Anne Frank House Amsterdam: Beyond the secret annexe

There are few places in the world worth waiting hours in the wind, rain and snow for. Anne Frank House is one of them. Located at Prinsengracht 263 in the centre of Amsterdam, there is little to distinguish the large canal house from the others that surround it, save for the queue, sometimes three hours long, that curves down the cobbled street and around the corner by the Westerkerk Cathedral.   

Stories of the Dutch resistance abound in Amsterdam: the hundreds of Jewish children smuggled from a creche in the shadow of a passing tram; the dozens of Jews who hid behind the animal enclosures at the Artis Zoo and even the palace, where the basement not only concealed the bricked up art of the royal family, but also the caretaker's Jewish brother-in-law. 

Yet the best-known story remains that of Anne Frank and the occupants of the secret annexe. The teenager might have been just another lost soul in the history of a catastrophic and horrifying genocide, were it not for her diary, kept for two years while her family hid in the back of her father's warehouse. Published posthumously in 1947, The Diary of a Young Girl has been translated into 67 languages, with an estimated 30 million copies sold worldwide. 

Anne Frank House opened to the public in 1960, after a decade-long struggle to save the dilapidated building from demolition. Visitors enter via the ground floor warehouse, continuing up to the second floor offices, before passing the swinging bookcase to the secret annexe that concealed Anne, her parents, sister Margot, and four others for 25 months.  

Even though Anne's diary gave detailed descriptions of the annexe, it's not until you clamber through the narrow maze of the crooked, centuries-old canal house that you understand how the family were so well concealed.

Visitors to the museum are able to explore two floors of the secret annexe. However, the stairs to the attic, which provided Anne with her only window to the outside world, are blocked off. Instead, a simple mirror reflects the view of the attic window, through which Anne watched the leaves of a neighbouring chestnut tree blossom and fall through the seasons. 

The museum is sparse but this is to its credit: rather than try to recreate it with furniture, instead it has been left empty. Tiny details remain, such as the images Anne pasted to the faded yellow bedroom wall: newspaper clippings of Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers, a self-portrait of Rembrandt and a cockatoo. In one room a small map of Normandy is affixed to the wall, and in another, faint pencil lines show Anne and Margot's growth over their time in the attic – the kind of familiar markings found in any family home.  

It was Anne's father, Otto Frank, who shaped the decision to keep the rooms of the secret annexe bare. After its occupants were arrested, the rooms were ransacked and all furniture confiscated. 

However, one thing that was left was the manuscript for Anne's diary. The police who arrested them confiscated all valuables on the spot, fetching Otto Frank's briefcase to carry them. The contents, including the manuscripts of Anne's diary, were discarded on the floor like trash. Returned to Otto Frank after the war, the diary became one of the most important war records in existence.  

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Copies of the original red tartan diary – and the re-edited manuscripts Anne was working on at the time in the hope of publication – are on display at the museum, encased in a glass box. Her handwriting is neat and tiny, with dated entries and notes in the margins showing the economy needed in times of wartime scarcity. 

I'm leaning over the glass case when the bells of the nearby Westerkerk begin their hourly carillon: the same bells Anne wrote of in her diary, a constant companion to the passage of time and for her, a source of reassurance. 

It's humbling to visit Anne Frank House and many are happy to exit through the gift shop, purchasing a copy of the diary to reread on their travels. But Anne's story doesn't end there. Instead, it continues north of Amsterdam, in the province of Drenthe​. After being detained, the occupants of the secret annexe were sent by train to Westerbork, a transit camp for Jews. Located deep in the Dutch countryside, the former site of the transit camp is surrounded by forest and farmland, and sees little of the crowds that swarm Anne Frank House. 

Ironically, before the war Westerbork was a refugee camp for German refugees fleeing Germany. During occupation, it became an internment and transit camp, the central gateway from which most Dutch Jews were shipped to concentration camps in the east. 

At the entrance to the site there is an excellent museum that recounts what life was like for prisoners. Along with its own currency, there was a toy factory (where baby rattles made with nail heads were produced), a camp shop where you could buy French cosmetics not available anywhere else in the Netherlands, and even a camp orchestra. Yet this was still a camp run by SS guards, and a German uniform sits in a glass case. A recreation of the bunkhouse sits in one part of the museum, while a simple scarf, knitted from fuses by a mother for her ill daughter, is on display in another. 

