Anne Frank, who died in the Holocaust, would have turned 80 on June 12. A stirring visit to the secret den where she hid for two years writing a remarkable diary.
Photos: Getty Images and The Hindu Photo Library Sensitive and poignant: A letter by Anne Frank dated 18 December 1936; diary entries and the girl herself.
“It is the silence that frightens me…and I am scared to death we shall be discovered. We have to whisper and tread lightly, otherwise the people in the warehouse might hear us”
11th July, 1944
I must have been 15 years old when I first read that sentence, in a book all my classmates were talking about. It quickly became my favourite adventure book, autobiography, historical thriller — and even a romantic novel (a book I would secretly cry over every time I reached the end, and be teased by my sisters).
I used to imagine Anne Frank, a girl of my age, creeping along a narrow wooden staircase, pushing past the movable bookcase that sealed off the secret annexe where she lived in hiding with her Jewish family… praying that the Gestapo would never find them.
Over 30 years after reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I was in Amsterdam. Walking up that very staircase myself. The steps of Anne Frank’s house! My heart thumped exactly as Anne’s must have.
Soon I was looking out of the very same window Anne did, writing in her diary entry of December 12, 1942: “I’m sitting looking outside through a slit in the curtain. It is dusk as I watch the people walking by; it looks as if they are all in a terrible hurry…”
What I see instead, is a long, very long queue of people , patiently moving forward in tiny steps. Would Anne, all those years ago, have ever imagined that every single day, almost 2000 people from all over the world would be queuing up right below, to see the ‘Secret Annexe’ that she was describing so vividly?Heart-wrenching story
And the story that drew all these people here… Anne was a bubbly 13 year-old German Jew, enjoying a carefree childhood in Amsterdam, when things suddenly changed in July 1942. Hitler intensified the persecution of Jews all over Europe. Anne’s father Otto had been preparing for this danger for months — and on a rainy night, hurriedly took her mother, sister Margot, and another family of four, to the sealed off back rooms of his office building. Among Anne’s bag of precious belongings were her 13th birthday gifts: a red-chequered diary, and hair-curlers.
Anne and her family never stepped out for two long years. And Anne never stopped writing in her Diary. Otto’s trusted Dutch friends brought them secret supplies of food. And just when it seemed that Hitler would be vanquished, and they would breathe free again, they were inexplicably betrayed. Angry Nazi boots raced up the hidden staircase, four days after Anne’s last diary entry, and a terrified family packed off in a cattle truck to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. In appalling conditions, Anne’s mother and sister passed away. Anne’s brave spirit was finally broken. Three months before her 16th birthday, Anne died. Only her father Otto survived.
Meanwhile, Anne’s diary lay hidden under old newspapers and escaped the destructive hands of the Gestapo. It was found and kept safely by a Dutch family friend, till her father, broken with grief, returned to Amsterdam. Otto was astonished by his daughter’s writings in the diary called “Kitty” — a journal continued into thick note books.
And then the book hit the world. Translated and published in 60 countries, Anne’s heroic story revealed not just an extraordinary writing talent, but the sensitivity of a little girl who accepts her fate with poignant maturity.
“Cycling, dancing, and whistling…that’s what I long for. But still, I mustn’t show it because if all eight of us began to pity ourselves, where would it lead us?” December 24, 1943
Anne displayed an extraordinary sense of judgement for her age; after her first girlish prattle, Anne copes with cramped spaces and flaring tempers, leading to insightful human observations: “I’ve learned one thing: you only really get to know a person after a fight. Only then can you judge their true character!” September 28, 1942Stirrings of romance
And there’s evidence of her awakening womanhood, the shy beginnings of a romance…with the quiet Peter (the young son of the Van Daans who shared their hiding quarters). With endearing timidity, the two young prisoners cling briefly to each other one day; an episode of a slowly unfolding intimacy that brings out her most shining quality: a touching innocence.
I moved with the group into the next part of the annexe. A sudden hush descended in the room. Anne’s room, where she wrote her diary. Up on the walls, before our astonished eyes, were a few old pictures that Anne herself had pasted, still remarkably preserved.
“Our little room looked very bare with nothing on the walls; but thanks to Daddy who had brought my film-star collection beforehand, I have transformed the walls…” July 11, 1942.
In a whispered mix of world languages, Dutch, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, even Hindi… awestruck fans like me, were telling one another, telling their children: Look, Anne slept here. And wrote there. An adjoining bathroom suddenly reminded me that they were forbidden to make a noise with the flush tank during the day…how did that odd detail remain stuck in my head?
We could see a gigantic tree in bloom right outside Anne’s window: again, a Diary entry about the beloved tree that Anne measured the seasons of her life by. “It was Daddy’s birthday yesterday…Our horse-chestnut tree is in full bloom, and even more beautiful than last year”. May 13, 1944.
On June 12, 2009, Anne’s 80th birthday, ten saplings from this tree are being distributed to significant sites, including the 9/11 memorial in New York. An apt metaphor for growing and spreading a true appreciation of human rights and freedom.
I see a Visitor’s Book. John F Kennedy and Steven Spielberg have been emotionally moved to write in it. My comments seem hopelessly inadequate compared to their powerful phrasing.Inspiration to write
I am now in the Museum’s bookshop. I see a pleased bunch of tourists picking up a copy in Chinese. Is there one in… Tamil? I ask the attendant tentatively. Of course! Are you from India? she says with a smile. I tell her I am a writer. It strikes me then that perhaps my first stirrings of the joy of writing began with Anne’s book; were there other writers here too who felt the same way?
And like so many visitors streaming out towards the flower laden canals of Amsterdam, I too would hurry to a pretty café, sipping a drink, dipping randomly into the Diary again…
Goosebumps set in. For this is what I read in an April entry, a day that happens to be my birthday: "Dear Kitty, I don’t want to live in vain. I want to be useful to people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death… Yours, Anne.”
Museum housed in original location, in central Amsterdam
Original red-chequered diary with actual writings/photos on display
Open 364 days of year, including Sundays (Closed: Yom Kippur)
One million visitors every year
Entry: Adults: €8.50; Kids: €4. Below 9 years: free
No tours, but free guide book in many languages
Original walls, layout, amenities largely intact
The Diary of Anne Frank among world’s most read books
Originally written in German; English translation most widely sold