The diarist girl in the attic

Anne Frank

Anne Frank (Photo: Anne Frank Fonds Basel)

Exactly 79 years ago, on July 6, 1942, a Jewish family went into hiding to escape Nazi persecution in the occupied Netherlands. The younger of the two daughters, blessed with writing talent, kept a diary of their 761 days there, the time they spent together before the Nazis found them. Her name was Anne Frank and today her diary is considered one of the most powerful testaments to the persecution of Jews.
Annelies Marie "Anne" Frank was born in 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany, to Otto and Edith Frank as the younger of two sisters. Otto Frank was a liberal German Jew who fought for Germany in World War I. He served in an artillery unit where most soldiers were mathematicians or surveyors, and received a field promotion to lieutenant. He married Edith Holländer, heiress to a scrap metal and industrial supply company, in 1925. Their daughters Margot and Anne were born in 1926 and 1929.

A newborn Anne Frank with her mother (Photo:
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Otto Frank decided to flee with his family from the rising tide of antisemitism in 1933. They moved to Aachen in the extreme west of Germany, and eventually settled in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. He found a job as the head of the Dutch branch of a German company called Opekta, which sold spices and pectin, a component in jam-making. He also started a company of his own, Pectacon, a wholesaler of herbs, pickling salts and spices.


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Anne's father Otto Frank in World War I (Photo: unknown photographer)

In May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded and overran the Netherlands. Anti-Jewish measures soon followed. Otto saved his companies from confiscation by transferring directorship to Viktor Kugler, an old friend. He also started looking for a way to flee Europe with his family. He had an old college friend in the United States, who was the head of the Federal Housing Authority and a friend of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, but after a long bureaucratic process he failed to come through for the Franks. The U.S. was still following isolationist policies at the time, and the State Department instituted restrictions against European refugees. Otto eventually did manage to get a single-person visa to Cuba, but it's unclear if he has ever received it, and he wouldn't have gone without his family, anyway.

Johannes Kleiman, one of the family's helpers, demonstrating use of the revolving bookcase that covered the entrance to the hideout (Photo: Maria Austria)

In December 1940, Otto moved the offices of his two companies to a canalside warehouse at the address Prinsengracht 263, an old building originally from the mid-17th century. Like many other buildings from that time and place, it had an annex at the rear, since that was the only direction in which the structure could be expanded. It was a narrow building: a goods and dispatch entrance at the front on the ground floor, with spice mills and a packing warehouse behind that. The second floor above all this held the offices. Otto had a "secret annex" established on the third and fourth floors and the attic of the rear expansion. It could only be entered through a hidden doorway behind a bookcase located in the front building, and had no connection to the lower floors of the rear structure. It was also surrounded by other buildings on all sides, making it impossible to spot from the street. Though spread over several floors, the hideout only had a total area of about 450 square feet.

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Model of the warehouse (left) and the expansion building (right) (Photo: Wikipedia)

On July 5, 1942, Anne's sister Margot received an order to report to a labor camp. Time was up: the entire family evacuated their home and moved into the secret annex (achterhuis, "back house" in Dutch) the next day. They agreed to share their hiding spot with other Jews. The van Pels family, Hermann, Auguste and their sixteen-year-old son Peter, were allowed to move in with them. They also accepted a middle-aged dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. Pfeffer was divorced and had a son, but the latter was already safe in Britain. Since he had no family with him, Margot ended up moving out from her and Anne's room to sleep with her parents, and Pfeffer shared Anne's room.

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Peter van Pels in 1942 (Photo: Anne Frank Huis Amsterdam)

The relationship between the two quickly became rather rocky. Anne, just undergoing puberty, was understandably unhappy about having to share her room with a middle-aged man. Additionally, Pfeffer was dismissive of Anne's interest in writing, and wanted to reserve the writing desk to his own studies. His pedantic nature and orthodox Judaism were also in stark contrast with her impulsive personality and liberal views.

Fritz Pfeffer with his son Werner, around 1938 (Photo: Anne Frank Foundation, Amsterdam)

The families greatly relied on the support of friends, all of them old friends or employees of Otto Frank. Viktor Kugler, already mentioned, kept the business running, and also came up with the idea of hiding the entrance to the secret annex behind a revolving bookcase. Bookkeeper Johannes Kleiman was the Franks' contact person for emergencies, and did much to raise their spirits. Johan Voskuijl, a worker in the warehouse, built the bookcase to hide the entrance, but could only maintain regular contact with the annex's inhabitants until the summer of 1943, when stomach cancer forced him to stop working. Bep, Johan's daughter, was the youngest helper, and got along with Anne very well. She supplied the hiding families with bread and milk, and also subscribed to correspondence courses which some of the annex inhabitants then took, using her name as cover.

