AMSTERDAM -- I climbed the narrow, steep steps to the attic of the Anne Frank House to look out the window at the tree that gave a young girl hope. The room is claustrophobic, as are all the rooms in this famous annex that was home for eight people hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Outside the window, the ever-present winter rain pelted a tall, bare chestnut tree, but the tree is not as healthy as it was when Anne Frank drew sustenance from it. In recent years, it has been attacked by a fungus, and insects eat at its green finery. There's a debate over whether it should be cut down. The museum has taken grafts from the tree so it can be replaced if it has to go, and an acorn from the tree has even been put up for auction on eBay.In this season, with the lights on Christmas trees celebrating the promise of renewal of life, the Frank house stands in bleak remembrance of the thousands who died in beautiful Amsterdam after the Nazis arrived. So much has been written about Anne Frank, and her diary so personalizes the Holocaust that it is often used for purposes far beyond commemorating a poignant literary document written by a young Jewish girl who wanted to be a writer. She had a writer's talent for finding simple details to express emotions and sensitivities. "The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings, otherwise I'd absolutely suffocate, " she wrote.
If Anne Frank were alive she would be 78 years old, so it's impossible to know what she would think of how her book is used (and sometimes abused) today. Visitors to the empty house she was forced to abandon when all its occupants were sent to the death camps are ushered into a high-tech gallery with animated cartoon figures and selected film clips meant to invite reflection on the contemporary issues of human rights. Unfortunately, the kitsch patronizes tourists and reduces complex questions to mere interactive toys. The most obnoxious character on the big screen is a kind of blobby, cartoonish guy who wears a Harvard cap to suggest that he's smart as well as cute.