“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again. I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”
— Anne Frank
For many people, visiting museums is a pretty fun and pleasant experience. Museums are virtual time machines that take us a few years, decades, or centuries back in time to show us what the past was like in terms of people, culture, environment, nature and lifestyle. Most of the time, exhibitions are informative, engaging, and amusing. They evoke emotions like wonder, admiration, surprise, and joy.
But we must remember that part of the past was unpleasant. As a result, some museums may not provide the same ‘fun’ experience.
Take, for example, Holocaust museums. They document what is by far the worst period of human history, featuring the cruellest and most inhumane practices made against innocent people. By definition, Holocaust museums inform us about the past, but this past just happens to be horrifying this time.
Given that the experience of visiting such museums can get a little (or a lot) heavy, some might wonder why we should have it in the first place.
Why Visit Holocaust Museums
Visiting Holocaust museums is, for sure, a pretty disturbing and distressing experience. However, it is an essential one everybody should have. The purpose is undoubtedly not to subject people to heavy emotions but instead to stop history from repeating itself.
Holocaust museums were primarily established to remember those who died in the Holocaust, to pay tribute to their suffering, and open our eyes to how far the Nazis went in dehumanising, torturing and killing innocent people using ways that not even Prophet Moses’ Pharaoh himself could think of.
By understanding that, we can stay attentive to racism and cruelty and help stop discrimination against certain groups of people. On a much smaller, human-to-human scale, we get to act upon the fact that we are all born equal and that we need to be kinder to one another and respect our differences if we genuinely want to live a happy life.
That is why the world’s most notorious Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, was not wrecked after the war. Instead, it was turned into a museum in 1947 by those who survived it. It is living evidence of the crimes the Nazis had committed, which new generations must know about to help stop them from happening again.
Even UNESCO listed Auschwitz as a World Heritage Site in 1978.
The Holocaust Museums
The Holocaust museums display exhibitions that belong to the victims and survivors of the concentration camps. They detail what the prisoners experienced on a daily basis while being there. Many of these museums also include research, study and education centres that teach visitors about the Holocaust and the Nazis’ cruelty and inhumanity.
It is definite that all of these museums carry a huge amount of heavy emotions. Learning about the indescribable things the victims went through is nothing like any experience one would ever have in any other historic site.
However, the weight of the experience is different from one Holocaust Museum to another. For instance, the stories concentration camps in Germany or Poland hold are indeed much heavier than those in a museum in Argentina, a country thousands of kilometres away from Europe that barely participated in the war.
But even in Europe, every Holocaust Museum can have an extraordinary impact. In this article, we are introducing you to an unequalled museum in the Netherlands that tells the story of nine Jewish Germans and how they desperately tried to escape the Nazis but were unfortunately caught in the end.
Today, we will go on a tour of the Anne Frank House.
The Anne Frank House
Located at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House is a small museum dedicated to the young German Jewish diarist Anne Frank. On 4 August 1944, Anne and all her family members were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz in Poland. Later on, Anne and her sister Margot were moved to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.
In March 1945, only two weeks before the Americans liberated the Bergen-Belsen camp and two months after Auschwitz itself was liberated by the Russians, Anne and Margot, aged 15 and 19, respectively, died of typhus. Their mother had already died of starvation in Auschwitz two months earlier, and only their father, Otto Frank, survived.
Otto returned to Amsterdam in June 1945, a month after Germany had surrendered, with no idea whatsoever where his daughters were and whether or not they were still alive. He did not know about their death until later that year, but he worked the rest of his life to revive the memory of his family and his younger daughter, Anne, in particular.
The significance of the Anne Frank House and how it became one of the most famous Holocaust museums lies in what happened inside it during the years of the war. To understand this, we must go over Anne Frank’s life as well as her family’s.
So, bring a cup of coffee and read on.
The Frank Family
Born in June 1929 in Frankfurt, Germany, Anne was the younger child of the German Jewish couple Otto and Edith Frank. Her older sister, Margot, was born in 1926. When Anne was still four, a storm on the horizon seemed to approach. Soon after Hitler came to power, the Frank family started experiencing the persecution and ever-growing severity that Hitler imposed upon Jews.
For example, ‘true’ Germans were encouraged to boycott Jewish shops, companies and businesses. Jewish books were burned, and German nationality was taken away from all Jews. They were also forced to wear a yellow Star-of-David badge to distinguish them from others and ease their discrimination.
Otto Frank was a successful businessman, so besides the persecution he and his family were subjected to, his business was severely affected. So, in 1933, he made up his mind to relocate his family to Amsterdam to escape the rising hell in Germany.
In 1938, Otto established a new company in pickling salts, herbs and spices. He then hired a German Jewish butcher named Hermann van Pels to work with him. Van Pels also fled Germany with his family and settled in Amsterdam.
In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, and the Gestapo started feverishly looking for and arresting Jews. In the summer of 1942, Germany started deporting Jews from all over Europe to concentration camps. Otto felt cornered like a scared raccoon. But he was not going to let the Gestapo find him or any of his family members.
