Anne Frank flat: a new home for refugee writers

Last year, roughly 936,000 people walked along the Amsterdam canals to visit the Anne Frank House, the hiding place where Anne Frank wrote the major part of her famous diary during World War II.

But only a few miles away in the quiet southern part of the city, the apartment where Anne Frank lived for nine years before the German occupation remains unknown to most of the outside world.

That is about to change. The apartment, built in the early 1930s, was recently purchased by a local housing association. The apartment is now being redecorated and will soon serve as a home and workplace for refugee writers who have had to flee their home countries, just as Anne Frank did.

"For about a year we've been looking for ways to preserve the monumental and historical status of the house, and combine it with a new and suitable [use],'' says Pieter de Jong, board member of the housing corporation, Ymere.

In coming months the apartment will be fully renovated to make it an exact copy of the 1930s version.

Anne Frank and her family arrived in Amsterdam in 1933, when she was just 4 years old, fleeing Germany and the rise of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime. They lived in the apartment in the Jewish quarter Rivierenbuurt at Merwede Square.

A shaky black-and-white movie clip that has been preserved shows Anne leaning from her window on the second floor, watching a wedding down the street. In photographs, Anne plays at the square with her sister Margot and neighborhood friends.

Though much is known about political and personal events at that time, little is known about the original apartment itself, explains Patricia Bosboom of the Anne Frank Foundation, which is helping Ymere with the renovation. "Some pictures of the interior were taken back then, and are being examined. We'll also be talking to some of Anne's former girlfriends, to see what they remember about the furniture, the carpets, etc."

In 1942, when the anti-Jewish raids started, the Frank family went into hiding in the back part of the huge canal-mansion. Their apartment in southern Amsterdam was rented to other people, according to a woman identified as Ms. Choy in a recent television documentary. Choy said she moved into it as a child with her parents in 1944.

"After the war, a man showed up at our doorstep [and] told us he had returned from Germany. He asked whether any mail had arrived. My mother spoke to him for a while and then he made himself known as Mr. Frank,'' Choy said.

It was a tragic encounter, she recalled. "The man said he was the only one to have returned from Germany. His entire family had disappeared, his children, his wife.''

Anne Frank and her sister Margot died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, just weeks before it was liberated by British forces. Their mother died two months earlier in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Father Otto survived Auschwitz.

After the Choys moved out, new families came and went until a few years ago, when politicians started debating the apartment's future. Since then, some wooden chairs, an old red carpet, flimsy curtains, and six layers of wallpaper have been the sole inhabitants.

About a year ago, people at Ymere heard about the situation and began negotiating with politicians and the Anne Frank Foundation.

Last December, it bought the apartment and developed a relationship with the Amsterdam Refugeetown Foundation. "We've already been housing foreign writers for about seven years,'' explains foundation chairman Maarten Asscher. His organization is part of the international Cities of Asylum Foundation, which evolved out of the Rushdie Defence Committee.

"It is of rare historical symbolism that writers can finish their work at the exact location where Anne Frank started her diary," Mr. Asscher says. The first candidate to be accommodated will be chosen by the foundation within two months.

While many in Amsterdam are happy about the city's new port of refuge, not everybody is jubilant. "It's just a new branch of what I usually call the 'Anne Frank industry,' " says Dutch academic David Barnouw, one of the Netherlands' foremost experts on Anne Frank. The little girl has become an icon, he says, used and abused by everybody in his or her own political battle against oppression or war.

"Today it's this project for writers from abroad, tomorrow Anne Frank is being used to combat racism, and the day after tomorrow, there will be yet another project," says Mr. Barnouw, who works at the Dutch Institute for War Documentation.

Ms. Bosboom, of the Anne Frank Foundation, disagrees. "We're not exploiting Anne's name, and the apartment will not become a public place for visitors. It's just meant to be a safe place for writers while, at the same time, we can preserve its historical meaning.''

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