A touching visit to Amsterdam's `Annex,' where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis
Amsterdam — IT'S Monday in Amsterdam. The major museums are closed. What can a visitor do? There's always a tour on the seemingly endless canals, a visit to a diamond-cutting factory, sightseeing on foot or by bus or metro, maybe a half-day tour to the nearby storybook villages of Marken or Volendam on the Zuider Zee, or, in the right season, a day trip to the spectacular Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse.
Yet right inside the city is a place to visit that takes only an hour or two. It's the Anne Frank House at 263 Prinsengracht Street, across from one of the city's many canals lined with houseboats. During World War II, the annex of the house served as a hiding place for two Jewish families and a dentist friend.
It was in 1933 that four-year-old Anne Frank and her seven-year-old sister, Margot, moved with their parents from Frankfurt, Germany, to Amsterdam. They were fleeing the boycott of Jewish businesses and the firing of Jewish civil servants begun when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Soon the family was settled in a home in Merwede Square.
Seven years later, in 1940, Anne's father, Otto, started his own wholesale herb and spice business at 263 Prinsengracht -- in a large, old, brick merchant's house. That was the year Germany invaded Holland. Vividly remembering the past in Germany, Mr. Frank began constructing a hiding place for the family in early 1942. Piece by piece, household necessities were slipped into the upper levels of the house. And a hinged bookcase was built in the second-floor office to hide the door leading to the two top floors.
On July 6, 1942, a few days after Margot, then 16, was summoned to register for mandatory work, the family disappeared. Secretly, they moved into the upper floors of the house. Conveniently, rumors spread that the family had left Holland.
Soon the Van Daan family moved into the house and the dentist, Dr. Dussel, joined them later. The story of the hideaways' lives until Aug. 4, 1944, when the German police came to take them away to concentration camps, is known to the thousands who have read the ``The Diary of Anne Frank.''
On that August day, the Frank and Van Daan families and Dr. Dussel were separated from one another and sent to different concentration camps. Anne and Margot died in March 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen camp.
Only Otto Frank survived the war and the Auschwitz concentration camp to return to Amsterdam. Here he learned that Anne's diary had been found in the house and saved. The same loyal Dutch friends who provided for the family while they were in hiding had kept the precious pages.
Anne's title for her diary was simply ``The Annex.'' Her cherished wish, written in the book, was to become a journalist -- and somehow to contribute to bettering the suffering world. This wish has been realized through her daily journal, which has lived on after her death. The ``Diary'' has been translated into more than 50 languages. More than 13 million copies have been printed. And a play and a movie have been made to dramatize the story.
The brick house is typical of many Dutch houses built in the 1600s. It has a narrow front, because taxes in those days were based on the width of a dwelling, and it expands deeply into the lot. To allow for more light, the back part, almost another house or annex, was often separated from the front by a courtyard. In the Frank house the two parts are connected.
As you tour the building it may look familiar -- for the movie was actually filmed there. It's a stirring experience to picture Anne and her family living out each long day in these sparse surroundings, unable to move about freely, to cook, or to run water while the employees were at work on the floors below. You can imagine their constant fear of being discovered by the German police. Yet it should be noted that as difficult as it was for the Franks, their experience was almost idyllic when compared with most of Amsterdam's less affluent Jews. Only one-fourth of the Jews in Holland survived the war.
Visitors are allowed to climb the steep narrow stairway to see the main room in which Mr. and Mrs. Frank and Margot slept. Anne's small room (shared with Dr. Dussel when he joined them) still has walls pasted with her faded Hollywood movie stars' pictures -- Ray Milland, Ginger Rogers, and Greta Garbo.
Another set of steep stairs leads up to Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan's room -- which served as the kitchen and living room for the eight hideaways. Young Peter Van Daan's room on this level doubled as a food storeroom and contained the stairs to the attic. The attic afforded a little breathing space for the young people and a distant view of the city from its skylight.
During the day, when the Franks were here, the windows were always curtained (and the families had strict rules never to peek out lest they be seen) and blacked out at night. Nowadays visitors can look down on the green treetops and backyard below.
Today the house is a museum supported by the international Anne Frank Foundation. The multipurpose foundation began in 1957 to preserve the annex, which was in danger of being demolished, and to share the message of optimism under tyranny, which the maturing teen-ager, Anne, poured into her diary.
Exhibits include the story of Anne's life and the diary given to her on her 13th birthday, in which she recorded events of the 23 months; a display of numerous editions of the book; information on the rise of Nazi power and oppression of World War II; a look at current discrimination in the world toward people of differing race, skin color, and political views, or at violations of human rights; and information about the programs for young people, social workers, and others sponsored worldwide by the foundation.
On the way out of the house we could hear the bells of the Westertoren Church carillon, which Anne mentioned in her diary. In the small square just around the corner, we stopped to look at the three-foot-high bronze statue of Anne, dedicated in 1977, which is inscribed simply ``Anne Frank, 1929-1945.''
This month others may stop briefly to remember a teen-age girl who is still speaking optimistically to the world through a book -- 40 years later.