It was still Monday December 3 1973 and the large amount of beer I had consumed at the end of the brewery tour was still sloshing around in my belly, and the alcohol (which, unlike in the States with its shitty beer, was only half the motivation for drinking the good stuff here in Europe) was still juicing my brain. So it was a jovially tipsy frizzy haired eighteen year old in an orange poncho that grinned at the twenty-something male ticket agent with his well-ironed collared shirt and short coiffed hair. And in keeping with the trend since I’d gotten into town, he spoke a fair amount of English, enough to not only sell me my tickets, but give me the necessary logistical details for my travel to England.
I would start my journey by train from Amsterdam to the Hook of Holland port in the south part of Rotterdam, which was itself a huge industrial port city, Europe’s largest port even. I would then have a short walk to the boarding platform for a ferry that would take me across the North Sea to the English port town of Harwich. From there I would board a British train on to Colchester. The combined train, ferry, then train cost 43 Dutch guilders, about $12 U.S., gratefully within my budget, given my diminishing remnant of funds with still a week of travel and living expenses to finance. I thought it was so cool that I was able to buy a ticket in one country’s train station for a train in another country, even another country with a body of water intervening. It seemed so much less parochial and more international than how we interacted with the world in the States.
I would hopefully hook up with Ceil and Ilya Kane, who lived in Colchester, and spend a night or two with them, and then head on to Oxford to visit the Clays again before returning to London Heathrow for my return flight to the States. The Kane’s were the couple that my mom had worked out to trade houses with four summers ago. My mom, my brother and I had lived in their house outside Oxford for the summer while they lived in ours in Ann Arbor, where Ilya attended a special summer program at the University of Michigan.
From the train station I decided to take the bus to the American Express office to pick up any mail I might have from the States. When I got there, even though it was cold and rainy, there were dozen or so of my young adult cohort standing out in front of the big office entrance, hawking their mostly VW vans and a few other assorted cars for sale that were parked up and down the street, like some hippie used car lot. Several apparent transactions were in progress as I walked by, with other young mostly long haired types in their assorted ponchos or other raingear looking inside the cars, haggling, or taking test drives to make sure the thing ran and the clutch was not shot.
Buying a van for several months was one of the main transportation alternatives to purchasing a rail pass or hitchhiking, and was generally pretty cost effective if you were able to successfully sell the thing at the end of your travels. It was a good option, particularly if you wanted to visit lots of places outside the big cities or otherwise outside the beaten path, and a van in particular could also serve as lodging when needed. Zo and Randall, who had picked up Steve and I when we were hitchhiking from Paris to Spain, had bought their VW van in Amsterdam for $500 and planned to sell it, hopefully for about the same price, before they returned to their native Canada.
All big city ‘AmEx’ offices I had visited were havens for young travelers like me, and the Amsterdam office was doubly so. Besides the car sales out front, the main lobby of the place was crawling with my cohort, some engaged with the office staff in currency exchange or receiving money wired from families in their home countries. Others using pay phones to call back home to check in with family and maybe to ask for more money to be wired to them. Still others, like me in this case, receiving mail from friends and family. And other various transactions were happening more informally between members of my cohort – closing financial arrangements and paperwork around a car purchase, finding new travel partners, even the changing hands of money around a hash purchase or two (so I was told at least), the merchandise itself trading hands more privately outside or even in the restroom.
Comfortably amidst my now so familiar cohort, and still tipsy from all the beer at the brewery, I sat and read my mail. There was a letter from my friend Avi confirming that they had bought me a ticket to the Alice Cooper concert on December 12, the evening after I was scheduled to return home. Now that I had secured my passage back to England within my tight budget, I was relaxing into the home stretch of my journey, getting really excited about my flight home and seeing my family and friends again. The continuing connection with my circle of close friends, which Avi’s letter meant for me, calmed my concerns yesterday on the train from Munich about having been away so long and fearing that life back home had gone off in new directions without me. Avi, Jerry and Clark were looking forward to my return, would all be there for the concert, and had plenty of weed to share.
A more disturbing letter had come from my mom. After filling me in on everyone that had been at Thanksgiving and confirming plans to go down to Dayton for Christmas with Aunt Pat, she shared with me that she had found out that ‘your father’ was living with a woman, Mary, and that she was ‘very concerned’ about it. My mom had had no idea he even was in any kind of a relationship with a woman. My brother and I had met Mary a couple times, knew that she and my dad had some sort of thing, but had no idea that it was so serious, and had not shared anything about Mary with my mom. My mom and dad had divorced eight years ago, but neither had remarried, and though my dad lived 200 miles south of the rest of us and had his own life, we still functioned in many ways like a family unit. Through all those years my dad had continued to tell my mom that he hoped they could get back together, that my mom should give him another chance.
