Scarlett and I arrived in Amsterdam the day after the national election, which saw an 80% voter turnout and the re-election (in minority) of Mark Rutte with 21% of the vote. His closest rival, the anti-immigration candidate Geert Wilders, did not make the gains people feared he might (although he did gain), but the Green Party got far more votes than anticipated. It’s a bit mindboggling as there are something like 14 political parties in The Netherlands, most of whom have seats. Rutte will apparently need to join with 3 other parties to form a coalition government.
The election results seem comfortingly characteristic of The Netherlands, which has been progressive for a long time; assisted dying, marijuana and prostitution were all legalised years ago. The atmosphere is relaxed and respectful in Amsterdam. There is no evidence of the horrors anticipated by those staunchly opposed to legalizing such things. It feels no different from any other European city, except there are mad cyclists everywhere (watch your step!), and consequently fewer cars. The city feels safe and friendly. I could imagine living here (although my non-existent Dutch would be problematic).
It was, consequently, something of a shock to visit the house of Anne Frank, which stands in stark contrast to the atmosphere in Amsterdam today. The “house” is actually the warehouse annex where Anne and her family hid for two years (1942-44), before being discovered, arrested and shipped off to Auschwitz. Anne wrote most of her famous diary while in hiding.
Now transformed into a museum, the hour-long journey, up incredibly steep narrow staircases and into the long ago lives of the eight people who huddled in such close quarters there, is heart-wrenching. The rooms are no longer furnished, but each contains a photograph of what it looked like during that period. All the rooms are dark, as they were (the windows were covered, no one ever looked out). The entrance to the annex is concealed behind a bookcase, built for that purpose. Quotes from Anne’s diaries adorn the walls, as do the photos of movie stars and artists that she glued up to decorate her room, as any teenager would. The ongoing hope in her words is dashed by our knowledge of what happened. At the end of the tour, there are exhibits related to the Nazi arrests and concentration camps, and videos of Otto Frank, Anne’s father and sole survivor in the family, and a friend of Anne’s who tried to get food to her in the camp, just before she died.
Otto Frank made it his life’s work to get Anne’s diary published. She had hoped and planned to turn it into a book, to be called The Annex (and that is the title on the first publication). By now it has been translated into over 60 languages. I can’t imagine a more chilling testimony to the brutality of those times – precisely because it was not her intention to be chilling; she wrote from a position of youthful innocence, certain she would see freedom again. This site is well worth visiting (but book online or be prepared to wait in line for at least an hour.)
On our second full day in the city, we went to the Van Gogh Museum, also a very moving experience – and although it is tricky see parallels between Van Gogh and Anne Frank, I did. Two individuals, terrifically talented, cut off much too young. Hard to believe that Van Gogh really did all his painting (including teaching himself to paint) during a ten-year period – and how fantastic his work is. I had not previously realized how much his early work was influenced by the Dutch masters – all dark, gloomy, earthy – so different from the wild profusion of colour and swirls in his later work, drenched in the light of Provence.
Amsterdam itself is utterly charming – the canals captivating, architecture unique, people hardy, enthusiastic, and kind to fumbling foreigners. I took a canal boat tour and learned much about this thriving commercial centre. Built on land that is below sea level, Amsterdam takes its name from the famous dam built on the Amstel River that made the land habitable. The canals were created partly to provide drainage, partly for defence. Most of the houses (which I took for apartment buildings) lean in slightly towards the canals, and have pulleys attached to the gables, to draw goods up for attic storage or to clear them of the floods that occurred for centuries. In the 20th century, the construction of more dams and dikes cut the city off from the tides that caused so much flooding (well, something like that – its pretty complicated!)