a transit camp at Westerbork in Holland, before deporting them to Auschwitz in early September. The formerly widespread assumption that they were betrayed has lately been questioned.

In spite of losing ground on many fronts, and despite the inevitability of their eventual defeat, the Nazis and their killing machine continued to devour millions of lives during the final year of the war. Anne and her close ones were victims of this cruelly efficient process. Of the group of eight, solely Otto Frank survived. After Russian forces liberated Auschwitz in May 1945, he returned to Amsterdam in June only to learn that his wife, Edith, had died in January. He still harbored hope to find his two daughters alive and initiated desperate inquiries to humanitarian organizations, newspapers, and other survivors. Two sisters freed from the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where Margot and Anne had been transferred, confirmed his worst fears. His fifteen and nineteen year-old daughters had succumbed to typhus in March of 1945. On April 15, their camp was liberated by British forces.

Anne’s diary, left behind in the annex, was found and safeguarded by Miep Gies. Once it was evident that Anne would not come back, she handed it to Otto Frank. Even though he struggled to learn about Anne’s inner life hitherto unknown to him, he realized that her writing might have a wider appeal, but took the liberty of applying his editor’s pen and eliminating passages that portrayed her criticism of her housemates, her awakening sexuality, and her teenage crush on Peter van Pels. After initial difficulty finding a publisher, an article about Anne’s diary was printed in the newspaper Het Parol, formerly the mouthpiece of the Dutch Resistance. On June 25, 1947, the first Dutch edition of Anne Frank’s Diary was published to an overwhelming reception. Since then, it has been translated into myriad languages and appeals to generation after generation of readers. Some sixty editions later, it has never been out of print.

More than one version of Anne’s diary exists. After an appeal on BBC radio by a Dutch minister exiled in England, who encouraged his fellow Dutch to collect diaries and letters for publication after the war, Anne began to revise her entries. Mr. Frank drew from the original and revised sources for the diary’s first edition. This was subsequently superseded by a definitive edition which includes all previously redacted passages. Anne also composed fiction and additional personal stories. They are available in combination with some of her own edited diary entries as Tales From The Secret Annexe, which honors the title she conceived herself.

In exploring the Anne Frank House Museum in 2013, I fulfilled a dream which started with my first encounter with Anne’s diary when a teenager myself, over 30 years earlier. I wanted to pay homage to her life and suffering, and experience the temporary dwelling she immortalized. Having grown up in Germany during a time when the Holocaust was still not discussed openly, learning about Anne was one way to take a critical look at my birth nation’s burdensome, horrendous past. Encountering visitors from the four corners of the Earth at Anne’s erstwhile refuge, all moved by her candid reflections and glimpses into her soul, gave me hope that, one day, we will respect one another for who we are, regardless of nationality, race or religion.

I have gained a new appreciation for Anne in all her humanity. I wish she could have known how famous a writer she would become, and how many lives she would touch to this day.

Berlin-Wannsee

While in Berlin last fall, I visited Wannsee, the town and lake on the western outskirts of the capital. The ditty, “Pack die Badehose ein, nimm dein kleines Schwesterlein, und dann nischt wie raus nach Wannsee” (“pack your bathing trunk, take your little sister, and let’s hurry to lake Wannsee”), a veritable earworm from 1951 was playing in my mind, and even though I had not heard it in decades, it might have had something to do with my decision. What was not at my mind’s forefront was the “Wannsee Conference”, the antithesis to this light, cheerful tune. The name jumped out at me when I studied the local town map upon my arrival at the S-Bahn (suburban train) station, and set the memory wheels in motion.

On an unseasonably mild early December day I made my way through the well-groomed streets of what has always been a wealthy resort town. When I reached the location of this infamous gathering I shivered, despite the warm sunshine. On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking officials of Hitler’s administration convened here to make the eradication of all European Jews official policy. In this beautiful villa, built in 1915 by industrialist Ernst Marlier, and repurposed by the SS into a conference center and guest house between 1941 and 1945, these men resolved to kill millions of innocent people because of their ethnicity and religion – while they wined and dined in an opulent dining room with a view of the idyllic garden and lake.

