Every time I visit Amsterdam I always spend an hour or two at the Anne Frank House. When I was a child this was the one book I read over and over again, until the covers literally fell off. My grandmother thought I had a morbid fascination with the war and shouldn’t read such things. But I carried on regardless. That book did three things. It inspired my interest in the persecution of others and taught me to question. It also inspired me to write a diary.
Anne Frank and her family were Jewish. During World War Two they went into hiding in an office block in Amsterdam where they lived for 2 years before being discovered and sent to concentration camps.
I first visited Anne Frank’s House when I was backpacking around Europe and recall visiting the secret annexe as it had been left. Five years later I was back with a work colleague who was bemused to be taken around this building of empty rooms when she really wanted to see the night clubs and bars.
In May this year I returned.The sun was shining down on the canals but I noticed a lot of differences to my first visit. Amsterdam was so crowded, especially with tourists. I’m aware that I am also a tourist but the sheer volume of people walking along the canals was remarkable. And then there were the selfies. People taking pictures of themselves everywhere, and especially on the photogenic bridges over the canals. And that is also what has significantly changed with the Anne Frank House. At one time you could walk in off the street and look around. Today visitors must book in advance online as the volume of people needs to be controlled. So with my time limited ticket I walked along to Prinsengracht, noticing the bright chestnut trees, window boxes with charming purple violas, and the houseboats moored on the canal. I knew I was close when I saw the Westertoren Church Tower- Anne Frank used to write about its chimes. At 5pm I heard that wonderful sound ringing out across the canal.
The building is very different to when I visited in the 1980’s. It has been dramatically modernised to cope with the visitors and preserve the rooms. I wasn’t sure at first as I listened to my audiovisual guide, watching the films of the German invasion. The rooms were grey, modern, and not what I recalled. I immediately wondered whether the old annexe had been stripped away. Surely not.
I walked through what had been the offices. It still looked too fresh. I continued through the building to what was the spice store in the office block. The business had imported spices and with the blinds closed to keep the light from damaging the spice, this looked more authentic. One of the advantages of modern technology is the Anne Frank House has interviews with the people involved in hiding the family- and it was fascinating to hear their thoughts when touring the building. How they did not hesitate to help suck in my mind.
When I turned the corner and saw the steep wooden steps behind a familiar bookcase I knew the original attic was there. That bookcase hid the annexe and I had seen the photo so many times.In Anne Frank’s room where she wrote, the pictures of royalty and film stars were still pasted to the wall. A young Princess Elizabeth looked out from a black and white postcard Incredibly, she has just turned 92.
In the attic space a mirror showed the rooftop view that Anne would have seen. On 23 February 1944 she wrote:
“I go to the attic almost every morning. This morning when I went there, peter was busy cleaning up. The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air.”
Anne also wrote: “When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived.” Anne Frank April 5 1944.
I took those last words with me in spirit as I walked back to my hotel.
Anne Frank died in Bergen Belsen in 1945. Only her father, Otto Frank, survived the war, and it was he who published her diary.