Reminder At 263 Prinsengracht, Anne Frank makes certain the Holocaust will never be forgotten
Written by Thomas F. Driscoll
Peoria Journal Star, June 3, 1990
AMSTERDAM – It’s painful standing on the sidewalk outside of Anne Frank’s home, knowing she used to play hopscotch there with her friends.
Across the street, the triangular park is still there, the place where the kids used to turn cartwheels and do handstands, something Anne could never master, much to her chagrin.
Around the corner is the same bookstore where her father bought the diary with the red-and-white cover that he gave her for her 13th birthday, the one in which she wrote her way to immortality.
A month after she got the diary, the family one morning in July, 1942, walked the three miles in the rain to the secret Annex, where they hid for more than two years until the Nazis – German and Dutch – found them and sent them off to die. Eight people hid together in the Annex, and the only one who survived Hitler’s death machine was Anne’s father, Otto Frank. He was a German Army officer in World War 1 who fled Germany with his family in 1933 when Hitler took power and his hatred of Jews became public policy.
Something like half a million people now go through the tiny rooms of the Secret Annex every year, trying to visualize what it was like for the eight people to share the confinement and the fear for the 25 months. The eight had this in common: they all were Jews, and they were taking the only option open to them to escape the concentration camps.
The Frank family – father Otto, mother Edith, older sister Margot and younger sister Anne – went into hiding after Margot, who was 16, got a postcard ordering her to appear for shipment to a Dutch work camp, which was the first stop on the way to death. By the end of World War II, something like 120,000 Dutch Jews had been killed by the Germans for the crime of being Jewish. Only about 25,000, Otto Frank being one of them, survived.
Anne Frank lives on as a symbol of the Nazi horror because she was a gifted and prolific writer even though just a child. She kept a diary from the day of the family’s confinement, when she was 13, until they were arrested when she was 15, not knowing she was writing for posterity.
She didn’t just keep a diary but also wrote many stories and sketches that were found in the hiding place after the police had gone. They demonstrate a remarkable talent for one so young, but that is not what has given her writing its impact.
Her diary made the world see that Hitler’s victims were not just incomprehensible statistics, such as six million Jews gassed, shot, tortured and starved to death, but people with names, families, dreams – even little children plucked out of school and sent away to be killed. Anne Frank left a record that personalized the Holocaust. Her diary has sold more than 20 million copies and been translated into 50 languages.
Walking through the Secret Annex is chilling. It would be more so, no doubt, to do it alone, for in the never-ending line of visitors the sense of isolation and fear get submerged.
The building, at 263 Prinsengracht, along one of Amsterdam’s many canals, is a narrow structure four stories high. It was the place where Mr. Frank ran his business, selling pectin for jam and later spices of various kinds, and the Annex was an unused portion in the rear.
To get to it, you climb narrow, steep stairways to the third level, go down a long hallway, and there is the now-famous bookcase, hinged to the wall and pulled aside to reveal the door to the hiding place. Go through it and you are in Mr. and Mrs. Frank’s room, where Margot also slept, and where Anne’s room, which she had to share with a dentist who went into hiding too.
Anne used to cut pictures of American movie stars from magazines and put them on the wall of her room. They are still there – Deanna Durbin, Jean Arthur, and all the others. She fantasized about becoming an actress and wrote a short story about a girl she named Anne Franklin, who wrote to actress Priscilla Lane, who invited her to Hollywood. She went, but was disillusioned by life there and happily returned home.
Next to Anne’s room is the common washroom that they all shared, a sink and a flush toilet, something they could never use except at night because not all of the workers in the building knew of their presence.
Upstairs is the room of the Van Daan family, including their teenage son, Peter, with whom Anne gradually fell in love. Who else, after all, was there for her to fall in love with since none of the eight people ever set foot outside of the Annex in two years and no other children ever came in?
Outside the window of Anne’s room, the big horse chestnut tree that she loved to watch as the seasons changed is still there, bigger than ever. A few doors up the Prinsengracht canal, the church bell tolls in the Westerkerk – the same bell the prisoners listened to day and night for all those months.
To the adults, the confinement was dreadful. Anne alone seemed able to make it into an adventure, something to write stories about in the future. She wanted to write, she said, because “I want to go on living even after my death,” never realizing that death was imminent.
Most of the time in the Annex she was happy. One day, after being confined for a year and a half, she wrote in her diary: “I looked out of the open window, over a large piece of Amsterdam, over all the roofs and on to the far distance, fading into purple. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.”
Six months later, she and all the others were arrested, betrayed by someone never identified for certain. Six months after that, starving and in rags, Anne died of typhus in the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Margot died there too, a few days before Anne, in February or March, 1945, only a couple of weeks before the camp was liberated. Mrs. Van Daan died in one of the camps too. Mrs. Frank died of starvation in Auschwitz, where Mr. Van Daan was gassed. The dentist died in Neuengamme. Peter was among those marched from Auschwitz by the SS when the Russians approached, and he died in Mauthausen on the very day the camp was liberated by Americans. Mr. Frank was freed from Auschwitz by Russian troops.
All eight of the prisoners had left Holland on the last train that took Jews to Auschwitz. Two months after Margot and Anne Frank died, the war ended and the Netherlands was free again.
Amsterdam, or rather the Anne Frank Foundation, has done a good job keeping the Secret Annex available to tourists without letting it become tawdry. Located in the center of the city, it is easy to find and to get to – and profoundly moving.
There is nothing in Amsterdam, however, to mark where the Frank family lived before abandoning the apartment and entering the Annex. Their home was at 37 Merwedeplein, which is a V-shaped street around two sides of a triangular park on the south side of Amsterdam. No plaque or statue or any kind of memento exists there, but the apartment building looks largely the same as it did when the Franks lived there on the third floor (known as the second floor in Amsterdam, where the ground floor is not counted as the first).
Because it has not been made into a tourist attraction, it is a more profitable place to go, to sit on a bench in solitude in the park where Anne and her friends used to play, and meditate on how all these unspeakable crimes could have happened, even to children, in the lifetimes of many of us.