I toured the exhibit of what became the “House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site” in 1992. I strolled through the sun-drenched grounds resounding with lovely birdsong. Directly across the lake from the property stretched the sandy beach of “Strandbad Wannsee” (public bathing beach Wannsee), the destination of the above-mentioned melody which might have brought me here – and also one of the sites of segregation in the early years of Hitler’s regime, when Jews were “merely” banned from public places, when Germany’s “philosophers” might have still prevented the worsening madness that was to engulf Europe and the world.

I kept stumbling over the same question: How could something like this ever happen in Germany – “Land der Dichter und Denker” (“nation of poets and philosophers”)? Because it was also the “Land der Richter und Henker” (“nation of judges and henchmen”). A German rhyme. How poetic. How absurd.

While the past can’t be altered or whitewashed, try as we might, I wonder what it takes to prevent new demagogues anywhere from misleading people, from spreading new lies, from painting new enemy images. What does it take for us to focus on our common humanity, instead of dehumanizing, suppressing, or even killing certain groups, be it for political, for religious, or for ethnic reasons?

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Berlin

Who is silly enough to decide on a Tuesday in early December to journey to Berlin by train the following day, spend two nights in a hotel, and three days to sightsee? And to use a booklet from 1973 as one’s guide? At least it was the 8th improved version from 1983!

My youthful optimism and burning desire to re-visit Germany’s capital which I only knew from an organized tour some thirty-odd years ago made me choose this course of action. During all my previous sojourns in Europe, I did not have or make the time to plan such a trip, and, lacking the foresight again during this last one, I resorted to this whirlwind excursion. As I knew full-well before I left, three days (two and a half, to be exact) were not nearly enough, but only afforded a brief glimpse into a metropolis with a convoluted history. I am glad I had the opportunity to get this glimpse, but when a friend asked me afterward about my impressions, I responded that they were mixed. I am still in the process of digesting them.

I arrived at Berlin’s Main Train Station. The Reichstag Building can be seen behind the Christmas wreath.

Crossing the Spree River, looking east toward the Fernsehturm (TV tower) on Alexanderplatz

Reichstag building, former home of the equivalent of the German parliament

The new dome of the Reichstag (completed in 1999). The original dome burned down in the fire of 1933 which was used by Hitler as a pretext to suspend the Weimar Constitution.

Berlin became the capital of Germany in 1871, after Iron Chancellor Bismarck’s multi-pronged machinations united different German regions and interests. Immense growth at the turn of the 19th century was followed by intense bombardment in World War II, and the division of the city into four allied sectors after Germany’s capitulation. This separation culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the subsequent existence of two parallel universes that lasted for 27 years, until the Wall was torn down in 1989, Germany reunited, and Berlin resumed its original role as capital of a unified Germany. As I moved across the Atlantic from Europe in the mid-1990s, I followed subsequent events from a distance only, but was curious to see the changes since reunification for myself.

Brandenburg Gate

Quadriga atop Brandenburg Gate

I remembered vividly the concrete, steel, and barbed wire from my visit in the early 1980s that separated the city into two, and West Berlin from the surrounding German Democratic Republic, a bizarre reminder of a bizarre situation. If the Brandenburg Gate was previously the center of the divided city, today it embodies the new Berlin. This became evident when I was able to simply walk up to it, and through all of its five arches. Even though remnants of the Wall are scattered along streets and thoroughfares, and former checkpoints and museums continue to recall this chapter of German history, I had the impression that this is something the country has, largely, put behind.

