AMSTERDAM — Far from the city center but close to the wide Amstel River, Anne Frank’s childhood home is found in the tidy River Quarter. Although vast changes have occurred in some Amsterdam neighborhoods since World War II, the well-planned enclave in which the diarist grew up has been relatively untouched.
As a destination of choice for thousands of German Jews fleeing the Nazis, the River Quarter of the 1930s boasted large new housing projects and a sense of distance from the cramped inner city — including the dilapidated Jewish Quarter. The boulevards were wide and filling up with new trees, and many apartments had the coveted rarity of central heating. Trams connected the neighborhood to downtown, but like today, many people rode bicycles.
The Frank family’s apartment was on the Merwedeplein, a triangle-shaped cluster of housing blocks extending out from Amsterdam’s first high-rise, the 12-story wolkenkrabber, or skyscraper. Tenants’ children made constant use of the large courtyard, which was essentially a communal sandbox. To call down their playmates, children whistled personalized tunes outside each other’s windows. For these and other reasons, Frank called the Merwedeplein square, “The Merry.”
“Each building was like the next, its simple façade sand-colored brick, its shutters a plain white, its balconies in back just large enough for two chaise lounges,” wrote Melissa Muller in her acclaimed biography of Anne Frank. “This was modern city-planning, uncomplicated, versatile, inexpensive, without history and without profile — and perhaps for those very reasons perfect for people who had to start fresh.”
After the Frank family’s arrival in 1934, additional waves of German Jews fled to the Netherlands. By some accounts, Dutch citizens were more suspicious of these refugees because they came from Germany than because they were Jewish. As for Amsterdam’s existing Jewish community, there was some resentment directed toward the upstart newcomers, along with fears their arrival would stoke anti-Jewish sentiment.
“Each day, more and more refugees from Germany were moving into our neighborhood, mostly Jews,” wrote Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who later hid the Frank family and four other Jews during the war. “The joke became that on the Number 8 streetcar, ‘the ticket taker also speaks Dutch.’ Many of those refugees were more affluent than the Dutch workers in the neighborhood, and they created a stir when seen in fur or with other fancy possessions,” wrote Gies in her memoir, “Anne Frank Remembered.”
As an extroverted attention-seeker, Frank held court among her friends in ice cream parlors, bike sheds and other adolescent hot spots. She named one of her friend groups, “The Little Dipper Minus Two,” comprised of five girls who played a lot of ping-pong. When they tired of the game, the friends could ride their bikes, go to a communal pool, or meet with Frank’s young male admirers, some of whom she introduced early in the diary.
“Since we five ping-pong players like ice cream, especially in the summer, and since you get hot playing ping-pong, our games usually end with a visit to the nearest ice cream parlor that allows Jews: either Oasis or Delphi,” Frank wrote in her diary. It was June of 1942, and she had just received the red-checkered notebook as a 13th birthday present from her parents. There would only be a few more weeks of freedom for the Frank family.
Unlike the city’s dismantled and built-over Jewish Quarter, the River Quarter retained many landmarks from the pre-war era. The Oasis ice cream parlor still exists, now as a café. So too does the large Orthodox synagogue building — now an auction house — where the Nazis stored belongings taken from Jewish deportees.
Most poignant is a visit to the Sixth Montessori School, now named for Frank, who began in the nursery and continued there until the Nazis forced Jewish students to attend all-Jewish schools. Located a five-minute walk from the apartment, the school promoted a philosophy fitting the 5-year old Frank’s free-spirited, independent personality, allowing her to — for instance — spend more time on reading and writing than on arithmetic.
More than 80 years after the school opened, the inside remains largely untouched. During all these decades, children have walked and played on the same yellow and brown floor tiles. Classroom elements including drawers and gratings are also original, as is a desk once used by Frank, kept behind poster-boards in the hallway.
In addition to a large photo of Frank in the lobby, there is a plaque naming the school’s other Jewish pupils who did not return. Outside, the formidable building’s façade was painted with quotes from Frank’s diary set against vibrant colors. Her famous words are literally wrapped around the school where she learned to read and write stories.
On these same streets, almost a year after the Franks went into hiding, the Nazis conducted one of their last large roundups of Jews. In a photograph of the June 20, 1943 raid, dozens of Jews with their belongings are clustered in front of the wolkenkrabber tower, the neighborhood’s most prominent feature and meeting point for children. Among the 100,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands to death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, about 13,000 from the River Quarter neighborhood were murdered.
In recent years, the neighborhood has seen new commemorations of the Frank family and other Holocaust victims. Most prominently, the owners of the bookstore from where the diary was purchased helped erect a bronze statue of Frank in 2005. The diarist is depicted on the morning the family went into hiding, which was the last time Frank saw “The Merry” square. Wearing layers of clothing and carrying large bags, her head is turned toward the home she is leaving.
Since 2015, bronze-plated “Stumbling Stone” memorials for each member of the Frank family and other neighborhood Shoah victims have been installed in the ground outside their former homes. Around the corner from the bookstore, an information center about Jews has ritual objects and program fliers displayed in the window, including a notice on the apartment’s current use as a residence for refugee artists.
Here in the quiet River Quarter, Frank lived most of her short life and began writing her gift to the world. This is where she and her friends played ping-pong, even as the Nazis began to ostracize Jews from Dutch society. In the same courtyard they played in, between the same sand-colored apartment buildings, the sounds of children at play still echo.