Ask a book lover or a literary enthusiast–what is your memory of the first book you every read–and you are likely to get an interesting response. Some remember their first book very vividly, some have a vague idea. One of my favourite childhood book remains The BFG by Roald Dahl, but it still wasn’t the first book I ever read that I distinctly remember. I believe it was probably the Noddy series by Enid Blyton, but my memory is a little foggy around this. The one thing that I do remember from my early childhood readings and book consumptions, are three very unforgettable writers and their works. Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, Anne Mazer’s Abby Hayes series and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Notice something common? They are all diaries, letters, personalised notes, and it appealed to me so much that I started maintaining my own journal. These books made me believe that even the most mundane activities of the day needed to be jotted. That someday, someone, somewhere would find our words worthy to be published. I started the habit of diary writing at the age of 14, probably around the same time when Anne Frank started to write her own. Our reasons to write, of course, were nowhere similar. But reading Anne’s words made me believe that every one has a personal story to tell and words have value and meaning.
It’s been over 15 years of diary writing for me, and these words by Anne still resonate with me, every time I pick up the pen and merge it with the rawness of paper. This is the quote that I have written in purple ink in my own diary. I am not as frequent a diary jotter as I used to be as a young teenager, but it still remains an important cathartic release to write in my diary. In fact, this blog is an extension of my journal writing–it collects my thoughts that I am comfortable sharing with the big, bad world online. But when I write in my own personal diary, I remember Anne Frank’s life story every single time. I try to imagine what she must have felt as she noted her own feelings and poured them onto paper, while she hid from an oppressive government in a boxed room for over 2 years, yearning for the sight of sunlight, the chirp of birds and the smiles of humanity around her.
My visit to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Netherlands was as surreal as my visit to Masumiyet Müzesi (The Museum of Innocence) in Istanbul, Turkey. That rare moment when literature meets reality, when fiction and non fiction are no longer separate, when you relive the character’s life and become the persona living to tell the tale. In the case of Anne Frank, of course, nothing is fictional. Everything is as real as it can get. Every step you take, every wall you stare at, every artefact you see is real and belonged to the Frank family. This house is not a figment of someone’s imagination, it is very much historical and a living testament to the horrors of Nazi Germany rule.
I wore my fearless teeshirt when I visited the house, because I felt the need to feel fearless before entering this house alone. Also, I am not really a solo traveler, and the only thing that would push me to travel anywhere alone would be to experience something surreal like this. Anne Frank House was on my list of places to visit before I die, even before understanding and placing Amsterdam on the world map. And when the opportunity presented itself, I wasted no time. I booked the ticket online, made a hand-written route of reaching the place (metro, train and a bit of a walk) and arrived at the house 15 minutes before the tour began. Having arrived at the place beforetime without getting lost in an alien city did began to make me feel fearless. Even if momentarily so.
I don’t want to blog in detail about the Anne Frank House experience, as I don’t wish to ruin the experience for anyone. I do hope you are able to visit it at some point in your life, because it is something to be lived and explored. There is nothing happy about it, though. There is nothing to celebrate, but perhaps something to be awed by. You’ll feel eerily absorbed as you climb the narrow steps, feel suffocated in the tiny rooms and stare blankly at sealed windows. For those still unfamiliar with the context, here’s a little history recap: Anne Frank, a Jewish girl, went into hiding during World War II to escape from the Nazis. Together with seven others, she hid in what was called the “Secret Annex” at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam. She wrote letters, short stories and more in the two years of hiding, until they were all arrested and sent to concentration camps to eventually die (Her father Otto Frank was the lone survivor).
A visit to the Anne Frank House can leave you feeling empty and disturbed. Not only for those who have read the diary, and try to relive her experience as they tour the house, but also because this is the story of a single girl. One, among the many hundred thousands Jewish children, women and men who were persecuted under Nazi Germany. It makes you wonder about the many stories that never got told, the many diaries that never got written, the many lives of countless people that never got documented like this, who faced similar or worse circumstances. Even after so many years, it makes a chill run down your spine. Every artefact, every snippet and anecdote, every visual documentary you see in the house is meant to evoke unresolved emotions. I saw a few people get misty, particularly children who listened closely to the audio guide that re-narrated Anne’s words.
The House made me feel claustrophobic and I needed a breath of fresh air, unlike the inhabitants of the house decades ago who lived in darkness for over two years, fearing their death. There is a museum gift shop too, that sells tote bags, postcards and the original book The Diary of a Young Girl in several languages. It remains one of the few books that has been translated in over 60 languages worldwide. A Bengali edition of the same book in the museum shop, unknowingly, brought a smile on my face. The shop even sells a red, checkered diary, the same kind in which Anne started to write on June 14, 1942, as a souvenir. I did not have the courage to purchase it, though.
As I stepped out of the House, thankful for the wind, the sun and the birds, I sat alongside the canal at Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal), close to the Westerkerk church. Several boats and tourists passed by as I sat on the bench and looked at them all. Many of these were part of canal boat tours, where the Anne Frank House and the Westerkerk remain major tourist attractions, noteworthy enough to be mentioned by the guide. Every boat that crossed the house, had its guide pointing at the building saying “This is where Anne Frank and her family hid for over two years.” Some people gasped, some nodded, most gave expressions that suggested they had heard of this name for the first time. I looked at my fearless teeshirt again, and remembered Anne. She lives and breathes in every fearless moment around us. At least, that’s what I would like to believe for Anne, and the unnamed thousands.