Anne Frank in Amsterdam
What do we learn by visiting places where our subject lived?
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What I’m working on
It’s a biography truism that you must visit the places where your subject was born, lived, or had important experiences. Richard Holmes, the great biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others, devoted a whole book, Footsteps, to tracing his subjects’ paths. While researching my book on Shirley Jackson, I made a point of visiting every place significant to her: from San Francisco and Burlingame, California, where she spent her childhood, to Winchester, New Hampshire, where she and her husband made an ill-fated escape from New York early in their marriage. Naturally, I spent a fair amount of time in North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson lived for most of her adult life and which figures, in disguise, in much of her fiction, including “The Lottery.”
There’s an undeniable appeal in occupying the same physical space as your subject. Even if nothing remains from the period when they lived, walking down the same streets or looking at the same view can lead to unexpected insights. In Burlingame, I was astonished to see how close the houses were to each other—neighbors could literally lean out their windows and shake hands. This brought to life the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Road Through the Wall, Jackson’s first novel, in which the residents of a street modeled on the one where Jackson grew up destroy each other through prejudice, vindictiveness, and cruelty.
But there are instances in which visiting a place can prove counterproductive. I once heard a biographer lament that a reader had called him out for mentioning in his book a bird that had not yet been introduced to the area when his subject lived there. To avoid a similar mistake, I made a point of not looking at the interior of any of Jackson’s haunts, since it would be impossible to know how they might have changed. I didn’t want to be misled by an incorrect visual image—even subconsciously.
Very little remains of two of the most significant sites in Anne Frank’s life: the camps of Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen. Westerbork was torn down in the 1960s by the Dutch government and now houses an installation of fourteen radio telescopes, two of them built atop the railway tracks by which Jews were once transported to and from the camp. Bergen-Belsen was torched a month after its liberation, in May 1945, by the British Army: ostensibly to prevent the spread of typhus, but also, if only tacitly, to provide emotional closure for the traumatized soldiers who liberated the camp and first discovered the unspeakable conditions there. The site where it stood is now an empty field. What trace of Anne could possibly be found there?
This is what I told myself, anyway, as consolation for not being able to visit these places. Not long after I began working on my biography of Anne, the start of the pandemic wiped out my hopes for a trip to the Netherlands in 2020—or 2021. I’m lucky to have visited the Anne Frank House as a child, in the 1980s. While writing the book, I’ve been relying not only on my memories but also on the many photographs that have been published of the “Secret Annex” as well as the Anne Frank House’s vast digital resources, which include a 3-D tour. While Otto Frank’s archive is held at the house, his letters have found their way to institutions around the world, including important collections in New York, where I live.
Still, when I had the opportunity to participate in a residency in France for a few weeks this summer, I squeezed in a lightning visit to Amsterdam before my return home.
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The neighborhood where Anne grew up, known as the River District (many of the streets are named after rivers), was created in the early 1900s to serve as working-class housing and soon became home to many of the Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. It’s still a pleasant, family-oriented area, with happy voices spilling from kindergartens and businesses that reflect the influence of more recent immigrants, such as a bakery specializing in bread from Suriname, a onetime Dutch colony in South America. Merwedeplein, the square on which Anne lived, houses a real estate agency, a beauty salon, and a dentist’s office. Ukrainian flags flutter from a number of the windows.
I’ve spent so much time on Google Maps looking at Anne’s building—37 Merwedeplein, a modern low-rise brick apartment house identical to all the others on the block—that I recognized it instantly. Even so, it was smaller than I expected. I was struck by the proximity of the apartment doors: though you can't tell from my photo, six of them surround the entryway at the top of the stairs. As you can see in the photo, Dutch doors are often set right at the sidewalk, rather than back from the street. During round-ups, the Nazis went from door to door in search of Jews. When they dragged people out of their houses, all the neighbors must have heard.
The Franks’ apartment, owned by the Anne Frank House, has been restored to something like the way it looked during her childhood and now serves primarily as housing for refugee writers. I didn’t knock. Instead, I wandered in the park across the street, where a statue of her stands—also smaller than I thought it would be. She stands alone, a satchel under her left arm, a suitcase dangling from her right hand, her gaze averted. Lines from her entry of July 8, 1942 came to my mind:
Warm rain fell steadily all day. We put on heaps of clothes as if we were going to the North Pole, the sole reason being to take clothes with us. No Jew in our situation would have dreamed of going out with a suitcase full of clothing. I had on two vests, three pairs of pants, a dress, on top of that a skirt, jacket, summer coat, two pairs of stockings, lace-up shoes, woolly cap, scarf, and still much more; I was nearly stifled before we started, but no one inquired about that.
