Amsterdam’s Anne Frank Industry

Every year, a million-plus visitors to the Frank family’s hiding place are presented with an inspiring but utterly misleading narrative of ‘hope’ about the nightmare of the Holocaust.

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The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam had almost 1.2 million visitors in 2013, behind only the city’s Rijksmuseum (2.2 million) and the Van Gogh Museum (1.4 million). The latter two were built to receive millions. The Secret Annex was meant to hide a few.

Even on a cool, drizzly autumn day, visitors wait in a 45-minute line that snakes around a corner. Many have read the diary. Many haven’t. "I came because it’s famous,” a visitor from Minnesota says.

Enter the house – no photos, please, postcards are available in the gift shop – and climb the steep stairs to the Secret Annex. To honor the wishes of Otto Frank, Anne’s father, its rooms have all been left bare. Remnants of original wallpaper show pencil marks where the family measured the children's growth and pictures of movie stars that Anne pasted up to make her small room more cheerful.

Displays include videotaped interviews. In a wrenching clip with Otto, filmed in 1967, he confesses that reading Anne’s diaries made him realize he had no idea of the depth of his daughter’s inner life. It had to be a grievous realization after his unspeakable loss.

If only the experience ended here. Instead, it goes on to the back of the house, where "Anne" is transmogrified into a commodity. The shop hawks the iconic images of Anne on posters, postcards and postage stamps, and even a blank diary with a cloth red cover for anyone inspired to start keeping one of her own. Also for sale is a cardboard model of the Franks' Amsterdam canal house.

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There are, of course, stacks of "The Diary of a Young Girl." In the language of publishing, it backlists. It’s the "Harry Potter" of Dutch books, with 32 million copies sold in 60 countries and 70 languages.

I would argue that its value, like "Schindler’s List," is to introduce people to the Holocaust, but the only other books I saw – and there are many Holocaust diaries – were stories by Anne and books about Anne, including the authorized biography in graphic illustrated form.

Anne feared being discovered by her neighbors, and one or more of them eventually helped end her life. For the current neighbors, she is an immortal endowment.

The house itself generated 13.3 million euros in admission fees and merchandise in 2012, according to a 2013 annual report. The total economic impact of the tourist attraction is greater. There’s even an app, "Anne's Amsterdam." 

Throughout the city, billboards advertise an Anne play, with a supportive blurb from CNN.com. Of course, America has its own Anne Frank Industry, starting with Broadway. "Cheap sentimentality at the expense of great catastrophe," Hannah Arendt wrote of the original play in 1955. It was revived in 1997. "Almost every hand that has approached the diary with the well-meaning intention of publicizing it," wrote Cynthia Ozick in the The New Yorker, "has contributed to the subversion of history."

Has Disney weighed up doing a Pocahontas of the Holocaust?

The Franks were among the 25,000 Jews of Holland who went into hiding. About 18,000 survived. Of its 140,000 prewar population, 102,000 Dutch Jews were murdered. Those who came back were presented with bills for delinquent property taxes.

Amsterdam, which now has 20,000 Jews, is a lovely city with genteel houses and cafes along its network of tree-lined canals. It has 400 museums and galleries. It has a museum of cheese, of tulips, of wax figures, of hash, marijuana and hemp, a museum of sex and another of prostitution.

There is no stand-alone museum to the Dutch Jewish victims of the Shoah, only an exhibit that’s part of the Jewish Historical Museum.

The Dutch commissioned another well-branded figure, Daniel Libeskind – the architect-memorialist of Jewish misfortune – to create, 70 years after the event, its first Holocaust Memorial of Names. But locals’ resistance to the proposed location, Wertheim Park – named for a 19th-century Jewish banker and philanthropist – a relatively small park in a quiet neighborhood that would likely be overrun with a tremendous number of visitors, put construction on indefinite hold. That Anne Frank is so central to Amsterdam’s global image makes the tardiness of erecting a properly substantial Holocaust memorial in the city somewhat surprising.

Nothing holds up the selling out of Anne Frank, not even on Shabbat, when the business of the house proceeds. The driving theme is of hope. Hope sells. The house’s last exhibit is a video of visitors, famous and not, and here the whole misdirected operation loses its way, twisting Anne’s story into an inspiring tale. Nelson Mandela says "The Diary" gave hope to prisoners on Robben Island. People like Anne’s diary entry musing that "despite everything, people are still good at heart."

It’s easy to imagine anyone’s need to be optimistic, to find some redemption through Anne’s own emotional generosity. It’s a terribly sad line in light of her reality.

And that is precisely the problem. The diary’s power is not from the observations and dreams springing from a fertile young mind. It’s from the nightmare she lived and did not survive. One can only imagine the terror of being discovered, the sound of the bookcase disguising the Secret Annex entrance being forced open, the boot soles pounding the stairs, the guttural shouting of home invaders sanctioned by the Nazi authorities’ terrifying and deadly power.

Did Anne still believe in people’s inherent goodness once she was ripped from the Annex and her parents, starved, exposed to the elements, having watched her sister die, having lost, for all she knew, even all the work she’d done on the very diary that had given her mental space to breathe? Seven months after the arrest, she died, alone, of typhus – just a month before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. She was 15.

When visitors exit the house onto a little square, it’s hard to tell if the awfulness of it has registered. It doesn’t appear to in a joyful photo accompanying a press release celebrating the millionth visitor entering on October 16, which notes that the Anne Frank House expects to break its visitation record this year.

In novelist Shalom Auslander’s dark send-up of the Anne Frank-themed books, a veritable literary subgenre, the protagonist hears noises in his attic, and discovers an aged, embittered Anne who has somehow survived in suburban America. The title summarizes the contemporary problem of the protagonist’s house, and the real one in Amsterdam. It’s called "Hope, A Tragedy."

Todd Pitock is a writer in Philadelphia whose work appears in publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times and others.