My mom wrote that she had called my dad to clarify what was going on between him and Mary and he had told her that they were close to deciding to marry each other. My mom was livid, since he had not shared with her he even had a relationship with ‘that woman’, let alone such a serious one. The next day he called her back and said that she had misinterpreted what he had told her on the previous call. Though he and Mary had had a relationship, and talked briefly at one point about the possibility of getting married, they actually had no plans to.
Though I knew my mom was doing her best to keep me in the loop on a complicated and troubling matter, what she had written generated a bunch of questions and concerns in my head that her words left unaddressed. What the fuck was really going on? I knew my dad was bad about sharing any very personal details, and probably never let on to my mom that he and Mary had had any relationship at all. So was he telling the truth in their first phone conversation or the second? I also knew my mom could easily panic and jump to wild conclusions. But what if he did decide to marry Mary for real, how would that impact my mom and our household, since we depended on him for financial and other support? Was my family just a house of cards, a threadbare cloth coming unraveled in my absence? It all reinforced my need to just get home. To be there to talk my mom down from all this, since I was one of the few people in her life that she could vent to about such things. I guess that in all my shyness and circumspection I had become a good listener, plus one not quick to judge.
All that beer, cheese and cheese curls from the brewery, sloshing around in my stomach was making me feel kind of queasy, but I was doing my best to ignore it and just enjoy the buzz of the alcohol carrying me through a cold rainy day in this enchanting city. But the letter from my mom had doubled that queasiness and it seemed to be bordering on nausea. That along with some coughing and sneezing as my immune system continued to recover from a cold.
I exited the AmEx office, back out into the cold rain, headed back in the general direction of the hostel. I was fortuitous enough to encounter a little bakery selling fresh baked bread. Amsterdam continued to take care of me in all its ways! I bought some bottled water and a small loaf of rye bread laced with caraway seeds, hot out of the oven, and consumed it as I sat at a high counter looking out the big front window of the bakery out onto the wet street with its frenetic cars and buses, and plenty of intrepid pedestrians braving the elements.
My queasiness subsided, and thanking this seemingly sentient city, I ventured back out in the street with the other pedestrians, encased in my poncho. I wasn’t really headed anywhere in particular, alcohol still stewing my brain a bit, but feeling the need to be very much in the elements, in the moment, rather than thinking about things back home that I could do nothing about for another week at least. I just walked in what felt like a good direction, content to let Amsterdam present whatever was next on its itinerary for me.
I came across the Anne Frank House. I almost walked right by it without noticing the small museum sign on the side of the building. It was just another one of those typical three-story brick townhouses that lined the city’s streets. So given the agreed rules of engagement between me and the city, I walked in and bought a ticket.
I had read Anne’s story, The Diary of Anne Frank, in a junior high English class, and had been duly taken by the gripping, highly personal, and ultimately heartbreaking narrative of the last three years of her life, as told by her journal entries, and the final chapter of her life, dying of typhus in a Nazi concentration camp, as reconstructed by her father. I had then revisited her story in my last year of high school when my theater group performed the theatrical version of the book, where I played Otto Frank, Anne’s dad. Of the four members of his family and the other four people who had hid and secretly lived in the building for two years before being discovered by the police and taken away, he was the only one to survive the concentration camps. At the end of the war he had been given the rescued drafts of Anne’s diary and had published them in book form.
As I read in the museum displays, Otto had moved his family from Germany in 1933 when the company he worked for had tapped him to run their new operation in Amsterdam, manufacturing and distributing pectin, used as the gelling agent in jams. As a jew, he had been eager to leave Germany after Hitler’s election as German Chancellor earlier that year. Seven years later in December of 1940, he had moved the company’s operation from another location in town to this building.
When Otto’s older daughter Margot received a summons to report to a Nazi work camp in Germany in July of 1942, the family decided they had to go into hiding. Otto figured that the top two floors of the “Achterhuis” (Dutch for “back house”) of the building was their best possible bet for a hiding place. The five small rooms included a washroom, toilet, and a small kitchen, having previously been a small laboratory for a chemist employed by Otto’s company. They concealed the one entrance door to these hidden rooms behind a movable bookcase, and Otto’s employees – knowing that he, his family, his business partner and his business partner’s wife, were in hiding above them – continued to run the company down below during the twenty-five months they hid up there. They also continued to provide them with food, other supplies as needed, and news of the occupation and the war’s progress.
Being a lover of interesting and quirky interior spaces, I was fascinated by the configuration of the building’s offices, storerooms, and particularly the ‘secret annex’ up in the back, which was surrounded by other buildings forming a quadrangle, so the annex was not visible from the street. I recalled the two-level set from our show, including Anne and Margot’s room on the lower level, and the kitchen/family room above.
