Last summer I had the opportunity to travel around Europe stopping in a number of countries. Today I will be looking at two museums I visited, the first in Amsterdam and the second in Berlin. Both museums despite being 409 miles apart due to the horrors of the Holocaust bear a similar story. The first of these museums is the Anne Frank Huis, the site of the annexe that a teenage Anne Frank hid with her family and four others hoping to avoid being sent to concentration camps, which sadly as I’m sure everyone knows failed when they were discovered by the Gestapo. The second museum is far less known, Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. The museum is based where the German Otto Weidt had his workshop which specialised in hiring blind workers. Weidt himself was blind, and during the years that the Nazis ruled Germany Weidt hired and hid disabled Jews in an attempt to rescue them from deportation. Sadly the story ended similarly to those who hid in the annexe, with few surviving the war.
Other than the above similarities I decided to write about the two of these together for one simple reason: the story of Anne Frank is known across the world, especially in the West even by those who know little about history while Otto Weidt is not. This was true for me too. My first exposure to Anne Frank was via Anne Frank: The Whole Story, a 2001 TV adaptation, sometime around this time as I can’t find the British premiere date. I would’ve been about seven years old and despite being quite traumatized due to the depiction of the reality of the camps, I quickly became fascinated by Anne and her story. I attempted to read the diary at this age but unsurprisingly struggled and reattempted when I was about ten. I decided that one day I would visit the Anne Frank Museum, but this would not be possible until 2016. My decision to visit the Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind however does not have the same lengthy history. Throughout both my education and own research I learnt of the millions of others like Anne Frank who suffered. During my GCSEs I was given the opportunity to visit Auchwitz concentration camp, Oskar Schnindler’s factory and the Krakow Ghetto with my school. I’ve spent many hours reading about the people who tried to escape the Holocaust and those who risked their lives to help them. Otto Weidt, however, I did not find out about in any of those ways; my sister found the museum as she trawled Trip Advisor reviews when she was looking for things to do in Berlin. Therefore prior to my visit my own knowledge was what I had been told by her, a far cry from what I knew about Anne Frank.
For such a famous museum it is surprising to learn that the Anne Frank Huis only has around a million visitors a year; however once you’ve been inside it isn’t so surprising simply because how small the annexe is. Since its opening to the public in 1960 the museum has been expanded into the neighboring building and extensive works have taken place to allow footfall, but the annexe has been carefully preserved to give visitors a full appreciation of the cramped conditions the eight lived in. I’ve read the diary, I’ve seen numerous adaptations of the story and I’ve read extensively about the annexe but there is nothing quite like being in there to realise how small it was. Anne’s frustration becomes so understandable.
Otto Frank insisted that there be no furniture in the annexe and therefore each room contains a photo of each room reconstructed as how it was alongside the plaques and videos. I felt this was enough to gain an understanding of what it would have been like, although I understand some may disagree. Otto Frank’s reasoning for the lack of furniture was he wished it to symbolize ‘the void left behind by the millions of people who were deported and never returned’. Personally I felt this did exactly as he intended, especially so in the room that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer which retains the original wallpaper with Anne’s postcards and pictures. For me this was one of the most moving aspects of the visit; I think possibly more than any other moment the fact that Anne was a teenager strikes you. She has been elevated to almost a mythical figure that sometimes it is very easy to forget that she was a normal teenage girl, living in horrendous circumstances. There were millions of girls just like her, whose lives were taken and destroyed, but the reason we remember her is her diary and that it was saved. She was a young girl who never got to live.
The Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind is almost as hidden as its story. Hidden down an alley in central Berlin, the museum is easy to miss even if you’re trying to find it. Like the Anne Frank Huis, it is a minimalist museum tells the story of the relatively unknown Otto Weidt. His story has only become somewhat known because of the efforts of students to open the workshop as a museum in 1999, and the help of Inge Deutschkron, a Jewish woman who was helped by Weidt. He has sometimes been referred to as the ‘German Oskar Schindler’; however I would dispute this as unlike Schindler, Weidt never supported the Nazis or worked for them. Weidt had gradually gone blind and learned brush making and broom binding to provide for himself. He opened the workshop in 1936 and began to hire disabled Jews to protect them from deportation. By this time Jews who remained in Berlin found it easier to stave off deportation if they were in work. Weidt’s workers however were not invulnerable, and Weidt spent a great deal of money bribing the Gestapo to stop them from taking his workers. In one case, despite his protests, the Gestapo came and rounded up his disabled workers to be taken for deportation. Weidt followed and via bribes and arguing he could not produce the items required by the war effort, he managed to rescue his workers. However by the end of February 1943, with the exception of those in hiding and Jewish workers married to non-Jews, his workers were deported. Weidt did not just hire disabled Jews and financially protect them from deportation. Along with a circle of helpers he helped many Jews find hiding and provided false documents to help them avoid detection. Within the workshop itself Weidt hid a family whose daughter Alice he was in love with, and employed. When the family was discovered and deported, Alice managed to contact Weidt to let him know she had been sent to Auschwitz by throwing a postcard from the window of the train she was taken in. By sheer luck the postcard reached Weidt who immediately went in search of her, organising with a local Pole who had access to her to provide a hiding place for her when she could escape. Alice managed to escape and survived the war. Weidt survived the war but died of heart failure in 1947. In his final years he helped fund a home for orphans and elderly survivors of the Holocaust.
The two museums in their set up are similarities. Like the Anne Frank Huis, the Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind lacks furniture focusing instead on information plaques and interactive materials. However as I mentioned previously I was struck by how similar their stories were. They show how far the Nazis reach was and how many lives were destroyed, in these cases specifically those of Jews. How despite their best efforts these attempts failed to protect most of those in hiding, leaving few survivors. The sheer despair and destruction is horrendously apparent. The only comfort that both these museums provide is they show, despite when the very worst of humanity gains power, that there were many who stood up to such hatred by risking their lives to help those who were targeted.