Dutch Treat, Part 3
Somber Tour of Anne Frank House
March 14, 2005, Monday – In Amsterdam, The Netherlands
After another excellent breakfast buffet at the Carlton Hotel (my usual bacon and ham on coarse bread with a Coke Light and for Betty fruit and pastry with coffee) we discovered that our contemplated daytrip to Brueggge, Belgium would require a train ride of about 3 hours, 35 minutes each way. The cities of the Low Countries are close together. But after checking a
Click Colored Type to
map and schedule taken off the Internet by an exceptionally bright and helpful desk clerk at the hotel (the young woman’s home was in Chechnya, a war-torn country that once was part of the Soviet Union), we saw that it is a roundabout ride by rail from Amsterdam to the medieval town of Bruegge to the south. Had it been a straight shot, the distance would have been cut in half.
We regretfully decided to scrub the excursion. It was a shame because we had heard Bruegge is very scenic and an important center for handmade lace, one of Betty’s favorite fabrics for home decoration.
We decided to regroup and consider a day trip by train to Delft, a thriving Dutch city perhaps best known for the centuries-old manufacture of its signature blue-and-white pottery. Our main event for today is a tour of the Anne Frank House, one of the most visited places in Amsterdam.
I learned that a nearby, hole-in-the-wall liquor store, which literally is dug into a Flower Market wall like a bomb shelter, is closed today. It was one of the few closed stores we saw even though the guidebooks warn that much of Amsterdam shuts down on Mondays, like in France. We made a quick visit to a huge Internet café a block or so away from the hotel and paid €1.5 for an hour’s connect time to the Internet. With a click of a mouse on the appropriate flag, customers can get their Internet service in American English, British English, German, French or Dutch. The café offers several hundred computer screens; it shares space with a sublease that sells music CDs and such.
Young people take universal Internet service for granted, which is probably a good thing. I still marvel at how rapidly such ease of communications is shrinking the planet. My grandfather was born at a time when a lot of domestic mail went by a fast horse; international mail went by a slow ship. It is a wonder how quickly and cheaply we can send and receive email to friends and family back home from just about anywhere in the world. A year ago during his MBA graduation trip to Peru, our son saw Internet cafes in remote Andean mountain villages.
We caught Tram No. 14 at a stop near our hotel and rode perhaps one mile to one of Amsterdam’s busiest areas, called “The Dam.” It is where the Dutch blocked the Amstel River with a “damme” and created a small village called “Amsteldamme.” Always referred to as “The Dam” but locally
Click Colored Type to
pronounced “dom” to rhyme with “tom,” the huge square is the historic center of the old city. It is ringed with notable monuments and buildings, including the Royal Palace, and is a very busy area. A huge ice rink was in the process of being dismantled on this day – probably because the daytime temperatures are warming well above freezing.
We briefly stepped inside a cathedral-sized, stone building known as Nieuwe Kerk, or “The New Church,” for directions. It is a onetime Roman Catholic cathedral that was gutted and vandalized during a riot during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. Now 600 years old, the church is where the monarchs of The Netherlands are crowned, wed and buried. (The monarch lives in Hague, which is really the capital of the country and where most government is based.)
The historic church has a tower that is 290 feet high, which served as the first sighting of home for returning sailors. It is not to be confused with the “old church,” which is nearby in the Red Light District and was built a century earlier. We walked about 300 yards to an American Express office, where we cashed some checks and changed most of our dollars into Euros at about $1.35 per €1. I think the precipitous drop in the value of the dollar against European currencies (mainly to finance an unnecessary war in Iraq and to reduce the taxes of the super rich) is a disgrace.
We reboarded Tram No. 14, paid our €1.60 fares (a basic ticket is good for one hour on as many trams as you care to ride) and rode a mile or two to the stop near the Anne Frank House, one of the most visited locations in Amsterdam. It is there that Anne and her sister, Margot, and their parents plus four others hid from the Nazis for two years. They were ultimately betrayed and all but Anne’s father died in concentration camps.
The “Diary of Anne Frank” is one of the most read books ever published. It has been printed in 64 languages. The story of Anne Frank is one of the most important stories of the 20th Century. Joseph Stalin, the evil and murdering dictator of the Soviet Union, once callously said that a single death can be a tragedy but a million is only a statistic. I don’t think the human mind can comprehend the totality of the cruelty visited upon European Jews and others during the 1930s and 1940s by the Nazis. There were 6 million Jews killed. There were 20 million Russian deaths. There were hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors, Marines and untold numbers of innocent civilians killed and maimed during World War II.
