World History

Anne Frank’s Amsterdam – hiding from the Nazis in a secret annex

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Anne Frank House visitor centre

Much of Amsterdam’s network canal-side towpaths is a surprisingly peaceful place to walk, even at the height of summer. There are some exceptions to this rule, not least in the notorious red light district which is popular with stag parties and other groups all year round. Another busy spot is outside a house at Prinsengracht 267, which is visited by some one million people every year. But why do they all come here?

To most people the aforementioned address is better known as the Anne Frank House, the place where a teenage girl hid away in a secret room with her family and their friends for two years during the Second World War in a bid to avoid deportation in Nazi-controlled Holland. And it’s because she kept a diary of her experiences that future generations have been left with a unique perspective on a Jew living in war-time Amsterdam.

Anne herself is your guide as you pass through the book-case door and walk into the secret annex which was created behind her father’s jelly factory. Quotes from the teenager’s diary are featured on the wall of rooms and also in audio-visual presentations, providing powerful description of the claustrophobic conditions that the group faced.

Introducing Anne Frank

Born in Frankfurt in from Germany in 1929, Anne moved with her family to Amsterdam following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and his subsequent persecution of Jews. The Franks hopes that they would be safer there were dashed by the Nazis’ occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940. In 1941 the letter ‘J’ was added to the identity cards of all Jews and the following year they were required to wear the Star of David. Jewish citizens were soon banned from various venues, including swimming pools and cinemas.

In July 1942 Margot – Anne’s sister – received a letter telling her she must report for forced labour in Germany and so that month the family decided to go into hiding. For some months they had been preparing a secret hiding place at Otto’s business premises by bringing in furniture and food. And when it came to the day to move in they wore as many clothes as they could, as well as carrying heavy suitcases.

Anne wrote in her diary soon after moving in that the “Annex is an ideal place to hide in….,” adding: “It may be damp and lopsided, but there’s probably not a more comfortable hiding place in all of Amsterdam. No, in all of Holland.”

The following week, another family arrived to join the Franks in their secret hiding place. Hermann van Pels a business associate of Otto and was accompanied by wife Auguste and their son Peter. In addition, a friend of the Frank family – Fritz Pfeffer – arrived four months later.

Visiting these cramped rooms today, natural light is blocked out so it is possible to have some appreciation of what it must have been like to remain inside there 24 hours. “During the day our curtains can’t be opened, not even an inch,” explained Anne in her diary in 1942. They also needed to be careful not to make any sounds when the warehouse staff were working downstairs (not least when using the bathroom – “No running water, no flushing toiler, no walking around, no noise whatsoever”), as they did not know the Jews were hiding upstairs.

Anne spent a considerable amount of time in the makeshift sitting room (which was also the bedroom of Otto, Anne’s mother, Edith and Margot). But she also wrote about being cooped up in the room she shared with Fritz Pfeffer and had dreams about going to the outside world again. “I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I’m free,” she noted in her diary. And her wall was decorated with many pictures, such as film stars. Many of these have been poignantly preserved in situ. “Thanks to father – who brought my entire postcard and film-star collection here beforehand – and to a brush and pot of glue, I was able to plaster the walls with pictures.”

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Book case hiding entrance to Anne Frank’s secret annex

Conditions were tough for the group, particularly as they became short of food. “As of tomorrow, we won’t have a scrap of fat, butter or margarine. Lunch today consists of mashed potatoes and pickled kale. You wouldn’t believe how much kale can stink when it’s a few years old,” Anne wrote in March 1944.

Anne not only kept a record of life in the secret rooms, but also about the wider impact of war. In March 1944 she wrote, for example, on Russian armies who were advancing on the Eastern front. “Hungary has been occupied by German troops. There are still a million Jews living there; I expect they too are doomed.”

But despite all the gloomy news, Anne also expressed much hope in her writing. “One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews,” Anne wrote in 1944. And in another passage wrote: “I know what I want, I have a goal, I have opinions, a religion and love”.

