None of the history textbooks I had read, none of the history lectures I had sat through, and none of my Jewish friends could have prepared me for the experience of walking through the Anne Frank House on that brisk day in late October.

Like most American students, I was assigned to read The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school and then again in sophomore year English, but with a more analytical eye. I learned about WWII and the Holocaust in history class in elementary school, in middle school, and then again in high school. All of my best friends were Jewish and every year I attended Shabbat dinners and celebrated Hanukkah along with them. Not only was I confident in my knowledge of the Holocaust, I practically felt like I was Jewish myself.

However, all of my knowledge paled after I had visited the Anne Frank House and experienced it firsthand. For the first time in my life, the horrific and unimaginable experiences that millions of Jews went through during the Holocaust became terrifyingly real to a privileged Catholic girl from Columbus, Ohio.

Before my ticket had even been scanned, an overwhelming, almost unbearable sense of sorrow washed over me. That feeling of sorrow intensified with every room I walked through, with each original picture of Anne and her family I saw still taped on the walls, with each creak of the floor I was walking on. That feeling of sorrow stuck with me throughout the tour like a little kid not wanting to say goodbye to their mom.

Once inside, you step through the original hinged bookcase that was the entrance to their hiding place before walking up a steep and narrow staircase. Upstairs, you walk into the claustrophobic dark rooms, including the Frank’s bedroom, where you can see the penciled height marks of Anne and her sister Margot while they were in hiding. Next door to the Frank’s bedroom is Anne’s bedroom, and in this room, you see all of the original pictures Anne had put up on the walls in an effort to brighten up the room and lift her spirits. In each room there’s a sign showing what the room would have looked like while they were in hiding, giving an exact visual to what my mind had only imagined before coming to the Anne Frank House.

“Anne Frank Museum 4” by greger.ravik is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For the first time ever, absolute silence for an entire hour didn’t feel so terribly agonizing. There was just the sound of people shuffling from room to room, people who were fully mesmerized in the experience yet hesitant to continue on, unsure of what emotions were going to be plucked out of them in the next room. Occasionally you would hear the muffled sound of people blowing their noses or you would see them wiping the tears that had silently escaped their eyes.

In a different part of the museum, you can see Anne’s original red-checked diary where she wrote about life in hiding – what kinds of foods they were eating, what they wore, what they did to pass the time, the feelings and emotions of the people she was in hiding with, and the different scares they faced before they were caught. Seeing both her handwriting and the original diary was surreal because her diary paints a realistic picture of what it was like to be a Jew during the Holocaust.

It’s raw and it’s real.

Leaving the Anne Frank House, I realized that a lesson plan taught inside the four walls of a classroom can only teach you so much. When you have the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in history, it sparks a stronger, deeper sense of understanding and appreciation.

Cover image by rs-foto is licensed under CC BY 2.0