Artistic license or ignorance? Who knows.
The Franks had to set out on foot for 263 Prinsengracht, the location of the hiding space, because by that time Jews were no longer permitted to use public transportation. I wanted to trace their path, but it’s impossible to know exactly which way they went. The most direct route is about an hour’s walk, much of it a straight line north on Ferdinand Bolstraat, a major commercial artery. Anne and her family left home at around 7:30 on a Monday morning, when the bakeries and newsstands would have been getting ready for the morning rush. Did the Franks turn left at the Singel canal to stroll down Weteringschans, a cobblestone path that winds among weeping willows? Did they pause for a last look across the canal towards the ornate Rijksmuseum, by then occupied by the Nazis and surrounded by German bunkers? Or did they trudge through the rain with their heads down, sparing no glance for the city from which they were about to disappear? The Dutch word for going into hiding, onderduiken, translates literally as “diving under”; they would vanish like the periscope of a submarine slowly disappearing beneath the ocean’s surface. How do you say goodbye to the city where you’ve made your life, not knowing when you’ll be able to return?
Prinsengracht is now a busy commercial street. In Anne’s day, it was a less prestigious address; the buildings along the canal mainly housed workshops, warehouses, and offices. Now it’s lined with upmarket coffee shops, boutiques, and galleries; tourists drift down the canal on rented boats or stand-up paddleboards. The scene is irresistibly picturesque. I couldn’t help wondering how many of these businesses owe their existence to Anne and her Diary, which first began bringing tourists to the area in the 1960s. The Anne Frank House now hosts some 1.3 million visitors each year, every single day from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; they spill from the plaza in front of the building into the sidewalks surrounding it, eating Dutch pancakes and gazing up at the Westertor church, the bells of which Anne could hear from her hiding place. “I liked [the sound] from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night,” she wrote.
It would be nice to say that my visit to Amsterdam brought me closer to Anne. But following her traces around the city only made me more keenly aware of the gulf separating her world and mine. Outside the Montessori school on Nierstraat, now named after her, the street was torn up for a repair project; workmen blared Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” from a stereo. A short walk away, a plaque marks the former location of the Lippmann-Rosenthal Bank, appropriated by the Nazis as a repository for plundered Jewish wealth. The building is now a trendy hotel.
It seems impossible that such horrific things could have happened in a place like this—the quiet, pleasant, civilized streets of Amsterdam. But wasn’t every site of atrocity—from Warsaw to Nagasaki to Kiev—once a “place like this,” where children played, people went to work, life happened?
Oddly enough, the place I felt the proximity of the war years most keenly was one that has no connection to Anne. A few weeks after the Franks went into hiding, the Nazis commandeered the Jewish Theater and turned it into a transit camp in the middle of Amsterdam for Jews awaiting deportation. As many as 1500 people were held there at a time, sometimes for days or even weeks. At night, the screaming of terrified prisoners, especially children, echoed throughout the building.
I pictured the theater as a hulking, stately building, perhaps set back from the street, as American theaters sometimes are. But it, too, was much smaller than I had imagined. I walked past it several times without realizing, so tightly was it packed in among other buildings. Now its neighbors are a cat and dog hospital, a plethora of cafes, a co-working center. But back then, there could have been no concealing what was going on inside. Everyone nearby—in the neighboring houses or outside on the street—must have heard those screams.
Where I’ll be
On November 2, I’ll be reading from my book and discussing Shirley Jackson as part of the Plutzik Reading Series at the University of Rochester. Jackson lived in Rochester for several years and attended the university, so this will be a special talk.
On November 6, I’m doing a Zoom talk about Jackson for the Last Tuesday Society, a London-based organization specializing in the occult. I wish I could visit the Victor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History in person, but this will have to do.
From the Shirley Jackson files
This article about haunted houses in New England mentions the Everett Mansion, one of the spooky houses Jackson drew upon as inspiration for The Haunting of Hill House. The story of my own weird experience there is here.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are considered, by some, to dream.”—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House