Three weeks ago Hedy and I took a train into Amsterdam’s main station, then walked 20 minutes to Prinsengracht 263, a nondescript address next to a canal in the Dutch capital.
Entering the building, we slipped behind a bookcase and into a secret world.
It’s a place I’ve known about most of my life, but experiencing it first-hand was revealing. Once inside, we were transported nearly seven decades into the past.
I sensed the vulnerability of the people who’d lived there. They’d endeavored to use the four-story house and its attic — standing in the shadow of the bell tower of Amsterdam’s ancient Westerkerk (West Church) — to survive the Holocaust.
Their heroic effort failed.
The world inside the bookcase wasn’t C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. In 1944, it offered, at best, uncertain hope.
Hedy and I visited the structure known today as the Anne Frank House. Built in 1635, the unremarkable canal house was the place where Anne Frank’s father, Otto, ran two businesses during the war. Ultimately, the building became the family’s refuge.
It consists of a front house and a less conspicuous back annex. Otto, his wife, two daughters and four other Jewish friends hid in the annex above Otto’s office for 25 months. Anne in her diary called it the “Secret Annex,” and it was accessible only by going through a passage behind a bookcase.
The eight people hid in the 500-square-foot annex from July 1942 until August 1944.
Anne wrote in her diary: “Not being able to go outside upsets me more than I can say, and I’m terrified our hiding place will be discovered and that we’ll be shot.”
Tragically, the Frank family and the four others were betrayed to the Nazis by an anonymous source late in the war.
Otto was the only survivor. Anne died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen at the age of 15, as the allies stormed Germany in the final bloody weeks of combat.
After the war, Anne’s diary was discovered in the house. It was compiled into a book and published in Dutch in 1947. “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” has since been published in 67 languages.
My introduction to Anne’s compelling story occurred in 1959 when I was 14. I viewed the film, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play constructed from that diary. Shortly thereafter, I read the diary in school.
I was moved.
A couple of decades ago my 16-year-old daughter, Jenn, portrayed Anne in a community production of the play. She was wonderful. The production ran four weekends, and I attended almost every performance, along with Hedy and our two younger daughters.
Jenn’s siblings knew every line of the play.
Our family became enmeshed in the Frank family tragedy. We knew the characters well: Anne and Otto, her mother Edith, her older sister Margot, Mr. and Mrs. van Pels, Peter and Mr. Pfeffer (some names were replaced by pseudonyms in Anne’s diary).
Three weeks ago, Hedy and I stood in line for an hour in a biting wind to visit the Anne Frank House. Those waiting with us could be heard softly uttering respectful remarks in more than a dozen different languages. The world comes to Anne Frank’s door daily.
Hedy and I entered the house, walked past the bookcase and viewed the rooms inhabited for more than two years by the Franks and their guests.
In the annex, we viewed the two small bedrooms adjoined by a bathroom and toilet on the lower floor, and above a larger open room and a small room next to it. From that small room a ladder extended to the attic. Sunlight could be seen streaming through a tiny attic window.
Hedy bought a book in the museum’s gift shop. Upon our return, she gave it to our 10-year-old granddaughter, Emma.
Emma will give an oral report about Anne Frank to her fifth-grade class.
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.