‘Two bloody hours to see a bookshelf hiding a staircase?’
Amsterdam's best-known tourist secret is Anne Frank's secret annex
February is not tourist season in Amsterdam. The city is cold and wet. You can walk in and out of museums without pre-booking tickets—everywhere except 263 Prinsengracht, that is. Come wind, water or heavy snow, nothing seems to deter the steady resolve of the hordes queuing outside this canal property.
Today, I am one of them, putting my patience to the test amongst chatty American pensioners and a group of rowdy Englishmen. The guard says it could take over 2 hours to enter. “Two hours?" There’s an exasperated exclamation from a young girl with fake eyelashes. “Two bloody hours to see a bookshelf hiding a staircase?" That’s precisely what the secret annex is. A swinging bookcase leading to now empty rooms that once provided a hideout for a young Jewish teenage girl and her family from the Nazis.
An old lady in a snow jacket in front of me glares at the girl. I look at the gulls flying over the canal. Rusty boats line the sides. A cobbled street along the canal curves down to the corner by Westerkerk Cathedral. It starts drizzling again; I open my rain-soaked umbrella.
From smuggling Jewish children to safety in the shadows of passing trams, to hiding dozens of Jews behind the enclosures at the Artis Royal Zoo, many Dutch citizens refused to betray their Jewish neighbours during the Nazi occupation. Stories about Nazi resistance abound in Amsterdam; its best known is still that of the secret annex.
Yet the best-known story remains that of Anne Frank and the occupants of the secret annex. The teenager might have been just another name in the holocaust if it were not for the diary she kept for about two years when her family hid in the back of her father’s warehouse.
As they did in 1942, visitors today also enter the building from the ground-floor warehouse, continuing up to the second-floor offices before passing the famous bookcase that conceals the entrance to the secret annex where Anne, along with her family and four others, spent 25 months. Copies of her original diary, bound in tartan covers, are on display in what used to be the room she shared with two others.
It takes some effort to reach her diary and the pages of the re-edited manuscript she was working on, through the army of camera-wielding visitors. I peer through the glass box that encases them. The handwriting is neat, with tidy strokes.
To the museum’s credit and visitors’ disappointment, the house is kept nearly empty. There is no recreated furniture. It is a warehouse—uncomfortable and cold. Tiny details remain, however; little memories created by those who tried to make it into a home. On the yellow walls, newspaper clippings of Greta Garbo pasted by the smitten teenager. In another room, a small map of Normandy, and in another, faint pencil marks that show Anne and her sister Margot’s height marks.
Information slates on the walls inform visitors that the annex residents were arrested by the SS on 4 August 1944 and sent to a labour camp in northern Netherlands before being sent to Auschwitz.
I walk out through the gift shop. The sun is out and the narrow streets are filled with dog walkers and bikers. Couples stroll by the canal and children hand out treats to the noisy gulls.
“I don’t think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains," Anne wrote. “Go outside, enjoy the sun and all that nature has to offer. Go outside, try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty within yourself and in everything around you and be happy."
Annelies Marie Frank died in March 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She was 15.