For me that book was “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
I read it when I was about 13, in the early throes of teenage angst and quite impressionable. Anne was the same age when she began so vividly recording her daily activities, thoughts, and dreams in a diary, each entry addressed to “Dearest Kitty” to help make it feel like she was conversing with a friend. Anne had hoped one day to publish her diary.
Our circumstances, though, could not have been more different. I was living a safe, middle-class existence in Centerville, OH, with my parents, twin sister, and family cat. My biggest worries were waking up in time to catch the school bus, passing tests, and what to make of teenage boys.
Anne, on the other hand, was a German-born Jewish girl in hiding during World War II with her parents and sister and four other Jews in a secret annex behind and above her father’s jam-producing company in the center of Amsterdam. She lived two years there as best she could amid confinement, deprivation, longing, and constant fear of discovery and capture by the Nazis.
Anne’s heartfelt, talented writings about her daily life and musings were insightful, thoughtful, poignant, and even humorous at times.
What particularly resonated with me were her generally positive disposition, ever-hopeful outlook, and faith in humanity. She wrote, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death.”
Sadly, Anne’s fear was realized. The Nazis raided the secret annex in 1944, tipped off by a still-unknown betrayer, and shipped the residents to concentration camps. Anne died at age 15 in the Bergen-Belsen camp just weeks before its liberation. Her father, Otto, the only one of the eight to survive the war, returned home, recovered the diary, and fulfilled her wish to have it published. Her diary is a global, beloved classic, and helps give a personal voice to the Holocaust.
Bill’s and my trip to Amsterdam required a visit, more akin to a pilgrimage for me, to Anne Frank House (Huis). The address is Prinsengracht 263-267 on a canal, and 263 is the building with the secret annex. The line to buy tickets snaked out of sight and was an estimated two-hour wait. The key is to buy timed entry tickets in advance online, which we fortunately did.
I had scheduled a media interview with Annemarie Bekker, communications department at Anne Frank House, and she said it’s one of the most popular museums in Amsterdam, with 1.2 million annual visitors.
“We’re relatively small, and the maximum we can let in is 300-400 people an hour,” she said. “It’s a challenge because we don’t want them to wait too long, but we also want them to have a moving experience inside and grasp the sense of place and atmosphere.”
At the outset, a video played telling Anne’s story. Such items as photos of the family at the beach and Anne’s drawings from her days at Montessori school spoke to the normal life they once enjoyed. We walked over the cobblestone floor of what had been the company’s warehouse, and climbed the narrow stairs to the former offices. There a video of Miep Gies told how Otto asked her to provide supplies while they were in hiding. An old typewriter and a company balance sheet on display illustrated the room’s former function.
Up more stairs to the third floor, which was the storeroom, were two scale models of the two floors of the secret annex. Reminiscent of dollhouses with the tops cutaway, the models were designed to Otto’s specifications, the little rooms outfitted with miniature furnishings to recreate the living quarters. The rooms had been spare, with just the necessary beds, drape-covered closets, desks, rugs, dining table and eight chairs, kitchenware, sewing kit, a scattering of books, and such. The eight occupants shared four bedrooms and one bathroom.
Next came the landing with the movable bookcase that disguised the entrance to the secret annex, ajar to allow access. We simultaneously stepped up and ducked down and were in the hiding place itself. The actual rooms of the secret annex, which was about 800 square feet, remain unfurnished per Otto. The rooms were dimly lit and windows covered in blackout curtains, as they had been back then. The walls were brown with dark green trim. There was little conversation among our fellow visitors, yet I could see in their faces they were moved. I blinked back tears.
Some glass-encased remnants of lives lived there remain: Edith Frank’s prayer book; daughter Margot’s Latin lessons; the wall map of Normandy with pins where Otto tracked the Allied invasion; pencil marks on the wall to record Margot’s and Anne’s growth; Peter van Pels’ board game. Most meaningful to me were the photos Anne had pasted on her bedroom walls to bring the outside world in, including the young British princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo, strawberries, and a bird. From the foot of the attic stairs we saw the two small windows where Anne caught glimpses of the sky and trees.
We exited into a room that exhibited the occupants’ deportation and subsequent deaths, save for Otto, even showing their concentration camp ledger cards and Otto’s repatriation card. A video of Otto revealed his surprise when he first read Anne’s diary and learned her deep thoughts.
Then before us was what started it all – Anne’s red and tan checked diary opened to show her handwriting, along with loose pages she had copied. What a fitting way to end the tour.
Interestingly, Americans played an indirect part in the museum’s origination, according to Annemarie.
The book became popular in the U.S, followed by the play and the movie. When Americans visited Amsterdam they wanted to see the secret annex, but the building was in disrepair and facing demolition; they urged otherwise because of its historical value. Thanks to a surge of public opinion in Amsterdam to rescue the property and various fundraising initiatives, the nonprofit Anne Frank House was established in 1957 with Otto’s close involvement. The organization’s two-part mission is to preserve Anne Frank’s hiding place and her diaries, and to spread the message of her life and ideals worldwide. The museum opened in 1960.
As brief as Anne Frank’s life was, it seems she did find some fulfillment, for she wrote, “I know what I want, I have a goal, I have opinions, a religion and love.”
I find that reassuring.
All interior photos of Anne Frank House, the photo of Anne Frank, and the exterior photo of the entire Anne Frank House are courtesy of Anne Frank House. Photographer is Cris Toala Olivares.