Amsterdam: City of Exposure..and Hiding

Amsterdam has become a city renowned for its more liberal approach to activities otherwise considered illegal in many countries, including the U.K. The garish smell of marijuana hits you from around many a corner, and the girls of the Red District tap the window when any men, unaccompanied by women, walk by. The city has become a haven for those seeking their highs or paid sex legally, as an escape from normal everyday life. However, there is so much more to Amsterdam than such things. Firstly, it was in this city that one individual, a teenage girl, emerged as a symbol of the Holocaust, and the diary she wrote has gone on to sell approximately 30 million copies worldwide.

Anne Frank House and Visitor Centre, Prinsengracht

Anne Frank's story is well enough known for me not to have repeat some of the finer details here, but I will give a short outline. Born in Frankfurt in 1929, the family emigrated to Holland around the same time that Hitler came to power in Germany. Amidst rising anti-Semitism, the Frank family went into hiding in the annexe of Otto Frank's - Anne's father's - company building. After a few family friends joined them, eight people lived in the secret annexe from 1942 until 1944, before they were betrayed and deported to concentration camps. Otto was the only member of the Frank family to survive the Holocaust.
Upon his return, he was presented with Anne's diaries that one of his co-workers, Miep Gies, had held onto in the hope that she would come back for them. 'The Secret Annexe', now more commonly known as 'The Diary of Anne Frank', was published in 1947 and is a fascinating insight into the mind of an adolescent girl growing up in such circumstances.
The house itself has remained largely untouched; the visitor centre and bookshop are in the building next door. Otto Frank wished for the annexe to remain unfurnished as it was when those in hiding were taken away. This, presumably, is also for ease of access, as the rooms are small and the number of visitors high. What does remain, however, are the clippings and photographs that Anne kept on her wall; of movie stars, a young Queen Elizabeth II, and a few cartoons. It is easy to forget Anne's age and innocence from her mature style of writing, but for me, these certainly reinforced a youth that was snatched away all too soon, for no real reason.

There are quite a few memorials and monuments dedicated to World War II and the Holocaust in Amsterdam, including a small statue of Anne Frank just around the corner from her former hiding place. From those that I saw, the one that caught my interest the most is located in Wertheim Park, only a few seconds' walk from the hotel my partner and I stayed in. The park appears popular with dog owners; on our last day of the trip, we sat and watched a plethora of dogs of different sizes and breeds playing together. In one corner of the park, though, is the striking memorial which you can see below.

Holocaust memorial in Wertheim Park. The sign says 'Nooit Meer Auschwitz' - literally 'Never Again Auschwitz'

Below the sign is a large area of shattered mirrors, presumably designed in such a way as to make the viewer empathise with the shattering of lives and confusion and/or loss of identity felt by those persecuted during the Holocaust. The self-reflection of the mirrors also allows one to question: What would I have done in that situation? Would I have hidden myself away, like the Franks? What would I have done if it was me and my family being deported to a concentration camp? Perhaps also, however, it is a stark reminder that it was mankind who created the Holocaust, and mankind who could do it again: no monsters, just real people.

For those who plan to visit Amsterdam one day just for the more liberal culture, I also strongly advise visits to the more credible sights. As well as the Anne Frank House, there are various museums and art galleries, as well as opportunity for some lovely walks along the canals. Despite its reputation, there is a lot more to Amsterdam than may meet the reveller tourist's eye.