The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam was one of the reasons we decided on this city as our first trip into Europe. Both Lexie and I had just finished reading Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl, and knowing that this important piece of history was only a train ride away from our home was too hard to pass up. In my opinion, there is no better way to learn about history than to read about it and then see what’s left of it for yourself.
This museum was the first thing we saw in Amsterdam, but I have saved it for last because the prospect of properly writing about this experience has been a little daunting. I’m no wordsmith, and I’m only a halfway decent photographer (and I only took a handful of photos from the museum), so the chances of me writing about the house and our experience there while also giving it the credit it’s due are pretty slim. Bear with me, but keep in mind this is one of those times when reading about something comes nowhere close to actually experiencing it.
The Anne Frank House and Museum is located in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam. The house sits on the pretty, houseboat-lined Prinsengracht canal right next to the Westerkerk, the church Anne mentions in her diary whose bells would chime throughout the day. From a small space in the attic, a part of the clock tower attached to the church could be seen. This was one of the only views to the outside world available to the families inside the secret annex.
From the outside, the Anne Frank House is rather nondescript. If it weren’t for the hordes of people taking photos and standing in line outside to get in, you’d pass it without a second glance. The front of this building housed Mr. Frank’s two businesses during the war. The bottom floor was the warehouse, the second floor – the offices, the third floor – the storeroom, and at the back of this floor was where the entrance to the secret annex was located.
Back to the crowds of people standing outside – do yourself a favor and purchase your admission tickets online. Online ticket holders can bypass the line and enter through a separate entrance to the museum. We weren’t aware of this when we arrived to the museum and found the line stretching across the front of the building, through a long alleyway, and snaking around the perimeter of an open square back behind the museum. Two hours. That’s how long we waited to get in. It was completely worth every minute, but if you know what day and time you’d like to visit, reserve your tickets ahead of time. (Admission for adults is only €9, children under 10 are free, and older kids are only €4.50.)
While we waited in line, an employee from the museum offered everyone pamphlets in at least a half dozen different languages giving visitors a little background about the Franks’ story. Nothing can replace actually reading Anne’s diary or any of the books written after the war detailing the daily life and early deaths of the people hiding in the annex, but if all you’ve got time for is this pamphlet, make sure you take one. At the very least, it’ll give you something to do while you’re standing in line.
The tour begins in the warehouse and offices on the first two floors. The walls of these halls are now decorated with memorabilia and photographs of the families and the business associates who helped keep everyone safe until their capture. A few televisions broadcast short films about the era and interviews with those still living after the war who had interacted with the members of the secret annex during the war. Walking through these mostly empty halls and rooms, listening to people relate the events surrounding the need for Jews to go into hiding, put me in the state of mind I needed to be in to appropriately appreciate what we were about to see.
After viewing small scale models of the rooms in the secret annex that were put together with the aid of Otto Frank, the only remaining survivor after the families were captured, we entered the storeroom where the hidden entrance to the families’ hiding place was. A photo on the wall shows what the room looked like in 1954. It doesn’t look much different today.
As I made my way into the storeroom, it really began to hit just how real this was. In sixth grade when I first read the diary and gave my book report in character as Anne Frank, I couldn’t comprehend the importance of what I was sharing. And then reading the book years later as an adult, I still couldn’t fully grasp it all. It wasn’t until I stepped behind the bookcase and over the threshold that it registered – I was walking through the same door where people much more important than I entered under much more dangerous circumstances.
Memories from Anne’s diary came flooding back from the minute I stepped through the entrance and hit my head on the low-hanging door frame, something Anne mentioned happening to her as she came through the door as well. The rooms inside the secret annex are now empty at the request of Mr. Frank. After the families were arrested, much of the contents of the annex were stolen or destroyed. The only fixtures remaining are the toilet and the stone counter and sink in the kitchen.
It’s dark inside the annex, and there seems to be an unspoken agreement among all the visitors that we will walk through the rooms quietly and respectfully. The somber atmosphere only makes the experience even more emotional as we make our way through the tiny rooms where eight people slept, cooked, fought and made up, prayed for the end of the war, and generally tried to live as quietly as possible for two years. A narrow Dutch staircase leads to even more tiny rooms on the second level of the annex. The attic where Anne spent time with her first and only love is closed off, but visitors can still peer upwards into it from the floor below.
As we make our way out of the annex and into the museum portion of the Anne Frank House, the museum picks up where the annex left off – it shares the story of the raid on the secret annex, the subsequent arrests, and what became of each of the people in hiding once they were shipped off to separate concentration camps. A woman who survived the concentration camp where Anne was held tells an incredible story about how she was reunited with Anne at the camp. They had been school friends prior to the Frank’s move into hiding and neither had known what had become of the other until they came to find each other at Bergen-Belsen. If you can make it through this video without shedding a tear, you are made of much tougher stuff than I am.
The exhibition area leads into a small, dark room where Anne’s actual diary is kept, along with pages of her other writings preserved behind glass. A video featuring an interview with Otto Frank describes how Anne’s diary was saved by one of the business’ employees and eventually published after it was given to Otto upon his return to Amsterdam to see if anyone in his family had survived. The tour of the museum ends in the temporary exhibition room which, during the week that we saw the museum, showcased photos of Anne through the years.
Everything is so tastefully done here. It’s the right mix of educational and emotionally moving. I can’t imagine anyone coming to visit Amsterdam and not taking the time to see this crucial piece of history, even if you have to wait in a two-hour line to do it!