Anne Frank had been in hiding for several weeks in the back-house, or “annex,” of her father’s Amsterdam office building. Everything was going as planned except for one problem: The rooms in which Anne and her family were hiding had not been concealed from the rest of the building, where salespeople, visitors, and the occasional thief were known to poke around.
To rectify the situation, a swinging bookcase was built to hide the entrance to what Anne called “the Secret Annex” in her now-iconic diary. From behind the innocuous-looking cupboard, the eight Jews in hiding could pull on a wooden handle wrapped in cloth to open the façade. For more than two years, the bookcase kept everyone hidden behind its rows of thick binders with old sale orders.
“Our hiding place has now become a true hiding place,” wrote Anne on August 21, 1942. “Mr. Kugler, you see, thought it would be better to place a cupboard in front of our door… but then of course a cupboard on hinges that can open like a door. Mr. Voskuijl built the piece of furniture.”
That secret bookcase’s handle is one of 10 artifacts from Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House on display in the international exhibition, “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” Showing in New York City’s Jewish Heritage Museum through the end of 2019, the exhibition marks the artifacts’ first appearance in North America.
The “Secret Annex” Jews were discovered and deported to Auschwitz at the beginning of September, following the camp’s summer-long “operation” in which more than 300,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered. Several survivors who knew Anne at Auschwitz have testified about her time there. For example, when the Frank girls were ill in the sick barracks, mother Edith Frank smuggled food to her daughters by digging under the wall.
In November of 1944, Anne and her older sister Margot were deported from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen in one of several transports bringing prisoners to the Reich’s interior. Conditions on the frozen heath of Bergen-Belsen were deplorable, even by Nazi camp standards, and the Frank sisters died of typhus that spring.
“Auschwitz and Anne Frank are two symbols of the Holocaust,” said Teresien da Silva, head of collections at the Anne Frank House.
“It is important to know their history, to learn from it and to remember it. Anne’s diary ends where the camp disasters begin. This is why it is important that Anne Frank is represented in this exhibition,” da Silva said in a statement about the artifacts.
Since its publication in 1947, “The Diary of Anne Frank” has sold more than 350 million copies worldwide. The Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam — which includes the “Secret Annex” — is one of the Netherlands’ top tourist attractions and an international pilgrimage destination.
The “Auschwitz” exhibition features 700 original artifacts from the Nazi death camp where nearly 1 million Jews were murdered in gas chambers. Camp elements including a prisoner barracks and posts for barbed wire loom large, but not as large as the Holocaust-era boxcar placed outside the Jewish Heritage Museum for the duration of the exhibition.
‘Forbidden for Jews’
Among the Anne Frank artifacts on display in New York through December, three dried beans are probably the least evocative — at first glance. However, like most of the objects, there is a revealing story behind the beans.
One day in the annex, Peter van Pels was lugging several 25-kilogram (55-pound) sacks of smuggled beans up the stairs. Suddenly, one of the bags ripped open, and thousands of beans poured all over the dilapidated annex. Anne and Peter had a tremendous laugh, but the annex inhabitants were picking up beans for a long time.
“Since there were about 50 pounds of beans in that sack, it made enough noise to raise the dead,” wrote Anne in her diary. “We started picking them up right away, but beans are so little and slippery that they roll into every nook and cranny. Now each time we go upstairs, we bend over and hunt around so we can present Mrs. Van Pels with a handful of beans,” wrote Anne on November 9, 1942.
Beans, indeed, are mentioned many times in Anne’s diary, also with the term “food cycles” — periods when annex meals shared a single main ingredient, such as spinach. Whether scrubbing them, sorting them, or lugging them, beans in Anne’s diary are a stand-in for the monotony of life in hiding — including the daily menu.
Upon returning from the camps, Otto Frank found a few of the beans wedged between stair cracks. During the following months, he set to work editing Anne’s diary and identifying a Dutch publisher. The beans remained in his safekeeping, a simple but evocative reminder of the hiding period.
Another artifact with an unexpected backstory is a child’s gramophone with fairy tale figures appearing on the sides. The yellow record player was presented by Otto Frank to his downstairs neighbor (and landlord), Otto Konitzer, on the occasion of Anne’s birth on June 12, 1929. At the time of Anne’s birth, the Frank family was still living in Frankfurt, Germany, and conditions were still bearable for the country’s Jews. Downstairs neighbor Konitzer was a supporter of Nazism, but the children from both families played together until the Frank family fled to the Netherlands in 1933. Otto Konitzer donated the gift to the Anne Frank House in 1994.
Among the other Anne Frank artifacts on display are a childhood drawing of the diarist’s and one of the “Forbidden for Jews” signs Anne would have seen around Amsterdam before going into hiding. There are also original contact sheets with 48 portrait photos of the family, a phone, and items related to Anne’s posthumous fame.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage expects 50,000 school-age students to tour “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away” by year’s end. At 1,675-square-meters (18,000-square feet) and filling three floors of the museum, the world-traveling exhibition is larger than most of North America’s two-dozen Holocaust museums.