As northern European cities go, Amsterdam is loose, down-to-earth and genial -- almost epicurean. The hordes of bicycle riders that cram its streets bring to mind the lazy chaos of Asia or Latin America. So do the sweet, tangy aromas of the city's scores of Indonesian eateries, and the funky houseboats that grace the gentle canals. The ca- sual dress of workers in the city's business and financial houses mocks the grandeur of Old World couture and haberdashery. And Amsterdam's bizarrely ostentatious red-light district and gaudy entertainment zones help give the city a perpetually effervescent glow.
But a few decades ago, the Amsterdam that Anne Frank knew presented a very different face to the world. And the insouciance and easygoing nature of today's Amsterdam were far from my mind as my daughter and I began to climb the steep and narrow staircase of the sturdy 17th-century brick house above the Prinsengracht canal.
Each footstep we took sounded like a chilling echo of history. Up these same wooden planks just 43 years ago, a German policeman and four Dutch accomplices strode on a heinous mission. On that August morning in 1944 they forced eight startled Jews down these same steps and into an ominous-looking black van that would begin a journey to Nazi concentration camps where seven of the Jews would die.
Today's Amsterdam is worlds removed from the Amsterdam of the early 1940s, when the city was under Nazi occupation. And the sad drama that took place in this house must have been repeated thousands upon thousands of times in Holland during World War II. Of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands on the day the Germans occupied the country in May of 1940, 110,000 would perish in Nazi death camps.
But none of those tragic 110,000 stories could have been more poignant -- nor more widely known today -- than the one that unfolded in this house at 263 Prinsengracht, where Anne Frank and her family lived in hiding from the Nazis and their Dutch collaborators for 25 months.
Anne Frank kept a diary chronicling -- in a young girl's words -- the hopes, the struggles and the will to survive of those 25 months. It tells the story of the life of Anne, her sister, their parents and four other Jews in a small secret annex of the house at 263 Prinsengracht at a time when the Nazis were rounding up all Dutch Jews and sending them off to extermination.
The house is now a museum that stands in stark contrast to the many other cultural, historical and physical attractions that draw hundreds of thousands of people to Amsterdam each year. It is a building where visitors come face-to-face with inescapable reminders of the horrors of those years.
It is the little things that touch most deeply at the Anne Frank House. Tiny pencil marks inscribed on a wall to chart the growth of three children who would never grow to adulthood. A map where pins traced the advance of Allied troops that would arrive just a few weeks too late to save the lives of the inhabitants of the secret annex. Faded pictures of movie stars that Anne put on her wall to bring cheer and fantasy to what for her was nothing less than a prison. The toilet that could never be flushed during the day for fear the noise might alert someone to the presence of the eight inhabitants in the annex. The windows that were blacked out and never let in light during the entire 25 months of hiding.
Europeans, the Dutch as staunchly as any, believe it is imperative to hold on to the dreadful memories of Hitler and the Holocaust. Only by doing so, they insist, can the world remember and thus prevent another Hitler from arising. For most Americans -- particularly those, like me, of the postwar generation -- World War II and the Nazi era are concepts so remote that they become almost impossible to fathom. A visit to the Anne Frank House can change all that.
Like so many others around the world, my 9-year-old daughter and I had read Anne's diary together. Melissa was fascinated with Anne's story and the way she had seemed to transcend the inevitability of her fate. During a stay in London, we decided to take the one-hour flight to Amsterdam and spend several days in the city to visit the secret home of the girl who had so captivated our hearts.
I had an added reason for being drawn to the house and to Anne's story. The Franks had moved to Amsterdam in 1933 from Frankfurt, Germany, after Hitler had been named chancellor. My mother, though slightly older than Anne, also had grown up in the Jewish community of Frankfurt in the 1920s and 1930s (Anne was born in 1929). My mother's family, like the Franks, had fled from Germany to escape Hitler. Although my mother had been sent by her parents to live in England and then the United States, I wondered if she might once have unknowingly crossed paths in Frankfurt with any of the Frank family -- Anne, her sister Margot or their parents, Otto and Edith. I knew it would be impossible to find out. Still, I liked to think that perhaps they had met. I also hoped that by visiting Anne's house, Melissa might gain a stronger understanding of the atrocities that so affected my mother's family.
The Anne Frank House is really two separate museums. The secret annex where the Franks and their colleagues hid has been left as close as possible to the way it was when they were arrested in 1944. And the main part of the house, which served as an office and warehouse for Otto Frank's spice and herb business, contains exhibits on the Frank family, the Nazi movement, Holland during the occupation and more recent forms of racism, discrimination and political oppression.
