August 15, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
My Poignant Visit To Anne Frank’s Secret Annex In Amsterdam
Many of us have grown up with the tragic story of Anne Frank, the young German girl whose dream of becoming a famous author was realized posthumously.
You hear all about her poignant wish when touring the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, something I had the privilege of doing two weeks ago. I included the tour in my schedule, securing tickets six weeks in advance. That’s how popular the site is.
Anne’s famous diary begins in 1942 as she writes the story of, her family and friends of the family who joined the Franks in hiding from the Nazis in the back annex of a commercial building.
Anne describes her daily life in a red-plaid journal she received as a gift on her 13th birthday. In it, Anne relates her hopes, fears and teenage angst while sequestered with her parents, older sister and four family friends in the building where Otto Frank had once conducted business until Jews were banned from business ownership. He had started Opekta, a manufacturing and distribution business involving pectin jelling preparations for making jam, in his native Germany. The family relocated to Amsterdam in 1934 to escape Nazi persecution, which would eventually catch up with them.
I passed behind the now-famous wooden book case built to disguise stairs to an upper level. Each of the small rooms appears much as they were found at the end of World War II, save furniture and other personal effects that were left after officers ransacked the living quarters.
The small quarters the Franks used are warren of rooms and passageways connected to the street-front portion of the complex. The windows have frosted glass, allowing dimmed sunlight. Taped to the walls of Anne’s bedroom are photos of 1940s celebrities: Ray Milland Norma Shearer, Ginger Rogers, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of Great Britain.
Digging deeper, I learned that the four-story building at 236 Prinsengracht—on an Amsterdam canal--was erected in 1635, when the Dutch city was already a world trading hub. The brick structure, like most from that era, is extremely narrow because land was so valuable. It still is. “Annexes” were erected behind the main houses as a place for merchants to store goods, thus the name “Secret Annex” that Anne uses in her diary.
The Franks narrowly escaped detection in 1943 when the property was sold. The purchaser asked about seeing the annex portion of the building, but was told that the key could not be found. Surprisingly, the property sold, and the buyer didn’t probe further.
In August 1944, an informant told police about the Secret Annex and the people hiding there. All eight were sent to concentration camps. Anne and her sister succumbed to typhus at Bergen-Belsen camp just two months before the war ended in 1945. Their father, Otto, was the lone survivor. Anne’s writings and her precious plaid journal were discovered among rubble left in the Annex after it was ransacked by the police.
Like so many, I’ve read Anne Frank’s diary and various books about her experience, have seen movies, documentaries and plays. In fact, I came close to appearing in a dramatization when I was Anne Frank’s age as she began her diary.
In eighth grade, our English teacher agreed to direct a play for the public. The class had a choice of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which I favored, or “Home Sweet Homicide,” a forgettable comedy mystery. Class discussion centered on who might play the character of Miep Gies, one of the non-Jewish friends who supplied the Franks with food and other necessities and later, after the Franks had been shunted away, hid the diary for safekeeping.
In the script, Miep is pregnant, a fact that was a very minor part of the story and could have been edited out. Nevertheless, it was determined that no eighth-grade girl would want to portray a pregnant woman. Besides, Anne Frank’s story was such a downer! And so, Anne Frank was swept aside.
Years later, as public relations director for Lenoir-Rhyne College, I learned that a faculty member had a direct connection to Anne Frank’s diary. Dr. Suzanne Jeffers, professor of English, had worked for Doubleday in New York in the early 1950s. I asked her if the rumor was true—that she was among the first in America to read Anne Frank’s writing.
Jeffers confirmed the story. Our interview was featured in Profile, the magazine of Lenoir-Rhyne College. In 1951, she was on the Children’s Book Division staff at Doubleday. She was asked to read galley proofs of The Diary of a Young Girl, which had been published with moderate success in Europe.
Jeffers took the galleys home with her, beginning to read on the subway. The next morning, when she turned up for work, her boss could tell she had been up all night, clear evidence of how compelling Anne Frank’s story is. Jeffers suggested that Doubleday publish the diary as an adult book rather than one for children.
Doubleday published the diary in 1952. The book was adapted to a play in 1955, and a movie in 1959, and met with worldwide acclaim.
Today The Diary of a Young Girl is the most widely read nonfiction book in the world outside the Bible. More than 31 million copies have been sold in 67 languages.
---Tammy Wilson lives near Newton. Contact her at [email protected]