Behind Anne Frank’s Diary

Early morning line outside the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam
Photos Courtesy of © Anne Frank House / Photographer: Cris Toala Olivares

A Visit to the Anne Frank House

    Heavy rain washed the streets of Amsterdam on a wintry morning a few days before Passover. Holding a cup of coffee from a local café, I walked from the central Dam Square down to the water of the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) that encircles the city.
    At 9 AM a long line of visitors was already queuing at the Anne Frank House. The museum, which was established at the beginning of the 1960s, is dedicated to Anne Frank’s story. It is a popular site commemorating the Holocaust and the Second World War, visited by more than a million guests annually.
    At the entrance to the museum, I thought how surreal it is that a site symbolizing one of the darkest periods in human history is located in the heart of one of the most colorful, happy, and lively cities in the world.
    Eighty years ago, a Jewish girl lived in this building in complete secrecy. For most of her childhood in Amsterdam, she was unable to play outside freely, to sing, or even laugh out loud like other children her age. She couldn’t go to the grocery store or the library down the road.

Anne Frank in her childhood

  For her thirteenth birthday, Anne received a diary with a red fabric cover, white stripes, and a golden clasp. On the blank pages she began to record precise and honest depictions of her complex daily life. She expressed her thoughts and fears, her angers and her loves, her adolescence growing up between four walls, her relationship with her parents, and her experience of the frustrating and frightening world in which she lived.

Anne Frank official documentation

    When Anne started keeping her diary, writing was a fundamentally personal experience. She never thought about having an audience or planned for it to be published. Yet a year before the end of the war, in April 1944, she heard the Dutch Minister of Education speaking on the radio, saying that after the war ended they intended to collect documents and diaries documenting the suffering of the Dutch people, in order to tell the human story behind it. Only then did Anne understand the importance of her diary.

Visitors passing through a hallway in the original Frank family home

    For two entire years she depicted her impossible life in her diary: the fears caused by the war, the need for silence and secrecy to survive in hiding, the concern that one of the neighbors would inform the authorities about the hiding place, which would surely lead to deportation and death.
    With a mature, critical, and sensitive eye, she portrayed her adolescence between the four walls of her room, the sexual awakening she experienced as a teenage girl, and her difficult relationship with her mother. Anne also included journalistic reports of nearly the entire war, tracking the progress of the Allied troops in their battles against the Nazi army.
    Seventy-six years have passed since the diary was published, and it is still considered one of the most important and fascinating personal documents of the Holocaust and Second World War. The book has been translated into more than 75 languages and over 33 million copies have been sold worldwide.
   “In the evenings when it’s dark, I often see long lines of good, innocent people accompanied by crying children, walking on and on, ordered about by a handful of men who bully and beat them until they nearly drop. No one is spared. The sick, the elderly, children, babies and pregnant women—all are marched to their death.” (The Diary of Anne Frank)

The hidden room behind the bookcase

    Anne Frank was born on July 12, 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany, the youngest daughter of Otto Frank, a businessman and intellectual, and Edith, a housewife. Her older sister, Margot, also kept a diary, but it was lost during the war. The family was active and well-known in the German Jewish community. After Hitler rose to power, Otto Frank took his family to Amsterdam. With the help of his connections, he arranged for himself a job managing a branch of the international Opekta spice company.
    In 1939, when the war broke out, Holland declared its neutrality. However, Hitler was determined to invade the country as part of his plans to conquer the entire continent. On May 15, after only five days of fighting, Holland was conquered. Upon occupation, a series of decrees were instituted against the country’s Jewish population, which then numbered 140,000. Jews were forbidden to manage or own commercial companies. Jewish children were banned from schools and allowed to study only in Jewish educational institutions. Later, Jews were forced to wear the yellow star, the first step in implementing the Final Solution in Holland. The Nazis began to hunt Jews throughout the country, and tens of thousands were taken to concentration camps, first and foremost the Westerbork transit camp in Holland; some were deported by train to the extermination camps in Poland. At the end of the war, only around 40,000 Dutch Jews remained alive.

