Friday, August 17, 2012

The Secret Annexe

Outside of Amsterdam Centraal Train Station at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, I stepped alone into one of the Old World’s most beautiful and famous cities, a place honeycombed by placid dark canals lined with snug wooden houseboats, quiet brick streets fronted by not-yet-open cheese shops, bakeries, bars and boutiques on the ground-floors of handsome antique row houses featuring interesting carven doors and floor-to-ceiling windows. Every so often, a graceful steeple or belfry poked incongruously from the roofline, topping off cavernous and ancient-looking halls of worship. But what impressed me more than the grand architecture and serene canals was the city’s cycle-centric nervous system. Immediately outside the train station there is a three-tiered concrete parking garage, the kind you see full of Avalanches, Excursions and Rangers outside Metro stations in Virginia. THIS concrete parking garage, however, was full of bicycles – conservatively, I would say two or three thousand bicycles. Parked at a train station. By people who then took trains to ride somewhere else. I’ve heard that Copenhagen, in Denmark, the birthplace of the iconic Christiania cargo bike company, is even crazier for cycling. Amsterdam, though, must be Copenhagen's near rival. As the city awoke, I found myself inside a hive of bikes whizzing by in different directions, pedaled by healthy-looking bipeds. Is this what national health care, legalized prostitution and locally acceptable marijuana sales leads to? Bicycle riding and massive use of mass transit? Eco-coolness?

Anyway. Back to my mission. I only had three hours before I needed to get back to Schiphol. Within that time, if possible, I planned to have breakfast and walk through the secret entrance, hidden behind a swiveling bookcase, into the pectin warehouse where a fellow compulsive diarist, Anne Frank, survived for a miraculous two years with her family during World War II before someone betrayed her to the Gestapo, causing her to be sent to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. She and her sister died there, a month before the Allies liberated it. In all, seven of the eight people who hid in the house were killed in the camps. Her father survived Auschwitz, found her diary after the war, and recognized its power and significance as he turned its pages for the first time.

I made it to the Anne Frank Huis on the Prinsengracht Canal by 9 a.m. The Prinsengracht, or “Prince’s Canal,’’ is one of three main canals dug in the 17th Century during the Dutch Golden Age that form concentric circles around downtown Amsterdam. There are more than 1,500 awe-inspiring, monumental buildings inside this tri-canal area. The district was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status two years ago. At the Anne Frank Huis, all of the guided tours for the entire day were booked up long in advance, but I could still get in to do a self-guided exploration. I was surprised by the number of young women, including many teenaged girls of various nationalities, queued outside well before the museum’s opening. Stunningly, Anne Frank was only 14 years old when she wrote the bulk of her diary. The depth of feeling, the self-awareness and intellect of this young human screams from the pages. Hers was a hungry, hyper-kinetic mind, and she seemed to feel that the maniacal evils being perpetrated across Europe by the Nazis – though in every sense immediate, real and horrific -- were an aberration, and that humankind would correct and heal itself. Did she really believe that?

We went in and proceeded at a snail’s pace through the three-story building. The place is empty, dim, unfurnished, full of echoes and the ponderous shoe-scuffling of visitors. In this tomb-like house, not a word is spoken above a whisper. We duck through the hidden bookcase entrance into what Anne Frank called the Secret Annexe. We look out the window in the attic where Anne Frank gazed at the topmost leaves of a chestnut tree and dreamed of being able to go outside again, where she longed for her friends and planned what to study in school when the nasty mess was over. We stand in the room she shared with a cantankerous old dentist, taken in by the Franks. We see where she sat and listened to the bells of the church next door, the Westerkirk, which first opened its doors to believers in 1631.

We trudge back downstairs and contemplate madness and murder. We remember Cambodia. Bosnia. Rwanda. Sudan.

When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?’’ – Anne Frank

Eleven million people were killed during the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s diary has sold more than 30 million copies. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest books written in the 20th century. She was 14 when she signed her name on the final page.

Monday, August 13, 2012


The 10-year-old boy in front of me at Passport Control in Amsterdam is preparing to puke. Fortunately I had some warning. He had jerked suddenly and suspiciously 180-degrees away from the crew-cut Dutch guy sitting behind glass in the passport booth, lowered his head and scrunched up his scapulae like a waterbird settling its wings while getting ready to spear a fish. Instinctively, his parents both stepped sideways a step or two, and I stopped in my tracks, a good three meters back. Then he let go, with a sound like glass marbles pouring onto the cold concrete floor. No moaning or sniveling, just the sudden and surprisingly voluminous waterfall of liquified toast, eggs, Cap’n Crunch and whatever else spilling onto the floor. And then, a coda – and another half-cup’s worth comes out. Mom waits a respectful beat, and then approaches to cautiously pat his back. I step three queues to the left and watch the expressions of the Dutch immigration squad behind their partitions. They seem only slightly bemused, and I can tell they are happy their jobs do not involve mops or buckets, but only scanning passport pages and asking people what their business entails, inside the nation of the Netherlands on this day.

Is this a portent? A sign that I should not, in fact, embark upon my audacious and time-sensitive mission outside Schiphol Airport during a seven-hour layover en route to Detroit? Everything to this point had gone so smoothly. Underwear and socks change in private toilet stall in KLM Crown Lounge? Check. Free café au lait and turkey/cheese roll breakfast inside Crown Lounge? Check. Figure out complicated credit card and infrared-scanning lockers system so I could store my laptop and carry-on backpack inside the departures terminal whilst touring Amsterdam in the morning? Check. But here, my first hurdle – over a boy’s puddle of vomit, and I’m not even outside the airport yet. I held my breath, and got through.

In the bowels of Schiphol, there is a train terminal. Somewhere, you would think a giant neon arrow would point ingénues like me toward the ticket counter. But instead, there seems only to be two-dozen ambiguously labeled cavities in the earth, into which mechanized walkways are taking people in different directions to various points around Europe. If I went down the wrong hole, I might end up in Vladivostok, Istanbul, Yerevan, or Athens, when all I wanted to do was ride 15 minutes down the rails to downtown Amsterdam. I asked a KLM stewardess, staring up at something on the ceiling, if she knew where I could buy a ticket. Without making eye contact, she lifted her arm and pointed sideways, at a giant neon sign that said TICKETS, about 20 yards away. I purchased a round-trip ticket and miraculously found my way onto a train heading into downtown Amsterdam, also known as "Hamsterdam" to my 7-year-old daughter. I believe she thinks the town was named for hamsters.

What I found there when I exited the glorious old train station at 7 a.m. on a Saturday made me gasp, and grab for my camera.