PILGRIMAGE: Amsterdam, Holland—Hoping No Matter What by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Amsterdam, Holland—Hoping No Matter What by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

A young mother plods across the snow-covered bridge, tugging a tiny sled made entirely of wood.  On it sits a rosy-cheeked child in a blue snowsuit, holding on with both mittens.  I pick my way carefully along the narrow icy sidewalk that runs beside Amsterdam’s Prinsegracht canal.  The white cover of snow glistens in the January sun, a startling contrast to the jet black water.

In the seventeenth century, when Holland was one of the great commercial powers of the world, Amsterdam’s merchants built the canals that give the city her unique character.  On the narrow streets alongside each canal they built endless rows of stately brick houses that peer down into the water this afternoon.

In this particular neighborhood, the waterfront buildings are more modest, and some have small businesses on their ground floors.  I arrive in front of number 263 Prinsegracht.  At the time of the Nazi invasion of Holland, this was a factory and warehouse belonging to a Mr. Kugler, a dealer in spices.  Two of his employees, Herman van Pels and Otto Frank, were Jews.  During the worst days of the German occupation, when Jews were being hunted down and deported to death camps, Kugler let his two employees hide with their families in a secret set of rooms in the back of his warehouse.

Anne Frank's diaryAmong the eight people in hiding was Frank’s daughter, Anne, a bright and sensitive girl who had just turned thirteen when they entered the annex.  During two years of hiding she kept a diary that was found and published after her death.  This book, The Diary of a Young Girl, has touched the hearts of millions of readers throughout the world, and has made number 263 Prinsegracht into a grisly pilgrimage shrine.

There is nothing to distinguish the building from the others on the block: its narrow brick façade is taken up almost entirely by large windows that stare wide-eyed at the street and the canal.  I stamp the snow off my boots and climb several steps into a very simple lobby where I pay the admission charge for a visit to “The Anne Frank House.”

I follow a couple of other visitors up a narrow wooden stairway to the second floor.  The old stairs protest noisily, creaking under our feet.  On the landing at the top, I see the bookcase that swung on hinges to conceal the secret stairs leading to the hidden rooms in back.  The first room beyond it, now bare of furniture, is the Franks’ living room where Mr. and Mrs. Frank slept.  Next to it is Anne’s cubicle that she’d decorated with pictures of movie stars.  Some of the yellowed clippings are still on the wall just as she describes them.  Excerpts from her diary are posted in appropriate places in the different rooms.  There has been no attempt to recreate the mood of the place with substitute furniture or sound effects.  Nor is there any need to – the empty rooms are alive with the sad, courageous spirits of the frightened people who hid here for two years.  Having read Anne’s diary myself, I feel I know them all: Mrs. and Mrs. Frank and their first daughter, Margot; Mr. and Mrs. Van Pels and their son, sixteen-year-old Peter; and Fritz Pfeffer.

The spirit of the owner, Mr. Kugler, is here, too, along with those of his employees Miep and Jen Gies and other selfless people who risked their own lives every day for two years to support the eight fugitives, bringing them food and supplies, local news, and much-needed encouragement.

The person whose presence I sense most of all, of course, is Anne – sensitive, passionate, insightful, courageous, and optimistic.  The recent complete and unexpurgated edition of her diary shows her to be, in addition, a headstrong and self-centered teenager given to normal outbursts of immaturity and moodiness.  She had hoped to be a writer someday.

As I climb the steps to the top floor that doubled as the kitchen and as the Van Pels’s bedroom, I start to sense another presence in these rooms, something both subtle and overwhelming at the same time.  It is the sinister sense of evil that floats through the whole place like some poisonous haze.  Anne Frank’s hideout is crowded with millions of ghosts: not only the Jews of the Holocaust, but every victim of Central American death squads, every American Black lynched by Klansmen in the middle of the night, every political prisoner ever kidnapped and tortured, every woman and child victim of genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Downstairs, fists begin pounding on the secret door – the one hidden behind the bookcase.  Rifle butts and Gestapo boots crash through the thin wood and into the hiding place.  It is August 4, 1944.  All eight of the occupants are quickly dragged off to concentration camps at Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.  The young girl’s diaries are left scattered on the floor.

Miep Gies will gather them up the next day and put them away for safekeeping, unread.

Anne Frank will die in Bergen-Belsen, three months short of her sixteenth birthday, just weeks before the Allies arrive to liberate the camp.  Her mother and sister will die, too.  Only Otto Frank will survive.

Weighed down with pessimism about the future of humanity, I force myself to keep moving through the last tiny room and follow the tour arrows down some narrow stairs.  In the small ground-floor museum, there are several displays about present-day racism and political repression.  Large placards hold quotations from Anne’s diary.  One of them seems particularly poignant under the circumstances:

In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.  If I look up to the heavens, I think that this will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

I’m not sure whether to be uplifted by Anne’s courageous spirit or depressed by the power of the hatred that killed her.  Finally depression wins – I’ve had about all the hatred and killing I can take for one day.

As I step outside, the cold, damp wind rushing across the Prinsegracht bites into my cheeks.  I wrap my scarf over my mouth and nose and set off through the frozen streets with a heavy heart.  Soon I’m back in the crowded center of town where streetcars and bicycles spatter through the slush in the cloudy gray afternoon.  Squat, sturdy boats rumble mournfully about their business on the icy ink of the Heerengracht canal.

I’m snapped out of my gloomy thoughts by an unexpected splash of color off to my left.  A poster-sized photograph is sparkling in the window of a bus tour agency: bright yellow tulips stretch endlessly across a field beneath a clear blue sky.  Alongside the picture are the dates and prices for the spring tours of tulip fields that are still buried in snow this afternoon.  I step closer to the plate glass window for a better look.  It’s a lovely picture: acres of tulips glowing in the warm spring sunshine, inviting me to come and join them.

I stand still for a few moments trying to put myself into the photograph.  I try to feel the warm breeze on my face and the sun on my back.  I try to smell the rich aroma of the moist, fertile soil and touch the velvet petals.  But it doesn’t work – this is just not tulip season.

Sometimes Jesus expects to meet me in the pain of a difficult or depressing situation, so I better show up there to meet him.  The cross is, after all, our unique way into the mysterious suffering heart of God.  Well, this afternoon, the Lord of Love is obviously not looking for me in that meadow of Easter flowers, but on this slushy sidewalk.  The voice of the One who died and rose is speaking to me not from the glorious empty tomb, but from the ominous empty rooms of the Anne Frank House.

My hands are getting cold even inside my gloves, so I clap them together a few times to help the circulation as I turn wistfully from the tulip field.  I continue crunching my way carefully down the icy sidewalk.

Reflection

Our Earthly pilgrimage, like Jesus’s, includes suffering and even death, but our faith assures us that human suffering, far from being an absurd accident, is somehow an integral part of our own story, just as it was of Christ’s.  What is your own experience of the mystery of suffering?  Do you find that it brings you close to God, or does it just push you farther away?  Ask the Lord to give you the sense of confidence in God that Jesus had as he made his way up to Jerusalem.

 

Sacred Scripture (Isaiah 50:5-8)

The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.  I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.  For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.

 

Rule of Benedict (Chapter 7, “Humility,” vv. 35-36)

The fourth step of humility is that in this obedience under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions, his heart quietly embraces suffering, and endures it without weakening or seeking escape.

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