A Cultural Day in Amsterdam

On Saturday, September 14th, Dan and I had plans to visit the Anne Frank house. Possibly the most famous thing in Amsterdam, other than the red light district and the “coffee”shops, it had been on our agenda for our week in Amsterdam but we had left it towards the end due to the fact that we knew the visit would be less than uplifting.

So at 4 in the afternoon on Saturday (they are open everyday until 9pm!) we headed over. And what do we see on the door but a “closed for Yom Kippur” sign. Now, I knew it was Yom Kippur, but seeing as they are open every Saturday, or the sabbath for Jews, I just assumed the museum would be open on Yom Kippur as well. In fact, later that night when we were back home the internet confirmed that Yom Kippur is the only day of the year that they are closed! Woops.

So to rescue the afternoon, we walked around the corner to the Old Church (or¬†Oude Kerk in Dutch). When we got there we were handed a little booklet that did not explain anything about the church but instead explained that September 14th and 15th were “Heritage Amsterdam” days, which meant all kinds of cool buildings around the city were free and open to the public. We were running out of time on Saturday as all of the monuments close at 5 on these two days, so we made a plan to go and see some on Sunday as well, not wanting to miss out on such a cool event.

I will only highlight one “monument” and the Anne Frank house because 1) my mom asked me to write about them because she “may never get to see them” herself and 2) Yom Kippur had just passed the day before so it seems appropriate.

The morning of September 15th Dan and I headed out on a bright but blustery day to see the monuments. Our first stop was the Portuguese Synagogue.

Portuguese Synagogue interior

Portuguese Synagogue interior

The brief background that I’ll give about the synagogue is that it was built in the 17th century during the Dutch “golden age” by Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the inquisition. The Netherlands was known for allowing freedom of religion, which is why so many Jews migrated there. At the time of its construction, it was the biggest synagogue in the world, and I can confirm that it is very big. More info can be found on the Wikipeidia page. We particularly liked the high, barrel-like wooden ceilings. Many of the benches are also original to the synagogue, dating to the 1670’s. It was amazing to think that the previous day this synagogue had been filled with hungry, repentant Jews. It was so quiet when we were there!

I was certainly glad to have seen the synagogue, but I am especially glad that it was on that day where many famous spots in the city were free. Admission to the Portuguese Synagogue is normally 12 euros. In my opinion, that is ridiculous. In fact, the sticker prices on most monuments and museums in continental Europe are insane. It means I have to choose museums carefully so I don’t leave the place feeling stupid that I just spend $20 to see nothing of value. Okay, end rant.

After the Portuguese Synagogue we walked clockwise along the¬†Prinsengracht canal to the Anne Frank House. For those of you who have not read Anne’s book, you should. I was – when I read the book in middle school – and still am amazed that a 13-15 year old could have written so eloquently about a time and experience that my 27 year old brain cannot really comprehend.

The museum and house itself were interesting, but not new to anyone who has read the book. In 1960 Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only person in the family who survived the war, turned the house into a living monument to what World War II did to a family from Amsterdam. He decided to keep the actual “secret annex” where the Frank family and 4 others lived empty so a visitor can experience the loss as well. Dan and I understand why that choice was made, but in a way it made it harder to immerse yourself in the story while walking around empty rooms. The part that touched me the most was after you walked through the annex, you went to a museum of Anne and her family, their deaths at many different concentration camps, and a room dedicated to Anne’s actual diary. Seeing her words written in her handwriting (though, I couldn’t understand it as it was written in Dutch! Luckily, the museum added English translations next to each page) really moved me. It was the physical diary that made her real to me.

The last thing Dan and I really like in the museum part of the house was the room where they give you examples of various situations happening around the world relating to racism and extremism and you have to pick what the “right” thing to do is. Often these relate to first amendment rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Do people have the right to express hatred of others, or say things that could incite violence? Where do we draw the line on our freedoms? Germany has many anti-antisemitic laws on the books, including a law making it a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust. But Germany also has laws meant to suppress neo-Nazism, such as that certain combat boots with white laces are illegal. Where do we draw the line on freedom of expression? It was an interesting debate and I appreciated it being there.

Sorry for the lack of pictures from the Anne Frank House. They do not allow pictures inside, so I will leave you with a picture Dan took of me while we were waiting on line to get in.

It's a little windy out. Anne Frank House Museum in the background.

It’s a little windy out. Anne Frank House Museum in the background.

And on that note… We will be back soon with some more travel posts!