The gripping story of Anne Frank is a story the mind can grasp. It is a somber reminder of the almost limitless nobility - and cruelty - the human spirit is capable of reaching.
The guidebooks say the wait to tour the house can be a long one during the peak tourist season in summer. But this being mid-March, there wasn’t much of a line. We had plenty of room to move around inside the cramped rooms of the house.
Anne’s family had lived in Frankfort, Germany, where she was born in 1929. Her father, Otto, owned a successful, international business that dealt in pectin and spice mixtures used in the preservation and canning of fruit. After Hitler came to power in 1933, the Frank family decided to move to Amsterdam, which was a safe haven for Jews until Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Anti-Jewish decrees grew ever more harsh.
With the help of several of his Dutch employees, Otto built secret living quarters in a connected annex above his warehouse and office at 265 Prinsengracht, a four-story building alongside a canal. From the street, it looks like just another multi-story townhouse, one of thousands in Amsterdam. In July 1942, the Frank family (Otto, wife Edith and daughters Anne and Margot) decided to go into hiding inside the annex rather than turn Margot over for a “work force project” in Germany.
Otto had already registered one of his non-Jewish employees as a director of his company, preventing the Germans from routinely seizing the business. He handed over the keys to his Aryan colleagues, sent a final postcard to relatives, gave the family cat to a neighbor, spread rumors the Franks were fleeing to Switzerland and prepared his family to “dive under” (onderduik as it was called) into hiding. On July 6, 1942, the Frank family put on extra clothes to avoid carrying suspicious suitcases and disappeared into the Spartan suite in the upper back part of their building. Colleague Victor Kruger concealed the annex entrance with a swinging bookcase full of business files.
A week later, Herman and August van Pels and their son, Peter, joined them. Three months later Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist and family friend, moved in. He shared Anne’s small bedroom that she decorated with movie-star pictures clipped from magazines.
The bedrooms and sitting areas of the seven-room, secret annex were sparsely furnished. There was a single bathroom serving eight people. The Delft-style commode was not flushed during the day for fear of alerting the warehouse workers beneath that people were living upstairs. The Nazis, aided by Dutch auxiliary police and informers, regularly swept through suspected hiding places to round up and deport Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews were captured and sent off to camps in Germany and other Nazi-conquered lands. A book on display carefully lists each name of the 103,000 deportees, 90 percent of whom were gassed, tortured or starved to death in the camps. The mind can’t comprehend the terrible suffering of those people; they were less than 2 percent of the total who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
With the non-Jewish office staff secretly supplying those in hiding with canned foods, vegetables and other supplies, the Franks and their friends managed to live a cloistered but somewhat normal life behind drawn curtains. They never went outside. When the weather was right, they would open a hidden roof vent after dark to breath fresh air. At night, they would sometimes go downstairs into the office area and listen to a shortwave radio. Otto kept a map showing the German retreat movements after D-Day.
Days were spent quietly reading. The children studied their schoolbooks and did their lessons. Anne wrote her diary, noting in one May, 1944 entry that “my greatest wish is to be a journalist and later on, a famous writer. In any case, after the war I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex. . .”
Following are some poignant excerpts from Anne’s diary,
which are taken from an excellent brochure that comes with the €7.50 admission.
“We have to whisper and tread lightly during the day, otherwise the people in the warehouse might hear us. . .We’re very afraid the neighbors might hear or see us.” – July 11, 1942.
“Last night the four of us went down to the private office and listened to England on the radio, I was so scared.” – July 11, 1942.
“Margot and I have declared the front office to be our bathing grounds. Since the curtains are drawn on Saturday afternoon, we scrub ourselves in the dark, while the one who isn’t in the bath looks out the window through a chink in the curtains.” – Sept. 29, 1942.
“Countless friends and acquaintances have been taken off to a dreadful fate. Night after night, green and gray military vehicles cruise the streets. It’s impossible to escape their clutches until you go into hiding.” – Nov. 19, 1942.
“Our own helpers have managed to pull us through so far. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be.” – January 28, 1944.
“As of tomorrow, we won’t have a scrap of fat, butter or margarine. Lunch today consists of mashed potatoes and picked kale. You wouldn’t believe how much kale can stink when it’s a few years old!” – March 14, 1944.
“But, still, the brightest part of all is that at least I can write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate.” – March 16, 1944.