The main house was built in the 1630s; the annex was completed about 100 years later. The cost of houses in Amsterdam was based on the width of their street frontage, prompting the building of long, deep houses. To gain sunlight in the rear of homes, annexes were constructed.
Realizing in early 1942 that occupied Holland had become just as dangerous for Jews as the Germany he had departed, Otto Frank began converting the annex behind his business into a hiding place.
From the Franks' residence at Merwede Square in southern Amsterdam, he began transporting furnishing, clothes and food to store in the annex. During the first week of July Margot received a dreaded notice to report to a work camp, and so Otto moved his family into the hiding place on July 6. They would not leave the building again until that August morning two years later when the Nazis, apparently acting on a tip, took them away.
To enter the hiding place, today as when the Franks lived there, you must pass through a small corridor that seems to dead-end at a wall fronted by a bookcase. The bookcase, however, is a cleverly hinged decoy. Once it is swung open, you enter the quarters where the Franks, three members of the Van Daan family and a dentist by the name of Dussel spent the last free years of their lives.
The hiding place consisted of three stories. The Franks lived on the first floor. Anne shared a small, narrow room with Dussel -- much to her chagrin -- and her parents and Margot slept in a slightly larger room. The Van Daans' quarters were on the floor above, with the parents' bedroom also serving as a common living room, kitchen and dining room for all eight residents. The bedroom of the Van Daans' son Peter was adjacent to his parents'. An upstairs attic was used for the storage of food and was also where Peter and Anne met to spend time alone together.
Today the rooms are bare of furniture. Once Jews in Amsterdam were arrested by the Nazis, avaricious firms would sell their furniture to the Germans or their Dutch collaborators.
In the living room/kitchen are a few original fixtures that could not easily be removed: a sink, cupboards, a counter, an old stove. The Van Daans slept on a Murphy bed that was folded against the wall during the day. On the two main floors of the annex, scale models have been created in display cases to show precisely how the rooms looked. The models are based on the remembrances of Otto Frank, the lone inhabitant to return alive from the concentration camps, and the "helpers," four of his employes who, at great personal risk, provided the eight Jews with food, supplies and information from the outside during the 25 months in hiding.
In the living quarters of Otto and Edith Frank, visitors can see the pencil marks on the wall recording the heights of Anne, Margot and Peter. Also the map of Normandy and Brittany still hangs, showing where the eight residents pinned their hopes of Allied liberation. They learned of troop movements while listening to BBC broadcasts from London.
As is fitting, however, it is Anne's room that retains the most authentic character and evokes the strongest emotions. She constantly complained, in her diary, about being forced to share the room with Dussel, whom she often disliked. Yet her imprint remains to this day.
The drab tan and white wallpaper is covered with pictures she put up: A shot of Greta Garbo from "Ninotchka," Robert Stack and Deanna Durbin from the film "First Love," Ray Milland, Ginger Rogers, the German actor Heinz Ruhmann. And more pictures: one with an advertisement for making marmalade, another with four chimpanzees at a tea party. Little girls with bright, shiny and -- ironically -- unmistakably Aryan faces. Landscapes, especially meaningful since Anne never even really saw the countryside for two years. German postcards. Pictures of statuary, including the "Pieta."
"In spite of everything," Anne wrote in her diary three weeks before she was taken away, "I still believe that people are really good at heart ... I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again."
Anne did have the chance to "look up into the heavens" from the secret annex. From a small window in the attic she could peer up at the sky and even see the spire of the Westerkerk (West Church) a few buildings away. She would fret when the church's bell was silenced, for it was used as the definitive time standard by the denizens of the annex. As Melissa and I climbed the tiny staircase to the attic, we happened to hear the church bells toll.
It was just after breakfast on a sunny Aug. 4, 1944, when the police came for the Franks. All occupants of the annex were gathered together in the living room and ordered to turn over their valuables. One of the intruders noticed a leather briefcase in the room with which he could tote away the booty. He emptied the valise's contents onto the floor. Some notebooks, a pile of loose papers and a small, red-checked diary fell out. They seemed inconsequential to the police. The Franks, the Van Daans and Dussel were taken to Gestapo headquarters in Amsterdam, where they remained for several days. Miep Gies, a typist and one of the "helpers," picked up the scattered papers, notebooks and diary and saved them for Anne's expected return.
Meanwhile, the Franks and their friends were taken by train to Westerbork, a transit camp 100 miles from Amsterdam for Jews being shipped to Auschwitz. To a certain extent, the train ride to Westerbork amd the views of the countryside were a tonic to Anne. So were her three weeks at the camp. She could walk about and mingle with new people, following two years of difficult and oppressive confinement in the annex. In a bit of tragic irony, the freight cars that took the Franks on the three-day trip to Poland turned out to be the final train transporting Jews from Holland to Auschwitz prior to liberation.
