Saturday, 28 September 2013

Behind the bookcase

It would have to be one of the most famous bookcases in the world.

But most people who come to it are more interested in what was concealed behind it.

I'm at Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, where the young Jewish girl and others hid in a secret annexe for more than two years during World War Two.

The house sits quietly on an Amsterdam canal, amid the pot smoke and groups of revellers who have come to the city to party for the weekend.  It's a somber contrast to the city's "good time" offerings.

Born in Germany, her family moved to the Netherlands when the Nazis came to power.  However, with Germany's invasion of The Netherlands, her father Otto decided the family should go into hiding in the annexe at the back of his factory.

I recently re-read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and was taken aback at how articulate and insightful she was.  It's hard to imagine teenagers today exhibiting the same profound thinking or writing skills.

When I was reading the book, I never quite got a grasp of how the annexe was laid out and it's connection to the factory.  Needless to say, wandering through the rooms, I was surprised at how small  they were and wondered how eight people could live in its confinements for so long.

Even with all the furniture gone, removed after they were arrested, the rooms are tiny.  And with wooden floorboards creaking under every step, it would have been impossible for the annexe's inhabitants to move without inadvertently alerting workers down below.

I found some of the simplest things the most confronting as they were the most tangible reminders that Anne Frank and her family were here: pictures Anne had pasted on her bedroom wall, Anne and Margot's height markings on the wall, and Otto's mud map of the Allies' advance.

There is also the swinging bookcase itself and I can only imagine how petrified the inhabitants would have been when police stormed through it to raid the annexe.

The accompanying museum helps complete the picture on Anne Frank and the other inhabitants of the annexe.  

Her father, Otto, the only survivor of the family, returned to Amsterdam after the war in the hope of finding his family. He waited at the train station every day to see if his family would be among the returning prisoners. 

However, Anne, and her sister Margo, had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where it is believed they had died of typhus in March 1945.  Not long after, the camp was liberated.

Otto found that Anne's diary had been saved.  It is now on display in the place where it was written.

One of the saddest parts of my visit to Anne Frank Huis is a video where Otto speaks about reading Anne's diary.  He says Anne's comments and thoughts were a complete surprise to him, which led him to believe that parents never really know their children.

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