An introduction to the story of Anne Frank and her diary
Anne Frank's diary is one of the most famous testimonies written about the plight of the Jews during the Second World War. Written by a young Jewish Dutch girl, it tells about the life she was living in hiding in a back house in Amsterdam, with her family, and four other people.
A German family scared away by Hitler
It is not often known that the Frank family was originally German. Otto and Edith had two girls: Margot (born in 1926) and Annelies Marie (born in 1929).
As they were settled in Frankfurt and Otto had an important office job, Hitler's party, the NSDP, came to power in Germany in 1933. In a climate of financial and economical crisis, the atmosphere in the country was tense. Jews made an easy scapegoat, and the Franks thought it was best for their safety to emigrate. As neighbouring countries were already starting to close their frontiers due to fear of an overflow of immigrants, which could threaten their already weak economy, the Franks moved to the Netherlands just in time.
They settled down in Amsterdam, and Otto started to trade spices in his offices on Prinsengracht. As Hitler's influence grew and the threats of war were felt abroad, Otto tried to procure visas to the USA for his family, but those were denied.
One of his secretaries there, Miep, was also an immigrant who moved from Austria to the Netherlands at a young age. She stayed with her host family and, in the 1940s, had to go to great lengths to be allowed to marry her Dutch fiancé, Jan Gies.
Though Anne is most often associated with her diary written while she was in seclusion, the personal story of her family is one of an eternal flight.
Living in the Annex
As the nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, life became more difficult for Jewish people. They were required to register themselves as Jews and to follow the restrictions imposed upon them. Civil servants were fired, everyone had to buy a yellow star they had to sew on their clothes from 1942, no Jew was supposed to own a bicycle, or to use public transport. Cinemas, theatres, sports clubs and any kind of entertainment were forbidden, as well as being outside from 8pm to 6am. Visiting a non-Jew in their home was also illegal. Otto had to resign as the head of his company, only to be (at least officially) a regular employee.
Anne and Margot also had to join a Jews-only school. As the young girl was enjoying school, where she had many girl friends and was popular with boys, was talkative, headstrong and full of energy, she failed to notice that her parents were hatching a plan: pieces of furniture and objects were slowly disappearing from their apartment. She received a diary from her father for her 13th birthday on June, 12th 1942 and started writing about her daily life, in an epistolary manner, to an imaginary best friend she called Kitty.
One month later, on July, 8th, Margot received a convocation from the occupation forces to go to a work camp. Failing to show up would mean an immediate arrestation for the entire family.
That is when Otto and Edith decided to go forward, on the next day, with the plan they had had in mind for months: going to live into hiding in the back house of the building where Otto had his companies, on Prinsengracht.
Some canal houses in Amsterdam were built with an Annex at the back, an “Achterhuis”, which was joined to the front house by a corridor. From the street along the canal, those constructions were impossible to detect.
The entrance to this secret Annex was hidden behind a revolving bookcase in Otto's old office.
Only four employees, Johannes Kleiman, Bep Voskuijl, Miep Gies and Victor Kugler, knew that the Annex would be inhabited by Jewish fugitives, and they promised to help as much as they could in terms of food, clothing, news, books, or anything they would need. The family had been storing foods, furniture and objects in the house for months, in preparation.
Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne moved in the hiding place. They were joined by an employee of Otto, his wife and their son: the Van Pels family, Hermann, Auguste and Peter. A little while later, an other fugitive joined them: Fritz Pfeffer, Miep's dentist, a German Jew who had fled Germany with his catholic girlfriend, as they were not allowed to marry there, because of laws regarding racial purity (Jews had only to mary within their faith). He had tried to obtain visas to various places (notably in South America), but failed.
The atmosphere in the Annex was oppressive and sometimes troubled. The situation of eight people having to live so close to each other created tensions and arguments. Anne tells all about those in her diary.
They all had to follow a tight schedule to avoid making too much noise during the day when the workers were present in the building under them, and thus studying and reading were the main activities in the Annex. Bep ordered distance-learning courses for them under her own name, and they were able to study stenography, languages, history or mathematics.
The helpers took extraordinary risks to help the families. The condamnation for assisting Jews was of six months in a labor camp. Nevertheless, there was a mouvement of resistance in the Netherlands, and Jan and Miep hid another person in their own house, a student who had refused to sign the Declaration of Allegiance to Germany that was compulsory at the time. Jan's secret mission was also to help fugitives find hiding places. It was easier to help children, who could be sent to the homes of resistants, who claimed there were nephews and nieces from the countryside, coming to visit. Families were harder to hide and, for pregnant women or parents of small babies, the risks were too high.
In her diary, Anne talks a lot about their helpers and how they really represented their window to the world. Jan and Miep were invited to stay for one night, and while Anne loved hearing the bells of the Westertoren close-by ring every fifteen minutes, Miep was unable to sleep and wondered how they all managed to live so much on top of one another.
The diary and how it came to be published
There are several diaries that Anne used. She had always wanted to become a journalist or a writer, and she kept her diary faithfully during her stay in the secret Annex. As they heard on the radio that every citizen was urged to keep their writings (diaries, letters,...) of this period to serve as historical testimonies once the war was over, she was determined to have her diary published, and she started copying it on loose sheets of paper, redrafting certain passages to make it more readable and less personal (she tried to mellow out the passages that describe her arguments with her mother). This rewriting task occupied the last months of their captivity.
On the day the intelligence bureau received news that there were probably people hiding in the buildings on Prinsengracht, and after they came to arrest the Franks, the Van Pels and Dr. Pfeffer (they also arrested Kleiman and Kupler and sent them to a work camp), Miep and Bep went up to the Annex to see if they can save a few belongings. They found Anne's diaries and the sheets of paper. They wondered what to do, and Bep said: “You are the oldest, you are the one who has to keep it”. Miep kept the diary in a drawer at home, upon the resolution that she would give it back to Anne if she came back from the camps.
Unfortunately, Otto was the only inhabitant of the Annex to survive. After Auschwitz was liberated, it took him six months to come back to Amsterdam. On that day, Jan Gies heard that he was seen at the station and ran home to tell Miep that Otto Frank was back. At that precise moment, she saw him by the window, coming up the street to their door, and heard a ring. He was to live with them for 8 years.
Otto knew that Edith was dead, but he had hopes for Margot and Anne. He tried to obtain news by any means, even ran an add in newspaper calling for anyone who would know of their whereabouts. Unfortunately, the news came that Anne and Margot had died from typhus, only a few days apart, and some weeks before the camps were liberated.
Miep had wanted to give the diary back to Anne, but when she heard the news, she opened her drawer, took out the diaries and sheets and gave them to Otto, saying: “This is your daughter's legacy”.
He locked himself in the office to read it and decided that it should be published. He typed and translated a few passages in German to send to his family to ask them for their opinion, and it was positive. The diary offered him a new vision of his daughter. He found all her energy in these pages, but also a depth that he never knew she had.
In 1947, the Dutch version of the diary came out, entitled “Het Achterhuis” (The Annex). It was immediately popular and was translated into many languages, as well as made into a play and a film. The building hosting the Annex has now been transformed into a Museum.