263. Anne Frank House

Having studied Anne Frank’s diary quite intently at school (read the book, done the play watched the movie) I was really looking forward to the opportunity to see the actual house.

In what was actually quite a moving story, Anne Frank’s father, Otto, was the only one to survive after the family was eventually found and taken to the concentration camp. When he finally tracked down what had happened to each of his family members, rather than sell or destroy the house, he decided to preserve it as a reminder to all of what happened and what should never happen again, as well as publishing Anne’s diaries, one of the few true, detailed and personal accounts of just how much the war affected the individual.

I actually found Anne Frank House to be a great deal more emotional and moving than any other WWII memorial, even visiting a concentration camp, and I think the difference is how incredibly detailed and personal the story is, told as you move through the various levels and rooms in the house, and including both the lead up to the families deciding to hide in the annex, and what became of them afterwards. There were also a number of displays of what life was like in Amsterdam at the time, and just why it was a better option for them to spend so long trapped in a small space, unable to move or even use the toilet during the day.

The book case hiding the entrance

There was one particular moment which really struck a chord for me. When looking at an original yellow star in a display cabinet, next to a sign saying “No Jews Allowed,” I realised that for most people, the intended response is “gosh that kind of treatment was so awful.” Unfortunately, for many, “was” is not the correct word. That very morning I had logged in to my Facebook page and seen an update from a friend of mine who the night before had been told “No Niggers Allowed” at the door of a bar in Aarhus. It made me so angry that some people still don’t seem to have learned any lessons, but the kind of people that would say something like that to him are probably the same people who would nod and agree that the holocaust was terrible and how could they treat people like that. Further to the problem, it seemed to overwhelming response from Danish friends in this scenario was “don’t worry about it, let it go.” I would like to chalk that response up to the fact that Danish culture is a lot less confrontational, rather than that our Danish friends don’t seem to think that it was really wrong for him to be treated that way. Thankfully though, the Mayor of Aarhus invited him round to apologise, and a lawyer in Copenhagen got wind of it and is pursing the matter pro bono. It still makes me sick that people continue to treat eachother that way for no good reason though.

Back to the original post, despite my mind being elsewhere on that particular day, I thought Anne Frank House was one of the greatest museums I have been to, and think that anyone who has the opportunity should definitely go there. As well as the house itself the museum afterwards was really goo. At the end there was a display of original records all of the Frank family’s attempts to immigrate to other countries, including a very harsh rejection letter from the USA, which basically said no you can’t come and don’t try and apply again.

This lead to Claire and I getting into a pretty in depth debate about immigration policies both at the time and today. Why wouldn’t the US just let people in? They could have saved so many people! I had hoped there was a good reason, for example, Hitler declaring the USA couldn’t take any immigrants or XYZ would happen, but after doing a bit of research there doesn’t seem to be any reason that I would say remotely justifies such harsh immigration policies at the time. One site even says they only let 21,000 refugees in from Europe (as in, the whole continent) in the lead up to WWII. It seems that quotas were actually reduced in the United States, and the best excuse they could come up with was that they were worried about harbouring German spies.

A.D. Morse wrote:

“In 1938 the Nazis burned every synagogue in the nation, shattered the windows of every Jewish establishment, hauled twenty-five thousand innocent people to concentration camps, and forced the Jews to pay 1,000,000,000 marks for the damage.”… “Five days later, at a White House press conference, a reporter asked the President ‘Would you recommend a relaxation of our immigration restrictions so that the Jewish refugees could be received in this country?’ ‘This is not in contemplation,’ replied the President. ‘We have the quota system’.”

Of course there were other countries who could have helped but didn’t, the US is just one example. It really makes you question why countries who had so much power to help, didn’t. And why countries today who have so much power to help others, still don’t. The UNHCR reported that the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide has reached 43.7m (June 2011). Surely there must be a way to relax immigration laws without hiding behind excuses like “we’ll lose our culture” and “they’ll take our jobs,” especially when you consider all of the industries in places throughout the world reporting shortages of workers. I would argue there must be a possibility for countries to cooperate and be able to match people who need a better life to industries that need more people, thereby boosting economies, rather than every country creating a million and one administrative hoops to jump through.

Claire and I striking a pose outside before entering into a giant political debate about immigration laws!

Once again going back to the museum itself, most definitely deserving of mention was an interactive display “Free2Choose” (presumably made for school groups, but we loved it) that played short clips/interviews and presented political-ethical dilemmas, which visitors could submit their views/vote yes or no to questions at the end, the results of which were collated to present which way the majority of visitors voted etc. Topics included banning the Burqa and raids on Hip Hop concerts to find illegal immigrants. I thought it was a really great way to bring the lessons you were learning and the sympathy generated through Anne Frank’s story, and give people real life examples of current human right’s issues – not every visitor was watching an a 2012 version of 1940’s behaviour affecting their friends.

225. Old-New Synagogue, Prague

The Old-New Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe, and was built around 1270. It is famous for the story of the Golem of Prague.