And now finally reading Otto Frank’s story as presented in the museum, I felt a much greater connection to his character. Unfortunately, I had not taken the time to research this backstory when I performed his part in our play. My level of commitment as an actor to my craft was not as great as it probably should have been. I recalled having done a passable job playing his part, looking appropriately careworn and concerned in all my scenes and not forgetting my lines. But being in the real space gave me quite a different perspective. When I entered the door behind the movable bookcase I recalled the very poignant scene in the play when Otto returns to the place after the war, his family now all dead, he the only survivor.
It was also poignant to read that after the families had been discovered and taken away, Otto’s two female employees, who had helped the families while they were in hiding, had risked returning to the place against the orders of the Dutch police, and found the pages of Anne’s diary scattered on the floor and recovered them, before the Gestapo and the Dutch police came back and ransacked the place. They gave them to Otto when he returned to Amsterdam after the war. If the two women had not done so, the people of the world today would probably know nothing of Anne’s powerful story, which millions had read since its publication.
I also had not known that after reading her diary, Otto confessed that he had no idea his daughter was such a deep thinker and talented writer. Thus, I thought, was the gulf between parents and their children, that a dad would not be aware of the gravitas of his daughter, even after living with her in the next room, confined in this small space together for twenty-five months. That resonated with my own sense that my parents’ generation – the moms, dads, teachers and other ‘adults’ of my own world – for the most part did not appreciate the transformational vision of their progeny, my own age peers. To Otto Frank’s credit, once he realized what his progeny had wrought, he made the necessary effort to get the diary published, and then fought successfully to keep this building from being torn down in favor of a new structure, and eventually raised the money to turn it into the museum that it still was today.
Better late than never I thought, but way too late for Anne! I imagined Anne in her last days, skin covered with scabies, dying of typhus in squalid conditions surrounded by hate and death, her sister Margot, even sicker than Anne, having died two days earlier. Anne assuming the rest of her family was probably dead as well, her diary lost, confiscated by the authorities, her one meaningful contribution to posterity. Did she die in despair or still with that sense of hope that imbued her diary? It made me sad, but angry as well, thinking at some level that this must never happen again, but with no clear idea of how to make that so.
Death had not really been a part of my own life. Yeah President Kennedy had been killed, then Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy, and all those young soldiers in Vietnam. But those were all just news stories to me with impact to my parents maybe, but no visceral impact to me, no hole in my own life. My maternal grandmother had died, far away in Binghamton New York, but we didn’t go to the funeral and I really didn’t have much connection with her. Just one day my mom told me that my grandmother had died of a heart attack. I said “Oh wow”, but nothing changed for me, again no sense of anything lost. And there was that kid on my Little League team, Billy, the coach’s son, who had been hit in the head by a hard hit baseball, and then just died the next day. I think I was no longer playing on that team at that point, and Billy and I weren’t friends, just former teammates. Perhaps I was just totally in denial, since I had not had any sort of brush with death myself nor had anyone that was actually a part of my life die or be in danger of doing so.
Really pondering death now, as I processed Anne’s story, Dylan’s song, ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, came into my head, and I remembered those two German guys in the Koblenz youth hostel singing the song in English with their German accents. The circumstances of the song were certainly very different than Anne’s, but in both cases a young person was trying to come to grips with, and make peace with, their own impending death…
Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it any more
It’s getting dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knocking on Heaven’s door
Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them any more
That long black cloud is coming down
I feel I’m knocking on Heaven’s door
Baby stay right here with me
‘Cause I can’t see you anymore
This ain’t the way it’s supposed to be
I feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door
Though not having had any sort of close encounter with death myself, I did have a powerful imagination with which to imagine what it would be like to be lying there feeling my life force slipping away, extinguishing. Dylan’s sparse lyrics certainly captured a view into the experience for me. I could only begin to imagine Anne’s. But such a talented soul with so much to contribute, snuffed out before, or at least thinking before, she could make any real contribution to the world. Would I have a life where I could make a real contribution before whatever circumstances ended it?
So feeling sad, troubled and angry, and now mostly sober, I donned my poncho and headed back out into the cold inclement world. A world where just three decades earlier, a cadre of my fellow human beings, either freely choosing or at least not choosing to resist this hateful Nazi ideology, had methodically rounded up and exterminated millions of people, before they were finally stopped. Such a stain on the story of our human species.
Less than three weeks from the winter solstice and as far north as Amsterdam was, it was already getting dark. I felt suddenly very fatigued and weak, like my body needed to shut down very very soon. Luckily I was just a short walk down the street from the hostel, and I barely even responded to Greta when she acknowledged me as I went by her check in table and up to the male bunk room. It was pretty empty at that early hour except for a group of people clustered in the corner of the room. And to the faint aroma of burnt hashish I quickly transitioned into unconsciousness.