During a tour of Amsterdam’s “Grachten”, the narrow canals which transect this “Venice of the North”, our boat passed 263 Prinsengracht. The many adults and even more children lined up at this famous address had the same goal as I – to visit the place where Anne Frank went into hiding during World War II. Once back at the dock, I joined the queue of tourists snaking around several adjacent structures. The reverential multitudes, among whom my ear discerned a babel of languages, did not appear bothered by having to wait more than an hour before gaining admittance to what is now the Anne Frank House Museum.
The narrow, four-story brown brick building once held the warehouse and offices of Mr. Frank’s company, which sold gelling agents for homemade jam and spice mixes for meat. The Frank family fled from Germany to Amsterdam in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power. When German forces occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Jewish ownership was outlawed. Otto Frank transferred directorship to two of his employees, but remained involved in the management of his business. Once anti-Semitic excesses became more egregious, Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, and large numbers were deported, the Frank family left their home for the so-called “Secret Annex”, on the second and third floors of the warehouse. Here they remained from July 6, 1942 until their arrest on August 4, 1944. Anne, her older sister Margot, and their parents Edith and Otto were soon joined by the Van Pels couple, their son Peter, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer.
I reached the secret rooms of the annex just as they did, by stepping through a door on the third floor which could be concealed behind a moveable bookcase. As the warehouse was still actively used while the group was in hiding, they could not afford to make noise until after the workers left at day’s end. Behind blackened windows, they could only let down their guard at night and on weekends. Employees Miep Gies, Johannes Keiman, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl, and two of their family members helped supply the captives with food, news from the outside world and other necessities, at the peril of their own lives.
Anne journaled about the cramped conditions in the tiny four rooms and one lone bathroom, plus the attendant conflicts. Despite dreading detection, deportation and death daily, this group of eight still had to deal with mundane concerns. They all suffered – from repetitive meals, spoiled food, limited space, annoying habits, and petty human traits. Anne and Mr. Pfeffer had frequent arguments about the use of a desk in a shared room. The families accused one another of hoarding food, dishes or clothes. When they finally dumped their assorted chamber pots down the toilet, it frequently clogged.
Anne’s diary entries were an outlet for her frustrations, teenage turmoil, and angst. They show her struggle with self-assertion, while trying to please others, and her frustration with the adults whom she did not consider good role models. At times, these are jolting, as she does not embellish what she perceives as other people’s faults, including her mother’s, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship.
But her writing also reflects her dreams of being free, of conducting a normal life after the war’s end. Her love of learning, books, history, royal lineages and movies is evident throughout her diary, as is her never-ending hope for a bright future. She yearned for nature, felt trapped inside the annex, and longed for the outdoors:
The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity. …I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer (February 23, 1944).
Anne also had a vision for her future:
I need something besides a husband and children to devote myself to. I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people (April 5, 1944).
You’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to be a journalist, and later on, a famous writer. We’ll have to wait and see if these grand illusions (or delusions!) will ever come true, but till now, I’ve had no lack of topics. In any case, after the war I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex (May 11, 1944).
Following the allies’ landing in France in June 1944, and their subsequent advances against German forces, hope for an end to the Nazi terror is tangible in many of her entries. The end of their confinement came on August 4, but it was not the ending anybody had longed for. German and Dutch forces raided their hiding place, arrested its inhabitants, and sent them to a transit camp at Westerbork in Holland, before deporting them to Auschwitz in early September. The formerly widespread assumption that they were betrayed has lately been questioned.
In spite of losing ground on many fronts, and despite the inevitability of their eventual defeat, the Nazis and their killing machine continued to devour millions of lives during the final year of the war. Anne and her close ones were victims of this cruelly efficient process. Of the group of eight, solely Otto Frank survived. After Russian forces liberated Auschwitz in May 1945, he returned to Amsterdam in June only to learn that his wife, Edith, had died in January. He still harbored hope to find his two daughters alive and initiated desperate inquiries to humanitarian organizations, newspapers, and other survivors. Two sisters freed from the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where Margot and Anne had been transferred, confirmed his worst fears. His fifteen and nineteen year-old daughters had succumbed to typhus in March of 1945. On April 15, their camp was liberated by British forces.
Anne’s diary, left behind in the annex, was found and safeguarded by Miep Gies. Once it was evident that Anne would not come back, she handed it to Otto Frank. Even though he struggled to learn about Anne’s inner life hitherto unknown to him, he realized that her writing might have a wider appeal, but took the liberty of applying his editor’s pen and eliminating passages that portrayed her criticism of her housemates, her awakening sexuality, and her teenage crush on Peter van Pels. After initial difficulty finding a publisher, an article about Anne’s diary was printed in the newspaper Het Parol, formerly the mouthpiece of the Dutch Resistance. On June 25, 1947, the first Dutch edition of Anne Frank’s Diary was published to an overwhelming reception. Since then, it has been translated into myriad languages and appeals to generation after generation of readers. Some sixty editions later, it has never been out of print.
More than one version of Anne’s diary exists. After an appeal on BBC radio by a Dutch minister exiled in England, who encouraged his fellow Dutch to collect diaries and letters for publication after the war, Anne began to revise her entries. Mr. Frank drew from the original and revised sources for the diary’s first edition. This was subsequently superseded by a definitive edition which includes all previously redacted passages. Anne also composed fiction and additional personal stories. They are available in combination with some of her own edited diary entries as Tales From The Secret Annexe, which honors the title she conceived herself.
In exploring the Anne Frank House Museum in 2013, I fulfilled a dream which started with my first encounter with Anne’s diary when a teenager myself, over 30 years earlier. I wanted to pay homage to her life and suffering, and experience the temporary dwelling she immortalized. Having grown up in Germany during a time when the Holocaust was still not discussed openly, learning about Anne was one way to take a critical look at my birth nation’s burdensome, horrendous past. Encountering visitors from the four corners of the Earth at Anne’s erstwhile refuge, all moved by her candid reflections and glimpses into her soul, gave me hope that, one day, we will respect one another for who we are, regardless of nationality, race or religion.
I have gained a new appreciation for Anne in all her humanity. I wish she could have known how famous a writer she would become, and how many lives she would touch to this day.