My journey to paddle in front of the Anne Frank house started in 2011 when I first read The Diary of Anne Frank. I had just begun teaching middle school English Language Arts. Before then, I had shied away from studying World War II and the Holocaust because I found it too upsetting. But when I read Anne’s diary, I felt an instant connection with her. I chose to teach the Holocaust to my students through the lens of the Upstanders, the helpers. This focus drew us to Anne and her helpers. Throughout my own studies, I had a feeling that one day I would paddle up to her window.
In June of 2022, my chance came when my husband and I traveled to Europe to visit many of the places I had learned about while studying the Holocaust and World War II. In Amsterdam, we began at Anne’s family’s apartment and the memorial statue in Merwedeplein Square. We traced the route she and her family walked when they went into hiding. We walked past the bookstore where her father bought her diary and the former ice cream shop she loved to visit as we made our way toward the Secret Annex.
Having stood in the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise, Idaho—featuring a life-size statue of Anne Frank—reading her diary, and studying about the helpers, I thought I had mentally prepared for this moment. I had not. Tears stained my cheeks as I walked from room to room, touching the walls that hid Anne and her family, and peering out the windows. I felt the weight of physically being in the same space as her.
The display of her marbles took me back to sixth grade and the endless, joyful hours I spent playing marbles with friends. Anne had to give hers away when she went into hiding. (They were later donated back to the Annex.) Looking out of the windows of that tiny space, I felt the pull to not only look outside but to be outside. My love of paddling and the freedom it represented in this place overwhelmed me.
Our small group wove our kayaks through the canals dodging boat traffic and passing a mix of modern houseboats and ones that had housed generations of families. Plants, flowers and laundry swayed in the morning air. I thought of Anne as I paddled. What other thoughts did she have as she watched the canals? What if she had escaped in a boat? Had others successfully do so? As we approached the junction with the Prinsengracht Canal the traffic slipped away. I floated outside her window, my excitement battled against the heartache.
Anne didn’t have the option of being outside. In her diary, she reflected on the world she could only see from a distance. “But I’m just talking nonsense; besides, there are other things to see—cars, boats, and rain…There is a houseboat immediately opposite, where a bargeman lives with his family.”
To witness freedom and human dignity but not be allowed to be part of it is beyond my comprehension. I felt the best way for me to honor Anne was to paddle up to where the houseboat once floated. To float and to think about what Anne saw from her window, and to remember Anne and all those who were killed during the Holocaust. I needed to feel this place, this connection, in my boat, in my body and in my heart.
In the canal in Amsterdam, the confluence of my passions met: my love of paddling and my love of Anne Frank and her dreams for the world. Incredibly, she was able to say, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Through my paddling, I will hold her dreams for a peaceful world full of acceptance, diversity, and inclusion. May we Paddle in Peace.
If you would like to paddle in the Prinsengracht Canal up to the Secret Annex, contact Ed Janning at firstname.lastname@example.org.