Despite multiple visits to Amsterdam in the past, there has always been one place that remained unexplored. While I ticked all of the other touristic classics off my list during the very first trip to the Dutch capital, the Anne Frank House, hadn’t made the cut during any of my earlier visits.
Having read her famous diaries, I had wanted to see the place that made a lasting impression on me as a teenager, but that desire was each time trumped by the popularity of this tourist destination. I was discouraged by the need to book tickets weeks in advance and the vision of crowds surrounding me as I moved through the museum – so I kept on postponing the visit.
As I had always visited Amsterdam in the summer months, it never occurred to me to come here in the winter, until I pretty much ended up living in this wonderful city for three weeks as a result of a business trip. To my surprise, the city turned out to be even more charming in the gloom of the winter than it had in the warm, summer months. Abandoned by the tourists discouraged by the cold, Amsterdam was wonderfully quaint and serene, yet with a dash of liberal open-mindedness it is so known for. In the absence of the organised tours and the usual sightseeing crowds, the city was free to exude its natural “dutchness” in a way I haven’t experienced before. And so, encouraged by its peaceful canals and empty streets hugged by the warm glow of the tall townhouses, I decided it was finally time to visit Anne Frank.
Arriving at the famous house on Prinsengracht was slightly confusing at first. To enter the tall brick townhouse where the teenage Anne Frank wrote her diaries as she was hiding from the Nazis, I had to go through an ultra-modern glass lobby situated on the side of the building. Equipped with the ticket booked online (which in the off-peak season can be easily done a day or two ahead of the date of your visit) for 10 Euros, I showed up at the museum at the allocated time. After having my e-ticket scanned, I received a digital guide that I was to point at the walls of each room in the building to hear the narration of Anne Frank’s experiences. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this highly-digitalised start to what I expected to be a rather emotional visit, but I decided to see how things unfold.
The sparsely decorated, high-tech museum I was in was in fact the building adjacent to the infamous house, which was actually no house at all. What is now known as Anne Frank House, was actually the office building of the company Anne’s father was managing. Fleeing from the Nazi Germany in 1933, Otto Frank saw the position as the Managing Director of the Dutch Opekta Company as a chance to save his family from the persecutions they were facing back home. Following a few peaceful years however, after the war extended to the Netherlands in 1940 and the Dutch Jews began to face increasing persecutions, it was yet again time to seek a refuge. When Anne’s older sister Margot was notified she was to report for work in Nazi Germany, Franks packed the essentials and went into hiding in the secret annex of the company building.
With the help of Otto’s Dutch colleagues Johannes Kleiman, Victor Kugler, Jan and Miep Gies, as well as Johannes Voskuijl and his daughter Bep, the Frank family settled into the two difficult years of hiding. Living in the secret part of the building, hidden behind a bookcase built specifically to mask the entrance to the annex, the Franks would have had no chances of survival if it wasn’t for the quiet support of Otto’s coworkers who provided the family with food and guarded their safety whenever the building was raided by the Gestapo. It was in these stressful conditions that thirteen year old Anne was capturing her beautiful observations of the tiny world she lived in.
Walking up the steep staircase hidden behind a heavy bookshelf marked a sudden shift in the museum experience. The narrative and technology were abandoned, and the mood began to shift with every step up the stairs. At first, I was surprised by the size of the annex, which extended across three floors. It was a strange sensation standing in a place I read about, realising how little I understood about Anne’s experience here when reading the book when I was same age as when she wrote it. As I was walking around the sparsely decorated interiors, I could feel my heart tighten at the sight of the photos cut out from a newspaper and glued to the walls of Anne and Margot’s room – to cheer up his daughters and make it more home-like, Otto decorated his girls’ room with the pictures Anne had collected. What should have been the years of making friends, falling in love and exploring the world, for this young Jewish girl were years of taking care not to make noise, of terror not to get discovered. In the corner of one of the rooms, Franks recorded their daughters’ height by marking it on the wall. Anne grew 13 centimetres in the hiding.
After two years of hiding, the Franks and the Van Pels family who were hiding in the annex as well, were discovered. In 1944, Gestapo unexpectedly forced their way into the annex arresting all eight people who lived there. What prompted this raid remains unknown. All the Jews hiding in this Prinsengracht house were deported to a Nazi camp in Netherlands before being sent to Auschwitz. The Franks traveled for 3 days in a closed castle truck and got separated upon arrival. In 1945, Anne died of hunger and typhoid in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, becoming one of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. She was only sixteen.
Miep, who managed to avoid getting arrested for helping the Frank family, discovered Anne’s diary and kept it with all the other belongings she was able to salvage in the hopes of the family’s return. She passed them on to Otto Frank, who turned out to be the only survivor.
On the 5th April, 1944, Anne wrote in her diary about her dream of becoming a writer: ” I’ll make my voice heard, I’ll go out into the world and work for mankind (…) I want to go on living even after my death”. Despite her tragic death, I was pleased to realise that in a strange twist of fate, Anne’s dream did come true. Thanks to this sensitive girl’s perceptive writing, millions of people around the world became aware of the unimaginable hardships and cruelty Jewish people were subject to during World War II. It is through her writing and thanks to the kindness of the Dutch people who helped save her, that she will forever continue to stir people’s hearts and remind us of the dangers of prejudice and unchecked political fanaticism. May her youthful hope and bright soul keep on lighting the path for all of us.