During my last visit to Europe, I checked another country off my bucket list: The Netherlands. Amsterdam–with its liberal,party atmosphere– is a must-see for most backpackers and I imagine Haarlem– a small,quiet town just minutes away–also attracts visitors in search of a quiet day trip or fresh tulips.
My reasons for visiting were a bit different. As usual, it had nothing to do with partying and everything to do with books.
“How often it is a small, almost unconscious event that makes a turning point.”–The Hiding Place
About ten years ago my eighth-grade teacher assigned a book called The Hiding Place. It was about a Christian woman living in Haarlem who , along with her entire family, risked their lives to build a secret room in their home for hiding Jews during the Nazi Occupation. After the family was arrested, Corrie was one of the few to survive her sentence in a concentration camp. She wrote a book about her experiences, opened several homes for victims of the Holocaust ( and their jailers ) and traveled the world promoting her messages of acceptance,resistance, and caring for the needy despite the consequences.
The book left a mark on me. It was the first time I was exposed to the fact that emphasis on so-called “differences” could destroy humanity. It also stressed the importance of sticking to your convictions– even if they go against the norm– and acting on them.
“When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived!” —Diary of a Young Girl
About a year earlier,I had found a copy of The Diary of a Young Girl and devoured it in an afternoon. Again, the idea that perceived differences could be used to separate, and even murder, people scared and confused me. As an angst- ridden preteen who enjoyed writing, I identified with Anne Frank’s love for the craft and soaked up her family woes and budding romance. At times it was even easy to forget that she wrote the diary while fearing for her life.
Even though I couldn’t document my visit with photos (the no photo rule is strictly enforced), I remember climbing the steep staircases and stepping through the bookcase and into the annex vividly.The walls are tacked with information,photos, and mementos of the people who once lived there.A display cases houses the original plaid diary. I found Anne’s bedroom, decorated with post cards and posters of movie stars, to be just as it was described in the book. I also enjoyed the interactive presentation viewers are treated to at the end of the tour. A variety of short videos dramatize modern-day cases of discrimination based on race,gender,religion, and sexual identity .At the end of the video, guests are invited to vote on how they would have handled the situations and are quizzed to see if they can find the sources . I thought it was a great way to convey that the same discrimination and ignorance that killed Anne and millions of other people is still raging today.
On the walk back to my hotel that night, I marveled at the fact that , though her life and self-discovery was limited to a secret Annex, her reflections on life and people were positive.
Both the Ten Boom Watch Shop , (where the Ten Booms worked,lived and hid Jews) and the tilted row house flanking a canal( where Anne Frank, her family, and four others hid for more than two years) are now museums. Standing in these palaces where history took place,and where books that shaped me were penned and inspired, felt like a full circle moment.