Friday, June 1, 2007

Hiding Place.

For many of us, Anne Frank is probably just that teenage girl who told the world the story of the fate of the Jewish people in hiding during the Nazi occupation in Europe. She died just the same in a concentration camp, together with the other millions of Jews. But her diary gives us a glimpse of that historic past.

When I was 14, I have read her diary – the book that was translated to over 70 languages. It did not move me. It was just another book lying around the house that caught my attention. But her story made me realize that there is a world outside my world.

Her story gave me a vivid impression as to how Hitler and his party have made the Jews the scapegoat for all of Germany’s social and economic problems. Wars always start like that. They always look for scapegoats.

I haven’t really thought about Anne Frank for a long time, until I moved to the Netherlands and went to see the Achterhuis or the Secret Annex. It was that empty section between the attic and the second floor --- sort of a mezzanine. It is said that it was concealed behind a moveable bookcase built in front of it, so that the Nazi police will not find them during raids. The building was owned by Anne’s father, Otto Frank.

As I walked through the narrow staircase, I started to hyperventillate. I was completely overwhelmed by her story. I got so emotional and upset at one point that I felt the need of screaming. But it made me think for a moment about how the Filipinos have totally forgotten what the Japanese did during the war. Why don’t we have stories like Anne Frank?

I remember having excavated a metal box in our backyard when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My sister CP, brother J, and I were playing and digging the ground when we accidentally stumbled upon a box. J opened it. There was a rusty gun inside, some bullets, letters, and pictures of a Japanese woman. We showed them to my grandmother who instructed us to immediately bury the box. We never saw that box again. In fact, we never spoke about that box ever again.

Meanwhile in the Achterhuis, one could only imagine the horror the Frank’s family must have felt. They have been prisoners for more than 2 years in that Secret Annex.

They watched the seasons change through a tiny hole in the roof. They were lulled to sleep by bombs and gunshots. They can not go out. They have to be as still as mice during daytime when the lower portion of the house was used as an office. It is then no wonder that when their hiding place was finally discovered, most of them felt relieved and to some degree, happy that they no longer have to hide.

What struck me about the Anne Frank story is that, the Frank’s Family were migrants too. They were originally from Frankfurt, Germany. But because they were Jewish, Anne’s father decided to move to the Netherlands in 1933.

Fast forward ….

Almost 60 years after the Second World War, you will be surprised to know that there are still people all over the world who are “in hiding”. These are the many modern-day migrants who, like the Frank’s Family, go to developed countries to seek political asylum, be reunited with their family, and to seek for greener pastures.

However some of them, like the Frank’s family during the Nazi occupation, end up prisoners. Like my Turkish and Afghan friends here. Or myself.

During the cold, dark winter months when everything practically goes to sleep, I too go to sleep. I confine myself to the living room, where I have a good view of the outside world. I feel like a bird in a cage really. Except that in my case, I caged myself.

Fatma my Turkish friend, studied Mining Engineering in England, worked in a very prestigious company in Istanbul, was assigned in Africa for awhile, and is now married to a Turkish guy with a Dutch passport. Her husband, being a second generation migrant, speaks Dutch fluently, went to a Dutch university for his MBA, and has been unemployed like Fatma until quite recently when he decided to put up his own company and started to publish his works.

As for my friend, she has completely abandoned her desire to build a career and is now devoting all her time to cooking, cleaning, and raising her son. I see less and less of her these days, because her husband prefers that she spends more time with her Turkish female acquaintances. Just like those women in the ghettos.

I also have an Afghan friend who fled here together with her son, almost 10 years ago when her husband was taken as prisoner by the Taliban. She comes from a wealthy family, and was a teacher in Kabul. She was educated in Bulgaria. She lost her sanity two years after she arrived here. She is now a psychiatric patient, in catatonic state most of the time.

When she is lucid, she talks passionately about her motherland. About how she longs to go back home. A home that only exists now in her mind. She can not work because of her condition. So you may say that she is also a prisoner of some sort. The irony of it is that, she came here to be free.

Yes, there is an Anne Frank story in all of us. But we all hope for a better life. No hiding places. No secret annex. Just plain freedom.

But sometimes to feel "safe"..... and less b r o k e n, we retreat to our sanctuary --- the Hiding Place. Hoping that when the war is over, tomorrow will bring fresh hopes and new dreams. And we will be whole again.