Five boxes mounted to a wall contain audio stories of individuals who survived the camp. I listen to each tale, but when I open the last box, I find myself staring at my reflection in a small mirror that belonged to a prisoner — a war relic that serves as simple reminder of how easily this could happen to anyone. 

A smiling portrait of Anne hangs at the museum entrance. The occupants of the secret annexe spent four weeks here in August 1944, assigned to punishment barrack number 67, designated for "convict Jews" who had been in hiding. Anne was also assigned one of the worst duties in camp: stripping used batteries for parts. 

A shuttle runs to the camp from the museum car park. There isn't much left of the main camp: the concrete footprint of some of the barracks and work sheds, a potato larder where food was stored, as well as a series of memorials. Strangely, fields of huge satellite dishes rim the site, a jarring juxtaposition to the pastoral landscape.

It is a warm summer's day when we visit, and the camp lacks the skin-crawling atmosphere of the concentration camps in Germany or Poland. But this was still an evil place. 

A weekly prisoner transport left the camp each Tuesday for Poland's death camps. Of the 60,000 prisoners sent from Westerbork to Auschwitz, only 673 returned. Of the 34,000 prisoners sent to from Westerbork to Sobibor, only 19 returned. 

The occupants of the secret annexe were placed on the 83rd transport to leave Westerbork on September 3,  1944. In a cruel twist of fate, it was the last prisoner transport to leave the Netherlands. Its destination was Auschwitz. While the railway that ran from the Westerbork was removed years ago, the Westerbork National Monument stands where the tracks once ran. Ninety-seven railway sleepers lie along the tracks, one for each transport that left the Netherlands for the death camps. The rails themselves are mangled and torn up towards the sky, symbolic that no train will leave here again.  

A bike path runs just behind the monument on the fringe of the camp through the forest, and on this Sunday afternoon, it is filled with noisy families riding bikes and dog walkers enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. 

 "I don't think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains…" Anne wrote in her diary. "My advice is: Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy.

Annelies Marie Frank died in March 1945 at Bergen–Belsen. She was 15. 

FIVE OTHER DUTCH WARTIME MUSEUMS

JEWISH HISTORICAL MUSEUM 

Located in Amsterdam, this museum explores the Jewish experience in the Netherlands during World War II. See jhm.nl

DUTCH RESISTANCE MUSEUM

Excellent museum outlining how the Dutch resistance fought back during the German occupation. Located in Amsterdam. See verzetsmuseum.org

HOLLANDSCHE SCHOUWBURG

 A former theatre where Jewish prisoners were processed, now a memorial to those who were killed. See hollandscheschouwburg.nl

CAMP VUGHT

Similar to Westerbork, this former SS camp is located in the south of Holland. See nmkampvught.nl

NATIONAL WAR AND RESISTANCE MUSEUM

Located on the site of the Battle of Overloon, this is the biggest war museum in the Netherlands. See oorlogsmuseum.nl

TRIP NOTES 

GETTING THERE

Qantas fly to Amsterdam from $1897. See qantas.com or 13 13 13.

STAYING THERE  

Sofitel The Grand Amsterdam has rooms from $654 (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197, +31 20 555 3111. See sofitel-legend-thegrand.com

VISITING THERE

Anne Frank House is at Prinsengracht 263-267 (+31 (0) 20 5567105): Entry costs €9 (about $13). A new, ticketed online entry system applies between 9am and 3.30pm. Open 9am to 10pm (April to October), 9am to 7pm November to March (9pm on Saturdays). Closed Yom Kippur. See Annefrank.org 

Westerbork is near Hooghalen; two hours drive north of Amsterdam (Oosthalen 8, +31 (0) 593 592600). Public transport is limited, so car hire is recommended. Entry costs €8.50. Open weekdays 10am to 5pm, weekends 11am to 5pm (closed Christmas, New Year, and January 3 to January 27). The museum and parking is located  about three kilometres from the camp; a visitor shuttle bus runs every 20 minutes during opening hours. See kampwesterbork.nl

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