AMSTERDAM — Although it’s difficult to fathom today, the building that concealed Anne Frank’s wartime hiding place was nearly toppled by a wrecking-ball in 1957. Six decades and millions of visitors later, the venerated Anne Frank House is undergoing another makeover in the Amsterdam edifice’s 382-year history.
The brick-faced canal-house at Prinsengracht 263 was where the diarist, her family, and four other Jews hid from the Nazis for two years during World War II. The main building dates to 1635, and its adjoining “back-house,” or annex, was added in 1740. At one time or another, the structure was a private home, a horse stable, an appliance store and — just before Otto Frank purchased the premises for his spice business — a piano-roll factory.
“It’s more like being on vacation in some strange pension,” wrote Anne Frank on July 11, 1942, shortly after her family fled to the annex. “The Annex is an ideal place to hide in. It may be damp and lopsided, but there’s probably not a more comfortable hiding place in all of Amsterdam. No, in all of Holland.”
Strewn upon the wooden floor following the Nazis’ August 4, 1944, raid on the hiding place, Anne Frank’s red-checkered diary and notebooks were rescued by the helpers who worked in the office. Events from every corner of the old house had been recorded, from romance in the attic to theft in the warehouse. More than 1.3 million people visit these rooms each year to honor Anne Frank, who would have been 88 on June 12.
‘The Secret Annex’
Once settled into the hiding place, the diarist could open a window in the attic for fresh air. There was a view of a chestnut tree, and the majestic Westerkerk church bells could be heard throughout the day. Some annex inhabitants were unnerved by the frequent chiming, but not the hiding place’s youngest inhabitant.
Although the captive Jews spent most of their time in the annex, they made use of the full premises during evenings and weekends. Into Otto Frank’s former office with its pristine furniture, Anne Frank lugged water for her baths. At the other end of the building, facing the murky canal, one could peek through the office curtains to glimpse people roaming the Jordaan neighborhood, a hotbed of black-market activity.
Also in the front-office, the Frank sisters were given filing work to do by Miep Gies and the other helpers. The girls became “night fairies,” appearing downstairs after dark to complete their assignments. Peter van Pels’ cat, Mouschi, also had run of the narrow house, and was described by Gies as a “spritely, lean black tomcat, very, very friendly.”
In hindsight, the annex members’ regular forays into the office and warehouse did not make for a tight security regime, with one suspicious employee setting traps to determine if people were hiding. In terms of noise, Peter van Pels’ parents had frequent shouting matches, while their son chopped wood and once spilled a large sack of beans down the stairs. The annex faced a courtyard shared by two-dozen buildings, making it difficult to conceal people indefinitely.
In Otto and Edith Frank’s bedroom, markings used to track the growth of their daughters were preserved on the wall, as was the diarist’s famous “photo wall” with movie stars and Britain’s young Princess Elizabeth. Visitors cannot climb up to the attic today, but a strategically placed mirror helps them see the famous window from below. The chestnut tree died several years ago, and saplings were taken to plant around the world.
Several episodes of panic shook the “undergrounders,” as people in hiding were called, including nighttime robberies with thieves roaming around the house. British air-raids were especially harrowing for people in hiding, unable to evacuate as fires ignited in the neighborhood. There was the constant fear of betrayal, growing hunger, and Allied armies who — it seemed — were never going to invade Europe.
Averting a ‘national scandal’
Ultimately, it was the publication of Anne Frank’s diary in 1947 that rescued the house at Prinsengracht 263, inspiring a coalition of activists in Amsterdam and abroad to save this part of her story.
By the time Otto Frank — the annex’s only survivor — returned to Holland in 1945, the house was in ill-repair. The leaky structure was not even standing on its own, and would have collapsed had one of the adjacent buildings been demolished. There was talk of repairs and opening a museum, but a distinct lack of funds to do so.
A decision was forced in 1955, when a Dutch business prepared to demolish the house and several adjacent buildings. Before developers could pounce on Prinsengracht 263, however, a prominent newspaper organized citizens to protest.
“The Netherlands will be subject to a national scandal if this house is pulled down,” wrote the editors of Het Vrij Volk. “There is every reason, especially considering the enormous interest from both inside and outside the country, to correct this situation as quickly as possible. If there is one place where the fate of Dutch Jewry is most clearly revealed, it is here,” wrote the editors.
Of 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands before the war, more than 100,000 were murdered in Nazi-built death camps. Preserving the annex honored Dutch Jews, of course, and it also elevated the Dutch men and women who helped hide Jews from the Nazis. Intense post-war emotions were projected onto the endangered canal-house, and protests against the building’s demolition were held on-site.
In 1957, an alliance between Otto Frank’s foundation for the museum and the University of Amsterdam helped seal the deal. The canal-house would be repaired and opened to the public, and the university would build student dormitories next-door. By the time the Anne Frank House opened in 1960, the diary and a Hollywood film had made the “secret annex” familiar to millions of people.
Approaching 60 years of operation in 2020, the museum is building new classrooms and tourist facilities during the next two years. Fresh content will be added to the exhibition about Anne Frank’s short life, including a focus on the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
“Many of our visitors are aged under 25, and come from countries outside of Europe,” said executive director Ronald Leopold. “So it’s important to go deeper into the historical context and the background to the life story of Anne Frank in the museum. We’ll be giving more information on what happened during the Second World War and the Holocaust, how it could happen, and what this means for us today,” said the museum head.
Illustrating the shrine-like role of the canal-house for diary fans, the museum bookstore sells more postcards featuring Prinsengracht 263 than of Anne Frank herself. Visitors can also purchase an intricate, do-it-yourself model of the phoenix-like structure, allowing them to hand-assemble the rescued hiding place.