Several days ago, I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I did not anticipate the deep sadness that welled up inside of me. I am an emotional person, and I am usually able to reign in and bracket deep emotions when I prepare for them. I thought I had prepared. This day I unwillingly felt the tears roll down my cheeks; I was unable to control the enormity of my sadness. The secret annex was located above the factory owned by Otto Frank. As we approached a custom-built bookcase, the opening of the secret annex or hiding place, I experienced a feeling much like my visit to Auschwitz many years ago. It is hard to describe; it is a mix of fear and sorrow. The bookcase was beautifully crafted, the craftmanship of the piece is admirable. At Auschwitz, the beautiful flowers and gardens struck me in the same way, as we approached the opening gate. In each of these places I found myself experiencing the ordinary, and it is the ordinary that hides the horror of what became reality for others.
At Auschwitz, I moved through the bunkhouses struck by the normalness of what had been a military post, before becoming a death camp. Quite suddenly I found myself overwhelmed by the seized personal items from the captives, the shoes, clothing, and baby items. Following these display cases was an entire bunkhouse of human hair behind a glass encasement. The effect on me was even more than items one might purchase, such as clothing. Hair belongs to the person, no one has the right to shave it or take it. This is when I began to experience the acts of dehumanization perpetuated on these captives. They were treated as persons lacking in dignity, the dignity that belongs to all of humanity. My tears flowed without control, while the mix of compassion and fear fought over my emotions, an unsettling deep sadness formed inside my heart. Our guide told us that the hair we saw was discovered by the Russians as they liberated the camp. He also informed us the Nazis would bundle the shaven hair, sending it back to Germany to be woven into the Nazi uniforms as wool had become a scarce resource. I remember my son, who was twenty at that time, turning to me saying, “So the Nazi’s quite literally wore their sins”. My reply was a mortified, “yes”. As I went through the remaining tour and on to Birkenhauer, I was unable to shake the sadness of how one set of people can dehumanize another. The living conditions had been deplorable and the treatment was inhumane. Dignity of personhood is not about how others view your dignity, but that you innately know your own dignity. It seemed to me that one would have to fight very hard to maintain the mental capability to see their own dignity under such dire circumstances. My lesson for that day incorporated this experience, as limited as it may have been,
In the house of Anne Frank, I was struck by the normalness of the living conditions. Although the living was anything but normal. Anne Frank describes in her diary the loneliness of her life. Being unable to go outside, to see friends, and just experience her life. The lack of fresh air would have devastated the human spirit in me. Air and sunlight are gifts meant for all of humanity. The experience of breathing in fresh air and feeling the warmth of the sun are necessary for the flourishment of the human person. The lack of these two simple but necessary human needs isolate the person and suffocate the spirit. This insufficient access would be enough to bring one to a deep place of sadness. I identified with Anne Frank’s description and incorporated them into my experience in the museum.
It is clear to me that her parents and the others living in the secret annex were anxious, but that they had a strong bond and trust. She and her sister Margot decorated their room with photos from magazines, a very normal teenage thing to do. Jan and Miep Gies, members of the Dutch resistance, celebrated their first anniversary in the secret annex; the menu for this celebration is on display in their bedroom. Again, all these normal activities through natural design lighten the experience of hiding and fear. I believe that fear and sadness dominated the inner core of each person, and despite hiding, life went on. The fear they must have experienced of creating any sound in the daytime struck me at my core. They feared anyone in the factory hearing and reporting their presence. I cannot fathom the tension that must have intertwined their experience. And yet I can also understand the boredom that must have penetrated each person as the need for quiet left them little to do. The quiet anonymity tied their survival to boredom, tension and fear.
At the end of the tour there are testimonies of others. Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, speaks about all that he did not know of his daughter’s thoughts and feelings. I cannot imagine the pain and sadness that he must have felt upon reading her diary. The unnecessary loss of his family must have been devastating. There are testimonies from others, famous and ordinary of her time and the present, on the importance of Anne Frank and her diary. For me, Anne Frank is a beacon that draws attention to the injustice of the Holocaust. My gut emotions remind me that she was a child bearing the weight of adult responsibility for self. This realization caused my tears to flow. No one should be robbed of life, of childhood, and of the ordinary. No one should live in fear of inhumane treatment. The anguish of fear and despair bought on by living without liberty is beyond what I know to be true for humans to flourish. The overwhelming sense of doom and injustice bear down on my chest and cause me to recognize Anne Frank not as an icon, but as a real person who reminds us of the perils of oppression and desolation created and perpetrated by others. What causes one to believe they have the right to prevent other humans from flourishing, and instead initiate abuse and annihilation? Is fear the main cause?
I fear the loss of this lesson through the passage of time. It has been two-thirds of a century since the atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust, in the big scheme of time this is minimal. Moreover, there have been dozens other attempted genocides which have occurred since, such as in Rwanda and the Bosnian-Serbian war in Central Europe. Is this not part of what is happening in Syria and elsewhere today? I hear and see anti-Islamic, anti-Mexican, and anti-immigration rhetoric today, similar to the anti-Semitic rhetoric as in the days of Anne Frank. Have I allowed others to speak out against the Anne Franks of a new holocaust and not raised my voice against them? Will there be other Otto Franks discovering the diaries of their children after it is too late to save them? Is the fear of terrorism preventing us, as humanity, from recognizing oppression and the need for sanctuary for the oppressed?
It is my belief that God is Love. That if we are to truly care for humanity in the ways of God, then we are to truly love. It should not matter how we worship, but how we live out vocation in caring for one another. That is God for me, that is love for me. I will forever speak out in whatever manner is necessary. If I am ostracized for my blunt speech, so be it. My vocation is to be a host for my Lord and thereby a host to all. Safety for the citizens of every country is a sovereign right, but part of that sovereignty requires the sanctuary for the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. I must hear their plight and come to their aid. Lady Liberty stands in the New York harbor as a reminder of our civic duty to one another. That is how I love. I am neither naïve or unaware that evil exist, but I truly believe that the defense to evil is love and mercy.
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