“One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we will be people again and not just Jews! We can never be just Dutch, or just English, or whatever. We will always be Jews as well. But then, we’ll want to be.” – April 9, 1944.
The hiding place was betrayed on Aug. 4, 1944. The Frank family and their friends were arrested in their refuge of 25 months and soon deported. Two of Otto’s employees who had helped keep them alive were also arrested.
Museum signage and brochures state the identity of the informant is not known. I have a tough time buying that assertion. But I think I can understand why it was made. If this former newspaperman’s suspicions are correct, there must have been a very good reason why a police record has not been found about the rat or why somebody has not come forward. There are hints within Anne’s diary that speak for themselves.
Glass cabinets throughout the annex display various Nazi documents that were later retrieved about the Frank family, their deportation and identity papers. The Germans are among the most meticulous record keepers in the world. The Jewish survivors of the concentration camps – and their descendants and relatives – have combed through German records with a vengeance for more than a half-century. With all the native intelligence, education and resources at their disposal, Jews have tracked down and brought to justice Nazi criminals in all parts of the world. It is hard for me to believe that the record could not be found that would identify the Gestapo informant that betrayed the Frank family. Maybe somebody has decided it is better than the world not know.
The family spent a brief time at a holding facility at Westerbrook, a town near Amsterdam. They were put aboard a train for the dehumanizing ride to Auschwitz, where the family was forcibly separated and the horrors worsened. Records also disclosed that there were 1,019 on the last train to leave Westerbrook (498 men, 442 women and 79 children). There were 549 helpless, human beings immediately gassed to death upon arrival. Anne and Margot were evidently young and healthy enough to be transferred to a work camp at Bergen-Belsen. Margot died first, in March 1945. A few days later, Anne died of typhus and deprivation – just two months before the camp was liberated. One of her former neighbors talked to her through a camp fence near the end and reported that the teenager “didn’t have any more tears.”
Researchers have found Nazi records that reveal that all but one of the original eight who hid for over two years were gassed or died in the camps.
Only Otto Frank survived. He spent months traveling from camp to camp and to repositories of German records in a vain attempt to find his family. He returned to Amsterdam June 3, 1945 in desolation. A letter soon reached him that was written by a nurse at Bergen-Belsen, who said she had witnessed the death of his two daughters.
Anne’s diaries – which were written in German in three lined notebooks that have been preserved and are on display – were left behind in the Secret Annex when her family and their friends were hauled away. Two of Otto’s employees – secretary Miep Gies and office worker Bep Voskuijl – gathered up the notebooks plus 300 loose pages. Miep saved them and gave them to Otto once he got the confirming letter about the deaths of Anne and Margot.
He organized Anne’s writings and turned them into what became one of the most important books of the 20th Century. In 1979, he wrote, “I can no longer talk about how I felt when my family arrived on the train platform in Auschwitz and we were forcibly separated from each other.”
The Anne Frank House has obtained much film taken by the Germans. Monitors in several of the rooms run non-stop reels showing Nazi round-ups of the Jews, transportation in the pitiful railroad box cars, camp life and camp death. Some of the footage is beyond gruesome. There are also various possessions and memorabilia of the Frank family that have been preserved, including a yellow Star of David that had to be pinned to clothing. It is a powerful but deeply troubling series of exhibits that doubtlessly leaves a great many viewers with precisely the feelings of anguish that the designers intended.
Primo Levi, a writer and survivor of Auschwitz, wrote a searing comment in 1985 about the importance of “Diary of Anne Frank.” He said, “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.” I was pleased to purchase a copy of the latest edition of the book at the Anne Frank House bookstore plus pick up several self-guiding brochures for friends back home.
After reflecting over several weeks on what we’d seen and learned in the Anne Frank House, I arrived at a deeper understanding of Jewish people and why many are so profoundly influenced by what Hollywood calls “the back story.” I also have a fuller appreciation of our too-brief friendship with an older Jewish couple.
Betty and I were befriended by this couple, Sol and Erna Stern, when we moved to Memphis in the summer of 1970. They had hid out during the Holocaust and World War II in a small farming village in France because of the bravery and kindness of a French couple and their neighbors. We were neighbors of the Sterns in an apartment building at 1220 Overton Park and were privileged to hear their story.
We were a young couple then, relatively naïve about the cruelty of the world and largely ignorant of the horrors the Jews faced during the war years in Europe. I now wish we had listened closer and asked more questions of the gentle, soft-spoken Sterns.