An office in Otto Frank's company, with several helpers: Viktor Kugler (left), Bep Voskuijl (center) and Miep Gies (right) (Photo: Anne Frank House, Amsterdam)

Jan Gies was a member of the Dutch resistance. He supplied the annex with books, news and often had lunch with them. Jan's wife, Miep Gies, took Margot to the annex by bicycle when the family went into hiding, and supplied them with food, visiting multiple suppliers each day to make sure nobody would get suspicious at the quantity of food she was buying.

Anne (in white hand), Margot (right) Otto (center, tall) and other guests heading to Jan and Miep Gies's wedding on July 16, 1941 (Photo: Anne Frank Foundation, Amsterdam)


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We know about the everyday life of the annex residents through Anne Frank's diary. Anne got an autograph book shortly before going into hiding, and she used it as a journal. She had a talent for writing and wanted to become a journalist, even though she never showed her writings to others. Her diary gives us an insight into her daily life, news of the war, and the many tensions that arose from eight people living locked up together in a small space. She also recorded ruminations on God and human nature, her own burgeoning sexuality (a part that was cut from the first edition of the diary) and her first kiss from Peter van Pels. She also wrote about her poor relationship with her mother, whom she considered sarcastic and hard-hearted. Later entries, however, reveal that she realized she was also partly to blame for the tension between the two of them.

Reconstruction of the bathroom in the secret annex (Photo: Allard Bovenberg)

Anne's life of hiding came to an end on August 4, 1944, shortly after Allied troops broke out from their beachhead in Normandy and started racing inland. A police raid led by SS-Oberscharführer Karl Silberbauer arrived at the warehouse, found the hideout and took its inhabitants. Even today, we don't know for sure why or how the Nazis found the hiding families. Various individuals have been presented as likely traitors, including Bep Voskuijl's younger sister Nelly, who was a Nazi collaborator and who might have phoned the police that morning. Another suspect was the warehouse's stockroom manager, who got suspicious about people being inside after working hours. (The families often left the annex and roamed free after working hours, so it's not impossible that they've accidentally left behind signs of their presence.) Another theory postulates that it was all plain misfortune: the warehouse had some illegal laborers and was also the site of ration coupon forgery. It's possible that the raid was targeted at these activities and finding the annex was just a coincidence.

Karl Silberbauer around 1939-1943 (Photo: unknown photographer)

The residents were sent to concentration camps, most of them to Auschwitz. Edith refused to eat and starved to death, giving all her food to Margot and Anne. The girls died in Bergen-Belsen a day or two apart, most likely killed by a typhus epidemic. Otto Frank was the only member of the family to survive. Fritz Pfeffer and the van Pels parents also died in the concentration camps. Young Peter van Pels died in Mauthausen, probably a few days after the camp was liberated by the U.S. Third Army.

Margot and Anne Frank's memorial at the site of Bergen-Belsen (Photo: Arne List)

Some of the helpers also saw hardship as a result of the involvement. Kleiman was arrested but eventually released because of his health problems and the insistence of the Red Cross. Kugler remained in German captivity until March 1945. His was being taken to Germany when his marching column was strafed by Allied planes, and he made his escape in the chaos. Miep Gies was interrogated by a police officer and only avoided arrest because she recognized from the man's accent that they were born in the same city, the Austrian capital of Vienna. Accepting great risk, she willingly walked into the police station and outright tried to buy the freedom of the annex residents – unsuccessfully. Miep and Bep went back to the annex soon after to remove any personal items before the Germans could clear out the place. It was the two of them who found Anne's diary, and it was Miep who kept it safe for the rest of the war, giving it back to Otto Frank unread.

The original copy of Anne Frank's diary (Photo: Anne Frank Museum in Berlin)

Visitors started showing up at the Franks' old company warehouse shortly after the 1947 publication of the diary, and employees were happy to show them around. The building was threatened by demolition in 1955, and was saved by a public campaign. The house and the neighboring building are home to a museum today. Another relevant site, the Anne Frank tree, was a horse-chestnut tree that stood nearby and that Anne liked to look at from the attic window. The tree grew sickly over the decades and was blown down by a storm in 2010. Several saplings of it have been taken to various corners of the world, and now grow in locations including Liberty Park in New York, Washington, D.C. and Jerusalem.

The Anne Frank tree in 2006 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Anne Frank's tragic story and her diary inspired over twenty film and TV adaptations over the decades. The latest one, the 2016 German movie Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank, was written with support from the Anne Frank Foundation, and the producers were given access to the foundations entire archives for research. The most famous adaptation, however, remains The Diary of Anne Frank from 1959, which won three Academy Awards. Otto Frank wrote a letter to Audrey Hepburn, asking if she would play Anne. The role greatly resonated with Hepburn, since she and Anne were born a month apart from each other, and she also spent her adolescent years in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Hepburn eventually declined the role, as she felt she was too old to play it credibly and didn't have the skills to depict Anne; the role was given to Millie Perkins.

Millie Perkins and Joseph Schildkraut as Anne Frank and Otto Frank in the 1959 film. (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)


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