Betrayal

After 761 days living in hiding in claustrophobic conditions, the Gestapo came to round up the eight residents of the secret annex in August 1944. There have been numerous theories as to who betrayed them to the authorities (one of the main suspect was Willem van Maaren, one of the warehouse staff). But nothing has ever been proven as to who really reported that there were Jews living on the upper floors of the house.

They were taken were taken to concentration camps, with Anne – after passing through the notorious Auschwitz – dying in Bergen-Belsen shortly before Liberation. Otto Frank was the only member of the group to survive, returning to Amsterdam in 1945 where he lived until he died in 1990, aged 91.

Amongst the possessions that had been kept for the Franks and returned to Otto upon his return was Anne’s diary in which she wrote that she dreamed of becoming a published writer. Her father therefore made it his mission to fulfil his daughter’s wishes, but at first struggled to win over a publisher. The break-through came however in 1947 and the book has since been translated into 70 languages. And the Anne Frank house opened as a museum in 1960.

For Otto, reading the diary was a harrowing experience. “Slowly I started to read,” he later wrote. “It was not possible for me to read more than a few pages a day as painful reminscences overwhelmed. It was a revelation”. He learned so much more about his daughter after her death than when she had been alive. “Never had I imagined the depth of her thoughts and her feelings. Though I had always felt close to her, I had to admit to myself that I had not known her innermost self. I never had imagined how much Anne kept herself busy with the problems and the meaning of Jewish sufferings through the ages and how much strength she drew from her faith in God.”

Lost lives

Anne’s story is a powerful one, but when you visit Amsterdam and in particular the Nieuwmarkt quarter on the east side of the city you are struck by the scale of the Nazis’ evil actions. In the years before the war, it has been estimated that there were some 120,000 Jews living in Holland’s capital – many of them in this neighbourhood – but by the end little more than 5,000 remained.

Nieuwmarkt’s architecture looks distinctly different to other parts of Amsterdam for the simple reason that by the end of the Second World War this part of the city lay in ruins. As Jewish residents fled – or were forceably removed – from their homes, others in the capital came along to pilfer from the properties whatever they could find to help with their own survive. With no trees left to provide fuel, wooden doors were used to provide material to light fires. Amsterdammers cooked whatever they could lay their hands on, even if that meant eating dogs and cats.

For many years, Nieuwmarkt and its buildings were left abandoned. Then the authorities decided to do something about the area, so launched a design competition. Whether the buildings are hideous or futuristic will depend your views on modernistic architecture, but there have been calls to knock down the structures and start again.

This neighbourhood is home to the Rembrandt House Museum – where the master ran the Netherlands’ largest painting studio between 1639 and 1658 – however there are also numerous reminders that this was Amsterdam’s main Jewish quarter. The Portuguese-Israelite Synagogue was the largest in Europe when it was finished in 1675 and also features one of the most important Jewish book collections on the continent. And the Jewish Historical Museum is made up of a collection of four restored 17th and 18th century Ashkenazic synagogues.

Some places in Nieuwmarkt are particularly troubling to visit. The Hollandsche Schouwburg – a historic theatre – was used by the occupying Nazis for part of the Second World War as a detention centre for Jews held for deportation. And the Dutch Resistance Museum describes as part of its exhibition how neighbours, friends and family betrayed those in their trust. There is also an Auschwitz Memorial in Wertheimpark which features a panel of broken mirrors reflecting the sky.

Exploring Nieuwmarkt and its Jewish heritage, I thought more about the experience of Anne Frank who lived in the hidden annex on the other side of Amsterdam. In my view, the story that she told in her diary – which has been read the by countless people the world over – stands as a fitting memory for other Jews persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. Anne’s account also speaks for other victims of the Holocaust whose lives were so tragically lost.

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Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt quarter

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Anne Frank House

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