What Germany has, and probably should not, put behind is its infamous role during WW I and WW II, especially its racist, elitist views that led to genocide and a bottomless pit of pain and death. While it is impossible to ever right the wrongs committed, Germany has tried to take responsibility for its past actions. Monuments have been erected to commemorate the murder of Jews, Sinti and Roma as well as homosexuals during the Third Reich. Even though it took three generations to reach this juncture, persistent undercurrents in German society continue to laud Hitler’s “accomplishments” and espouse his evil racial views. I have always had trouble with my German heritage, on account of my birth country’s horrendous history: two catastrophic wars which led to the demise of at least 16 million in the first, 60 million in the second. Unlike a former chancellor, I can’t lighten my conscience by claiming “the mercy of late birth”.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Homosexuals

I grapple with the tension of how this nation can take responsibility for its past, and continue to celebrate its achievements, institutions, and elites, without belittling other states and claiming, once again, supremacy. Germany – and Berlin  still struggle to find answers to yesterday’s troublesome questions, while trying to heal internal divisions, and solve today’s challenges.

Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) on boulevard “Unter den Linden”, commemorates victims of war and dictatorship

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Amache

     Seventy-six years ago today, on December 7, 1941, Japan bombarded the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. In reply, the United States, heretofore officially resolved to stay out of WWII, declared war on Japan and its ally Germany, a momentous step which would later change the course of this cataclysmic global affair. More immediately, it changed the lives of individuals of Japanese descent living in the United States. Within months, in a disproportionate, xenophobic response to a perceived Japanese threat, approximately 126,000 people, two thirds of them American citizens, were forced to abandon homes and businesses on short notice, without compensation. They were rounded up at temporary facilities before being distributed to one of ten internment sites in various states, Colorado among them.

     Officially and euphemistically called the “Granada Relocation Center”, Camp Amache was situated near the town Granada, in remote southeastern Colorado. The camp’s name was an ironic choice. Amache was the Cheyenne wife of a pioneer in the small settlement of Boggsville close to present-day Las Animas in the 1860s, where White, Hispanic and American Indian cultures coexisted peacefully. Even though the distance between Boggsville and Amache measures only sixty miles, and spans only eighty years, the two were worlds apart. From August 1942 until October 1945, Camp Amache confined up to 7,500 people to a one-square-mile area surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. They lived in crowded wooden barracks and were separated from the High Plains’ blazing heat and frigid cold only through thin wooden walls. Sanitary facilities were communal and located away from the barracks, resulting in additional loss of privacy.

     Despite its isolation and simplicity, Amache turned into a fully-functioning town due to the resourcefulness of the prisoners. In an impressive example of self-government, a council of elected representatives established rules and regulations. Schools, hospitals, churches, police, a newspaper and various stores were run by the detainees. They grew their own food on sixteen square miles of arable land, raised livestock, prepared and served their own meals in cafeterias. Many had been experienced farmers in California who coaxed such high yields from Colorado’s soils that they managed to supply other camps with the fruits of their labors. To support the sudden population growth, agricultural lands surrounding Amache were bought by the government from local farmers against their will, but despite their alienation they adopted and perpetuated some of the newly-introduced farming practices after the camp’s dissolution.

     A museum in downtown Granada illustrates how faraway events in Hawaii altered its fate and how a local community deals with its challenging past. Run by the Amache Preservation Society, the brainchild of a local high school teacher, it is staffed by students from the same school. About one mile west of the museum lies the former camp, now a National Historic Landmark, also open to the public. Of the original infrastructure, only the foundations and street grid survive. One barrack, one water tower and one watch tower have been reconstructed.

     Along the fringe of the camp lies a cemetery. It is a peaceful verdant island resembling a Japanese garden. Several headstones, a shrine, and a monument are dedicated to those who lost their lives at Amache, or while engaged in the second World War. The United States draft did not exclude Japanese-Americans who had been “relocated” by the American administration. Not unexpectedly, many refused to comply and, absurdly, were punished with prison time. More surprisingly, despite their ignominious treatment, about ten percent of the internees volunteered for the United States Armed Forces, and more than thirty perished, making the ultimate patriotic sacrifice for the country – their country.

     In the face of our collective human foibles, misguided actions, and frustrating steps backward, I continue to cling to the hope that by trying to understand the past, we can improve the future.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/amache/