Supposedly, the Rabbi (Judah Loew ben Bezalel) created a golem out of mud. When a Nazi officer went in to the attic (or Genizah, a storage place of old writings), the legend says the Golem came alive and killed him. Supposedly during the war the Gestapo didn’t enter the attic and the church was preserved. The attic isn’t open to the public, further preserving the mystery!

213. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is just outside of Berlin. What sets it apart from the others is that after the war it continued to be used to house Soviet Prisoners of War. It is now open as a memorial/museum.

Only a few of the buildings remained, but the size of the place was quite astounding – it was absolutely massive. When we arrived we all got audio guides, which were quite essential as most of the sites are simply an outline on the ground of what used to be there. There was so much information on the guide – you could spend all day listening to it. There was a lot to learn about what life was like, how many people were crammed in, and some of the horrible things that went on. For instance, I learned that there was a specially created running track, where prisoners who were being punished above and beyond the norm were sent to test the durability of shoes for the military by running around and around in circles and over different types of terrain until the shoes were worn out.Roll call area. Prisoners had to attend for the roll call three times daily, often standing for hours in the snow, and doing the "Sachsenhausen Salute"

The camp was primarily a work camp, with gas chambers only added later. They manufactured a great deal of furniture there, which lead me to wonder how far/wide the products of concentration camps spread around Germany and the rest of Europe, You would have to be so careful if you were buying antique furniture, for example, because it would be hard to know just how many lives were lost in the production of your chest of drawers.

There was also a quite horrific account of some young Polish boys who were infected with hepatitis, and subject to a number of test to determine the symptoms, including having a liver biopsy taken with no painkillers or anesthetic.Preserved Barracks

The audioguides were great, and quite necessary in a place like that, though I did feel that the information overload (it was all very factual) depersonalised the experience a bit, compared to a later visit to Anne Frank House, where you got a real sense of just how much the war affected the individual.

On learning about prisoner’s arrivals to the camp, and the ordeal they went through (including the “Sachsenhausen Salute” whereby prisoners were forced to squat on their knees with their arms outstretched for hours on end. If they faltered slightly they would be beaten), the thing that got me the most was that so many of the soldiers in the lower ranks seemed to take such delight in abusing the prisoners. It is easy to accept that Hitler, Goebbels et al were horrible and absolutely crazy for orchestrating such atrocities, but a concentration camp of that size requires such a huge amount of administration, and so many staff/soldiers to run it. Given the accounts of their behaviour I don’t think it is at all possible to say they were (all) just following orders or that they had their own consequences to be fearful of. Site of the gas chambers

In contrast, however, there were a few touches of hope and humanity throughout, particularly in the basement of the kitchen were prisoners had to prepare vegetables. The walls had some amazing murals painted on them, so I assume there was a bit more down time for them there, and a bit less supervision.Original mural in the cellar

203. Humboldt University

This one was actually part of the cycling tour, but it has quite an interesting story. The Humboldt University of Berlin was originally known for being a highly prestigious University, educating the likes of Karl Marx and Albert Einstein. During the war it gained fame for a much more tragic reason.

On May 10 1933, some 20,000 books written by “degenerates” were taken from the library and burned in the Opernplatz, after which Joseph Geobbels gave a speech to demonstrate against ideals not held by the NAZI party.

Today, there is a monument to the book burning which consists of a glass roof, where you can look down and see empty shelves, with enough space to hold 20,000 books. A plaque at the monument bears the following quote from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” (“That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people”).

As well as burning books, the NAZI party also passed a law that resulted in numerous academics being fired and having their doctorates revoked. It continues to astound me that around every corner there are more and more stories of horrible actions and events. It seems impossible to hear all of the things that went on – the sheer volume is insane.

199. The Holocaust Memorial

It is pretty hard to miss the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin – as it should be. It occupies an entire block and is made up of 2,711 concrete blocks of various sizes. The architect who designed it, Peter Eisenman, has specifically refrained from defining what it means, instead directing each visitor to come up with his/her own interpretation.

When we visited, we thought that perhaps it was meant to signify how from the outside, it doesn’t look nearly as vast, and you cannot see how deep it really goes. However, once you walk down in to the concrete blocks, the size of them rises sharply and you are surrounded with some that are up to five metres tall. The true size of the memorial doesn’t really hit you until you are right there in the middle of it, experiencing it.

193. Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus

Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus is one of the few large, NAZI-built buildings to survive Allied air raids in Berlin, and is a really good example of the intimidating style in which such buildings were built. It originally housed the Ministry of Aviation, and was designed to be so large that planes could land on the roof. Later, it became the House of Ministries of the GDR and finally, today, in a twist of irony it is the Ministry of Finance – possibly one of the most evil, intimidating buildings in Germany is now where the tax offices are.

In 1950, Max Linger was commissioned to come up with an 18m long mural depicting one big happy family of East Germans leading the GDR to economic success. Supposedly he was forced to revise the mural so many times that by its completion he hated the end result. The mural, and a series of information boards about how it was created, the controversey and the Uprising of 1953 in East Germany are all found on one of the corners of the building, and made for a really interesting read.

Former mural in the NAZI era