Behind the Bookcase: Visiting the Anne Frank House

Amsterdam, Anne Frank, Life Experiences, stories, travel

I’ll never forget when I received my history book in third class. It was nothing extravagant, just a simple children’s history book about famous people and events. I was flicking through the book without much interest, when my eyes noticed a name that I had never heard of before.

Anne Frank.

Anne Frank posing for her school photograph, 1941. (Credit: Anne Frank House)

To this day, I do not remember what caused me to become so interested in this girl. We studied her story in school, but we were only taught the bare minimum. I needed to know more. I began to search for books about Anne, watched movies about her and of course, read the most famous book of all; her diary. As a matter of fact, I read Anne’s diary so much, that my copy fell apart and I had to buy another one!

Anne Frank has become symbolic for all the Jewish children who tragically lost their lives during the Holocaust. In 1942, she and her family went into hiding behind a bookcase in her father’s office which would become known as ‘The Secret Annexe’. While in hiding, she would go on to write her famous diary, hoping one day, it could be published. They stayed in hiding for just over two years, before they were finally discovered by the Nazis in 1944. Anne would ultimately die in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February or March 1945. She didn’t even live to see her sixteenth birthday.

As I’ve told you many times, I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things. By that I mean not finding anything wrong with flirtations, a kiss, an embrace, an off-color joke. This side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper and finer. ….

Anne Frank, 1 August 1944 – 3 days after this entry, the people hiding in the Secret Annexe were discovered

It was Otto Frank, Anne’s father (and only survivor of the group), who would push for his daughter’s diary to be published. It would go on to become one of the most widely read books in the world. For the rest of his life, Otto Frank dedicated his life to promoting his daughter’s work and to teach about intolerance and discrimation in society.

For years, I begged my parents to take me to Amsterdam, so I could visit 263 Prinsengracht where Anne and her family had stayed for those two years. After multiple disappointments and ending up in the same boring villa in Lanzarote every year, I realized that I would have to take myself to Amsterdam when the time came.

That chance finally came in 2016, when I had just settled into my Erasmus year in a small town in Germany. Just over a month in, a friend said that there was a company promoting day trips to Amsterdam for €60. Pretty expensive, but for a day trip to a city that I had wanted to go to for years, I was willing to pay for it!

That day trip began at 6am in the morning when the bus began the long trek from Trier to Amsterdam. Me and my friend managed to doze for a while, while the bus bumped along the road. It was nearly 12pm by the time we finally reached the cobbled streets of Amsterdam. We had booked our tickets for the Anne Frank House in advance, so we’d escape the queues.

Now, I’ll admit, it was a challenge to find the right street. I’m grateful to the citizens of Amsterdam, who were very friendly and did their best to help us find our way. Once I saw the street sign that read ‘Prinsingracht’, I knew that we were finally going in the right direction.

As we managed to skip the queue, my friend and I were able to enter the museum. The tour began in the workhouse, where the company would produce spices everyday. I remember reading how the people in hiding had to remain quiet as mice when the men were working. Many have wondered if one of the workmen became suspicious and found out, which resulted in the arrest. Nobody knows… and we probably never will.

The tour continued into the offices, where Miep Gies (the woman who ultimately rescued Anne’s diary after the arrest) and Bep Voskuijl worked as secretaries. They, along with Victor Kugler and Johannes Kleimann would assist the people in hiding, bringing in food, entertainment and news from the outside world. There was a copy of Cinema & Theater on display – Anne Frank loved the movies and Victor Kugler would regularly bring her this magazine to catch up on what was happening in the dramatic arts.

My heart missed a beat when we turned a corner and saw the bookcase. There it stood, half-open, waiting for us to come inside. Slowly we climbed up the steps – steeper than I imagined, it made me think about how the helpers managed to bring food to the people in hiding everyday. The first room we entered was the bedroom of Otto, Edith and Margot Frank. How three people managed to cram themselves into this tiny room every single night was amazing. On the wall, was a Charles Dickens book – Anne would write in her diary about how her father would learn English through reading Dickens. On the wall were lines and numbers, where he would measure his daughters’ heights for two whole years. It would be used as evidence when the Nazis asked how long they had spent hiding when they were finally arrested in 1944.

Tears filled my eyes when we entered the room next door. I had seen photos in the past, seen it in the movies, but it was the first time I had really seen Anne Frank’s bedroom. All over the walls were her beloved pictures of movie stars, that she pasted to make the room look brighter. I could imagine her frustration in having to share this room with the grumpy dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. While there isn’t any furniture in the annexe anymore, it was easy to picture the little table where Anne would write her diary.

Climbing up the stairs, brought us to the kitchen, which also acted as the bedroom for Hermann and Auguste van Pels, another family who went into hiding with the Franks and Pfeffer. Everyday, the eight people would gather into the kitchen for breakfast, lunch, dinner, for games and for entertainment. Despite their differences, I’m sure that coming together, brought the eight people a little bit of comfort. Next to the kitchen was the tiny bedroom belonging to Peter van Pels, the only son of Hermann and Auguste. It was interesting to read in Anne’s diary how she and Peter didn’t get on at first, but gradually began to fall in love.

It was sad to see Peter’s bicycle hanging on the wall, along with a game he received for his sixteenth birthday. One wonders how often Peter wished he could just leave the hiding place and ride off on his bicycle.

Peter’s bedroom also had a ladder that led to the attic. We didn’t use the ladder, but the next part of the tour was up to the attic where he and Anne would often escape to talk. The attic has been converted to a large room talking about what happened after the arrest. Hannah Pick-Goslar, a close friend of Anne’s and a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, was on video, talking about meeting Anne during their time imprisoned. She has said that if Anne had known that her father was still alive, maybe she could have had the strength to survive.

There was a large book open, with names of all the people who died in the Holocaust. Right at the top was name: Frank, Anneleise. Reading that reminded me of a book where two teenagers also visited the Anne Frank House.

The book was turned to the page with Anne Frank’s name, but what got me about it was the fact that right beneath her name, there were four Aron Franks. Four. Four Aron Franks without museums, without historical markers and without anyone to mourn them.

John Green, The Fault In Our Stars

Anne Frank’s story was only one that came out of the Holocaust. She was just one of the six millions Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. Although she is probably one of the most well-known victims, it is important to remember those whose names that we do not know.

The final part of the tour brought us to the famous diary itself. Protected in a glass case, we saw Anne’s precious diary, opened to a page that showed a photo of Otto Frank. Nobody will really know the heartbreak that he endured after he learned that his wife and daughters were dead, but how he found the strength to bring Anne’s diary to worldwide attention. All across the room, copies of Anne’s diary were displayed in multiple languages, showing that her story has been shown all over the world.

I was numb when we left the Anne Frank house. I thought I knew it all about Anne Frank, but visiting the place where she spent two years hiding away from the Nazis, made me realise that there was a lot more to learn. To be honest, nobody really understands the story of Anne Frank until they themselves, climb up the stairs that were hidden behind a bookcase.

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