Many days later, as I sat in yet another traffic jam in a hot, windless tropical city, I was to remember that recent afternoon in Amsterdam when my Colombian friend Yadaira discovered snow. It was Yadaira’s first time in Europe, and she had never seen snow before, except in photographs.
Dutch secrets: Amsterdam’s serenity hides a tumultuous past that throws up tough questions.
She shivered in the weather which had turned unexpectedly chilly, and her eyes lit up as she saw the tiny snowflakes falling like silent rain, swaying in the rhythm of the wind. She saw her feet sink in the fresh snow, now laid out in the car park like a white carpet.
Later that day, the light changed magically in this beautiful Dutch city of canals and boats, giving its streets, with its lamps and its tinkling bicycles a painterly glow, the breeze on the canal making the reflections of the solid buildings quiver, the city coming silently alive like a Rembrandt landscape. We walked past Prinsengracht, where, on another distant afternoon, I had accidentally discovered the house where Anne Frank lived.
Anne Frank’s story is now a legend. A child in a close-knit family, forced to live in hiding for years, unable even to step out and play, she had kept a diary in which she wrote of her hope in humanity. Her house, facing the canal, is now a museum.
I recall walking through its corridors, looking at pin-up photographs of the film stars young Anne had stuck on a wall. There is a half-finished board game, which she may have very likely played. Her handwriting can be seen in notebooks and pads. It begins as a lazy scrawl, but grows into a solid firmness which, while not necessarily calligraphic, certainly looks determined and cursive: The way a teenage girl would write in a journal she hopes only she would read. We do this; we know friends who do this, and then discover those adolescent fantasies decades later, while clearing an attic. In Anne’s case, she didn’t live long enough to rediscover her writing.
There is an ordinariness about her house, its quotidian nature, which makes the experience chilling, but less pleasantly so than Yadaira’s discovery of snow. There is a banality about that street, but as Hannah Arendt was to say when Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem, there is banality in evil, too.
The real horror about Anne is that her home does not stand out in any way, just the way the Jewish community was apparently integrated in pre-war Amsterdam. Looking identical to other houses from the outside, the view you get from inside is quite different. In a brilliantly conceived part of the museum, I see a tall window, and I see outside a tranquil canal, its water turning dark, and a few pedestrians walking by. A cyclist moves past, clad in a glowing leotard, pedalling furiously, as if late for a yoga class. But take several steps back from the window, and the translucent screen turns opaque, and you see the scene as Anne would have seen it. Suddenly, the colours disappear, and a hazy greyness covers the window now, and you see a large, black-and-white image of goose-stepping Nazi troops. It is a frozen frame, meant to shock, and the black-and-white imaging accentuates the sharpness of the tragedy.
Almost everyone I see in the museum is moved; nobody speaks. This is the story of one family, but that family has become the microcosm of what visited millions of families, in different ways.
Anne Frank has a way of emerging in Dutch debates, rattling Dutch conscience, at odd, unexpected times. Amsterdam is a tolerant city, with its cafés selling drugs openly, and its red light area legal and safe. And yet, in 2004, film-maker Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch-born Muslim of Moroccan origin, because the assassin was upset over a film he made, which was critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Ayan Hirsi Ali, a Somali immigrant, and later Dutch parliamentarian, had written the script. For her outspokenness, Hirsi Ali, too, faced the death threat. She got protection initially, but after the government found that she had misrepresented her history while seeking refuge in the Netherlands, the authorities threatened to take away her citizenship (which refugee does not lie about her—or his—past?). Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands for the US (she is now back in Europe), pointedly reminding the Dutch that they had let down another young woman — Anne Frank — half a century ago.
As Ian Buruma, the Anglo-Dutch writer, noted in Murder in Amsterdam, his thoughtful meditation on the city: “Never again, said the well-meaning defenders of the multicultural ideal, must Holland betray a religious minority.” But what does a society do when one part of that minority — a woman such as Ayan Hirsi Ali — needs protection from another, an aggrieved fundamentalist?
Those seem like difficult questions, but in Prinsengracht that evening, the answer seems disarmingly simple, and pure, and white as snow.
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