A Tree in Amsterdam

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Dec 24, 2007 12:01 AM
A Tree in Amsterdam

Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs, from my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, and the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy. -- Diary of Anne Frank

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.

We're asked to vote "yes" or "no" on a series of complicated issues such as defining permissible degrees of censorship, rights of privacy and religious freedom, all framed in narrow contexts designed for short attention spans. Should the Danish cartoons that mocked the radical Islam have been published? After 9/11, was George W. Bush right to say that "We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism . . . Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists? "

After the visitor presses a button to answer, the screen flashes the result, as well as how everyone else voted. On the day I was there, the votes were fairly evenly divided. Each generation following World War II frames the Holocaust to fit its own perceptions of evil. Anne Frank becomes a Rorschach test; she is both a single victim of anti-Semitism and a universal example of "man's inhumanity to man." Her story speaks of heroes who sought to save her and her family and friends, testifying to a braver nature in mankind -- a tale of both horror and hope.

As I walked out of the house, I watched a man dressed in a St. Nicholas costume dart into a pub nearby for something to warm himself against the wintry chill. I was reminded that in her diary, Anne wrote of enjoying Hanukkah, but that "St. Nicholas Day was much more fun." Amsterdam is ablaze with lights and music during the festive holiday season, but the trees along the canal suddenly looked weighted down by a heavy dark rain falling from a blackened sky.

Anne's diary, as presented on Broadway and by Hollywood, focused on the words she wrote: "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart." This is the season to contemplate once more the hope of the holidays. Merry Christmas, everyone.