The Frank family bookcase that hid secret rooms below

The Museum Visit
    The Anne Frank House is a historic building that has been renovated on a number of occasions. It was built in 1635 and has served various purposes: a private home, a commercial building storing merchandise imported by sea, a workshop that produced household items, and a factory that made parts for pianos. Today the building is divided up into three sections: the entrance to the museum, which presents the destruction of European Jewry, another section that recreates the home of the Frank family, and the back part which is the original structure in which Anne and her family lived, including her room and the attic, her hiding place.
    The museum was established by Anne’s father, Otto Frank, the only member of the family to survive. The Frank family moved to Amsterdam in 1940 after fleeing Germany. Otto understood that Holland too would eventually be conquered. He therefore prepared a plan for the house to serve as offices for his spice company. The first floor would house the company’s offices and the bottom floor would serve as a warehouse, with the two floors for the hideout at the back of the building.

Visitors passing through a hallway in the original Frank family home

  At the entrance to the museum, visitors receive wireless headphones that broadcast a guided tour available in twelve different languages, including Hebrew. The tour describes the German invasion of the city, the chaos in the streets, and how the Nazi soldiers persecuted the Jews of Amsterdam. During the tour of the reconstructed part of the house, you learn about the original objects and furniture, the rooms in which the family lived, and the sounds and sights that characterized the neighborhood. The digital guide combines the voice of a narrator with that of a young girl reading quotes from Anne’s diary. The precise reconstruction was made possible by Anne’s father, who ensured that the house looked exactly as it did during the war and provided information about Anne’s life.
    Progressing from the museum to the back section in which Anne lived is chilling. It feels like moving to another time: the wide space with the high ceiling and modern design gives way to an old structure, small and narrow. The wooden floor creaks, reminiscent of old thrillers from the 1940s. The climb up to Anne’s room, which has been meticulously restored, is tense and claustrophobic. Otto Frank rejected many proposals to refurnish the house and replace the objects plundered by the Nazis. He claimed that the empty rooms symbolized the emptiness that remained after all their possessions were seized. He wanted visitors to feel this too.

The original Anne Frank diary

    In Anne’s room you can see the original wallpaper protected by glass, her bed, a small writing desk, and drawings on the walls. Also on display are pictures from Anne’s childhood with her family alongside the letters that she received from the Nazis, instructing her to report immediately to a work camp—letters that she courageously chose to ignore. One of the most moving parts of the tour is seeing the bookcase that hid the entrance to the small hiding place in which Anne hid for more than two years.
    The visit to the house itself entails walking through narrow passages, corridors, and winding stairs. During the tour, visitors can watch three documentary films about the events of the period and the Nazi occupation as well as the personal story of Anne and her family. At the last stop in the museum, there is always a long line of people waiting to see the original diary, wonderfully preserved. You only have to look at their faces to understand how deeply affected they are by the story of this Jewish girl who became a symbol for millions.
Anne Frank and the Next Generation
    In many schools in Israel, learning about Anne Frank is a part of the core curriculum: everyone must read the diary. In Holland too, the book is part of the curriculum. However, in numerous places around the world, this is not the case. Most of Gen Z do not prefer books, having grown up surrounded by the Internet, smartphones, and screens. The Anne Frank House devised an effective way to reach them, encouraging many young people to read the diary and learn about this important story. Last year, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the diary’s publication, the museum produced an Internet series—Anne Frank the Video Diary, starring a young Mexican-Dutch actress named Luna Cruz-Perez as Anne. Rather than writing a diary, she films a video documenting the period and the events of her life in a kind of Mehubarim (an Israeli Documentary Reality show) version of Holland during the war. Together with a complete cast of actors playing her family and friends, the series brings to life select parts of the major events in Anne Frank’s story.
    Anne Frank wrote the last entry in her diary on August 1, 1944. Three days later, after an unknown informant revealed the location of their hiding place, Dutch police were sent to the family’s home. There they found the bookcase hiding the entrance to the secret rooms in the attic. Anne and her family were arrested and sent to the Westerbork transit camp. A month later, they were deported to Auschwitz, where Anne was separated from her parents. Her mother, Edith, was murdered in Auschwitz; Anne and her sister Margot perished in Bergen-Belsen at the beginning of March 1945, only a month before the camp was liberated by the British army.
    Since time immemorial, adults have had a strong drive to protect children and build a better world for them. Europe of the 1940s completely failed in this respect. Today, the Anne Frank House and the educational foundation provide a resounding reminder that we cannot tolerate the hate and antisemitic attacks that continue to take place if we are to build that better world. Anne Frank’s diary will be remembered forever as the most authentic document of the Holocaust, something with which children and adults can connect, each in his or her own way. We must remember and never forget.

Elad Massuri is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.


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