In late October, Anne and Margot were sent from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where they both died of typhus in March of 1945.
Among the most gruesome parts of the museum exhibit at 263 Prinsengracht are the pictures of Bergen-Belsen. But the exhibit attempts to blend together the entire Anne Frank story -- the sorrowful as well as the happy days. There are pictures of Anne in her most carefree period, when she lived in Merwede Square in Amsterdam and attended a Montessori school. There are also stark reminders of the terrible pogrom initiated by Hitler: a simple poster of a sign attached to a tree reading, "Voor Joden Verboden" -- Jews not allowed.
Visitors can see Anne's original diary in the museum, penned in a neat German script, and copies in languages ranging from Hindi to Persian to Korean. The original diary was willed to the Dutch government in 1980 by Otto Frank, who died that year. Because Nazi sympathizers have sought to discredit the authenticity of the diary, it was scientifically analyzed and verified recently, and only put on display for the first time last year.
Actually, Anne rewrote her diary after hearing a British MP suggest on radio in March 1944 that all letters and diaries be collected after the war. "Just imagine how interesting it would be," she excitedly wrote, "if I were to publish a romance of the 'Het Achterhuis' (Secret Annex). The title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story."
Little could Anne have realized, of course, that her diary would become one of the most widely read books ever written, that it would be converted into a play, a film and a ballet.
After Melissa and I left the museum, we learned that Anne's diary came close to never being published. We had heard that Miep Gies, the "helper" who retrieved the diary, was still living in Amsterdam. (The other three helpers had died.) Melissa asked if we could try to visit Miep and ask her about her days with Anne. We discovered her phone number, gave her a call and were invited for a visit.
Miep Gies lives with her husband in a small apartment in the southwest of Amsterdam, across the street from a bakery. They were gracious hosts and talked of their close friendship with the Frank family. Miep showed us some of her personal memorabilia and photographs of Anne -- a white shoe bag Anne had made with her initials sewn on in red thread; a menu Anne had typed for Miep to mark her wedding anniversary, celebrated one day in the annex; a thin shawl Anne wore over her shoulders when her hair was being cut; and many pictures of Anne in front of the house at 263 Prinsengracht before the Franks went into hiding.
While Miep and her husband had kept up their friendship with Otto Frank until his death, she had stayed out of the limelight herself. But friends and others interested in the Anne Frank story had urged her for a long time to write a book about her remembrances of Anne and her account of what it was like living in occupied Holland. The book has just been published.
Miep was a key figure in the publication of the diary. She had retrieved it from the annex floor and had saved it until Otto Frank returned from Auschwitz and it became clear that Anne had died. It was published in 1947.
I asked Miep whether she had read the diary during the time it had been in her possession. "Heavens, no," she responded, explaining that it was Anne's private journal. In retrospect, she said that if she had read it and seen all the names of people that Anne had mentioned and inadvertently jeopardized had the book fallen into the wrong hands, "I would have burned the diary."
The house at 263 Prinsengracht was nearly demolished in the 1950s. At the time the neighborhood had deteriorated and plans were underway to raze the property and redevelop it. But a campaign evolved to save the house, and the city of Amsterdam bought the property. It was opened as a museum in 1960.
The hypotheticals and "what-ifs" abound when thinking of Anne Frank. If only the arrest had not occurred the day it did, Holland might have been liberated before the Franks were put on the last train to Auschwitz. If only Anne had not contracted typhus at Bergen-Belsen ... .
But what is and what remains are what we have to live with and make the most of. The visit to Anne's house and our meeting with Miep affected both Melissa and me profoundly. Yes, Amsterdam is a wonderful, vibrant city, which we enjoyed fully during our brief visit. But it was the connection with Anne Frank, our time spent in the little rooms where she so bravely hung on to the sliver of life that had been allotted her, our conversation with Miep, a woman who could give personal reminiscences of Anne, that made the trip to Amsterdam something special.
As I looked at the photographs of Anne we left the museum, I felt that Anne and I truly did have an intangible link.
Louis Berney is a free-lance writer.
The Anne Frank House is open year-round, Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. From June through August, the museum remains open daily until 7 p.m. There is a small admission fee. The museum is located in the central city, just a five-minute walk from Dam Square -- the commercial hub of Amsterdam -- and 10 minutes from the central railroad station. For further information, contact the Anne Frank Foundation, Prinsengracht 263, 1016 GV Amsterdam, Holland, phone 020-26-45-33.