They didn’t talk much about those terrible years and we didn’t want to pry. They did tell us they had worked as housekeepers and cooks for the family that took them in. I don’t remember from whence or how they came to that particular village or even its name. Nor do I know how they made their way to Memphis. (There is probably a record of it somewhere in the local Jewish archives.) The Sterns told us that neighbors of the couple who hid them as well as other villagers knew about the secret arrangement and alerted them to hide when German troops were in the area.
I recall Erna confiding in us that she and Sol held each other in bed and cried every night over not having children. They were the only ones in their family to survive the war. Their brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, nieces and nephews perished at the hands of the Germans. Their concealment from the Germans came during Erna’s prime fertility years. They didn’t want to risk having children – or to expose the family that sheltered them to any increased danger. Betty stayed in touch with Erna until Erna’s death. She was told that Erna and Sol had received a Germans reparations payment of about $70,000 in the late 1970s.
Betty and I also got to know two brothers who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Abe and Mike Kalmo. Their original last name was Kalmowitz, which was shortened when they came to the United States and started a business in Memphis.
Abe and Mike were outstanding tailors. Their skills saved their lives. When the Nazis learned of their expertise with a needle and thread, the teenage boys were put to work making uniforms for the camp commandant and other German officers. When not sewing, they told me, they hauled bodies of gassed Jews to the ovens. I learned about their ordeal during my occasional visits to their clothing store, Imperial Clothiers, on Union Avenue in the 1970s and 1980s.
Back in those days, I bought most of my suits and sports
coats at Imperial. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of their most
important customers was Abe Plough, a great man and founder of the giant
pharmaceutical and consumer product company where I later worked,
Ironically, the company that Mr. Plough agreed to merge Memphis-based Plough, Inc. with in 1972 was New Jersey-based Schering Corp. Schering had been an American subsidiary of the German chemical giant Schering AG until World War II. The U.S. unit was seized by the American government and later was sold to the public in a stock offering.
One day I was in the Kalmo brothers' store and mentioned that I had read in the paper that an expert on the Nazi concentration camps was about to speak at a local event or perhaps on television. Abe Kalmo, the older of the two brothers, angrily shoved up a sleeve of his shirt to reveal a telltale number tattoo on his forearm. He exclaimed that he didn’t have to listen to anybody about it because he and Mike were survivors of Dachau. Once he calmed down, he gave me a quick version of how they had survived.
The store closed in the mid-1990s and the brothers moved from Memphis, to Florida I think. Their children had all done well.
I think the horror and shame that flowed out of the camps into the world at large repressed a lot of public discussion about the plight of the Jews when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. There was a vague awareness among us non-Jewish kids of the concentration camps. But the national focus during my teen years in the 1950s (when schools in Sacramento, Calif. had regular bomb raid drills) was on the dangers posed by the Russians, the ChiComs and the ComSymps. Even a decade after World War II, many veterans wouldn’t talk about what they had seen.
I’ve read that many Jews suppressed memories and public discussions of the Nazi exterminations because of a strange feeling that their people had not fought the Nazis hard enough. That reticence changed over the years as the Jewish nation of Israel took form, the Arab world focused hatred on the new state and more and more information about the German atrocities became public. I don’t want to over-simplify a very complex dynamic about the great awakening in the West about what had really happened to the European Jews; I hope that people everywhere will look into the extensive writings and scholarship dealing with this topic.
I toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, not long after it opened in the early 1990s. I, too, experienced the emotional sledgehammer and felt a second-hand but nonetheless unfathomable grief when I learned about the unspeakably cruel murders of millions of innocent people. I believe the Nazi’s cold-blooded dehumanization and genocidal extermination of the Jews was the greatest crime perpetuated in the history of mankind. To this day I have haunting memories of two exhibits in the Holocaust Museum.
One is a multi-story gallery of photos taken by a single photography firm that worked in an obscure village in Poland that was wiped out by Nazi troops in reprisal for an act of resistance. Every man, woman and child was killed. Negatives taken by the family photography business of virtually all the 200 or so residents somehow survived. The Museum obtained the negatives and made prints of photos taken during birthdays, weddings and other family portrait occasions. They are framed in the style of the times and are mounted on the walls of a living room sized gallery that is perhaps three stories high. Staring down at Museum visitors are photos of dozens of innocent faces enjoying family togetherness during happy times of their lives. I wept.
Another exhibit that still bothers me is a modest plaque perhaps 5 feet wide by 4 feet tall. On it are inscribed the names of perhaps 4,000 non-Jews. That was the total number of gentiles in Europe that researchers determined had taken significant actions at some personal risk in order to shelter, protect or help Jews to escape the clutches of the Nazis.
I presume the names of several of Otto Frank’s employees are on the list. I was amazed and am still troubled by the widely believed myth that a great many Germans, French, Dutch and other Europeans risked their lives to hide or otherwise the Jews. With only a tiny number of exceptions, the Jews were abandoned and left all alone. It is well documented that even the Catholic Pope and the American President (FDR) failed to intervene when they could have made a difference. The French Vichy government’s cooperation with the Nazis and tolerance of the forced removal of Jews from France was a shameful abdication of responsibility that is conveniently ignored today.
Despite the nascent nastiness of the neo-Nazi movement, the German government and public have been far more proactive in accepting Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust than have other governments. Recently, a new memorial to the Holocaust opened in Berlin and a much-expanded one opened in Israel, the Yad Veshem museum. Prime Minister Sharon used the opening as a forum to rightfully shake his finger and scold the rest of the world for ignoring the plight of the Jews in their darkest hours of need.
In an earlier travelogue, I chronicled our journey of discovery along Ireland’s famine trail. The abandonment by their English masters of the Irish to death by starvation in the 19th Century has many parallels with what has happened to the Jews over the centuries. I do not believe the Irish will ever completely forget nor forgive the English for that genocidal inaction. Likewise, I do not believe Jews will ever forget nor forgive what happened to them when the world idly stood by while the Germans made them suffer and die so horribly. I’ll never forget.
I was 61 at the time of our visit to the Anne Frank House. I was a toddler during the time when her family hid in the house, were discovered and all but one died. The family’s story - as told in Anne’s book and subsequent movies and other presentations - should help keep the memory alive. I hope so.
It bothers me that the collective memory of history's dark sides often fades when the generations that lived through them die. When we visited the American cemetery overlooking Normandy’s Omaha Beach on a previous trip to Europe, we were told that not nearly as many Americans come there anymore now that the World War II generation is all but gone. The East Tennessee Park and restored home of Sgt. Alvin York, probably the greatest American hero of World War I, gets little traffic. The name Robert E. Lee has been dropped from a lot of American history books used in public schools, even in my native Southland.
Feeling somewhat shaken by what we had seen in the Anne Frank house, Betty and I rode the tram back to our hotel, where we had a takeout lunch of “broogies,” Dutch for sandwiches, and Coke Light (the European name for Diet Coke). I wanted something stronger to drink. So we walked around the Rembrandt Square area of canals, shops and office buildings and found an open liquor store. I paid €13 for a bottle of medium-priced, Dutch gin. The brand was Ketell, recommended by the store proprietor.
A Dutch professor of medicine, Franciscus Sylvius, has been credited with inventing gin in the 17th Century. He distilled juniper berries with grain-based spirits to make an inexpensive medicine having the diuretic properties of juniper oil. It was called “genever,” from the French word for juniper berry, “genievre.” But the English improved it, to my mind, after their soldiers were exposed to the low-cost alcohol in the Low Countries, brought it home and called it gin.
Netherlands gin is made from a mash containing barley malt – augmented by juniper berries - that produces an alcohol content of about 35 percent. English and American gin is further purified to produce an alcohol content of 90 per cent or more. This is reduced by distilled water, augmented with more flavor and then distilled again to produce a dry product with an alcohol content of 40 percent (80 proof) or more. Each distiller adds a secret combination of botanical ingredients that includes juniper berries and possibly orris, angelica and licorice roots, lemon and orange peels, cassia bark, caraway, coriander, cardamom, anise and fennel.
The Commercial Appeal, the Scripps-Howard newspaper in Memphis where I worked as a reporter and editor 1969-84, put together a blind tasting panel to test gins a few years ago. Surprisingly, one of the lower priced gins – Ashby’s London Dry Gin, a product of Kentucky – out-pointed most of the expensive imports from England. It was named the best value by a wide margin. It’s what I buy when I’m in Memphis and often carry with me when I travel.
With our legs tired from all the walking the last two days, we decided to forego walking to a restaurant. We had a satisfying, takeout dinner from McDonald’s across the street from the Carlton Hotel. The chicken Caesar salad was much better than those served at home. It cost more but the portions were larger.
- Written May 5, 2005, ironically a Holocaust Remembrance Day