In a desperate attempt to stay alive, Otto quickly gave up his company and transferred control to his loyal employees. He tried to escape to the United States and then to Britain but failed to obtain visas for all his family. As he realised, he could not flee the country; he decided to fake his escape while he hid in the capital city.
Otto’s company occupied a three-storey building at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam. Attached to this building, from behind, was another tiny annexe that no one, except a few trusted friends, knew about. After preparing it with the essentials, the Franks secretly moved to the annexe on 6 July 1942 and decided to stay there until the war, or the world, came to an end.
Two weeks later, Hermann van Pels, who was working with Otto, his wife Auguste, and his son Peter joined the Franks in the annexe. Then in November, the group welcomed a new refugee, Otto’s friend Fritz Pfeffer, who was a German Jewish dentist.
The group was helped by some Dutch friends that Otto highly trusted. Miep Gies, who worked with Otto and her husband, Jan Gies, were the most known of them. The couple was the group’s only connection with the world. They smuggled food and newspapers and provided them with what they needed to survive.
The main company’s building had four floors, including a warehouse on the ground floor, second and third floors for the company’s offices and stockrooms and then an attic.
The annexe was connected to that building from behind by a small archive room where piles of company folders and papers were kept. In that very room, the door that led to the annexe was concealed by a bookcase.
Having the same structure as the main building, the annexe also had a warehouse, two floors and an attic. The door behind the bookcase opened to the second floor, on which there was a bathroom and two rooms. Anne and Fritz shared one, and Otto, Edith, and Margot stayed in the other.
From this entrance, one could also take the stairs up to the third floor, which also had two rooms. One was for Hermann and his wife Auguste, and the other was occupied by their son Peter. In Peter’s room, there were stairs that led to the attic.
When the family moved to Amsterdam, Anne was just four years old. She and her sister Margot were enrolled in Dutch schools where they both showed outstanding performance. Anne, in particular, loved learning. She used to read books from a young age and had a dream to become a writer one day.
When Anne turned 13, only three weeks before the entire family moved to the annexe, Otto got her a beautiful notebook with red and beige checks on the cover. Anne loved the gift and decided to kick off her writing journey by recording her diaries.
In an enchanting, deep writing style, heartbreaking detail, and perspective rare for a 13-year-old to have, Anne described her thoughts about their situation hiding in the secret annexe, her view of the world, the group’s day-to-day routine, their hopes to get out of their chosen prison one day and the fear of getting arrested before the war ended.
Although they got arrested before the war ended, neither Anne nor anyone else thought her diaries would live to cross the borders to every country, city, and town to tell millions of people about what happened in the annexe and turn Anne into the well-known writer she aspired to be.
The group tried as much as they could to live a normal life in the hopes that the war would end soon with Germany’s defeat and everything would get back to normal. They stayed in the annexe for two years. But in August 1944, and by some unknown means, the Gestapo knew about their hiding and arrested them.
Luckily, Miep and her husband were not arrested. Before the Gestapo cleared the annexe, Miep could get hold of some of the group’s belongings, sneaked them out to her house, and hoped she could one day give them back to their owners. Among the things she hid were Anne’s diaries and papers.
When Otto returned to Amsterdam in June 1945, he had no idea about what had happened to his daughters. He searched for them everywhere, but his search always brought back nothing. At the end of the year, Anne and Margot’s death was confirmed.
Miep then gave Otto the diaries and the rest of Anne’s papers. He was so surprised by what he read in the diaries, which revealed a whole new deep side of Anne he never thought existed.
To honour his daughter, who did not get the chance to fulfil her dream as a writer, Otto published The Diary of Anne Frank in mid-1947. Later, Otto and his new wife, whom he married in November 1953, founded the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. The foundation globally distributed the book and used the profit to support education, scientific research, social justice, charity, and movements against racism.
A decade later, another Anne Frank Foundation was established in Amsterdam in 1957. But instead of distributing the book, it aimed at restoring the building where the group hid and turning it into a museum. At the time, Otto’s former company had already relocated, and the building was sold to a real estate agent. He, the new owner, planned to wreck the building and build a factory instead.
The building gained fame after the book was published. A campaign by a prominent Dutch newspaper was launched to save it. When the Anne Frank Foundation was established in 1957 in Amsterdam, its members collected donations and funds to buy the building from the real estate company.
But to their surprise, the company gifted them the building later that year. So they used the money they collected to buy the house next to it, No. 265. The building, as well as the annexe, were turned into a museum that opened in 1960. Consequently, many people started flocking to the Anne Frank House to see for themselves what Anne had described in her diaries.
The Anne Frank House comprises two parts: the first building, the actual company premise, and the annexe. The first part, which is pretty spacious compared to the annexe, displays exhibitions, photographs and video footage that belonged to the Frank family. On the wall, written texts tell the hiding story and the persecution the nine group members faced.
In that part of the museum, visitors can also see the actual Oscar statuette, which American actress Shelly Winters won for her performance portraying Auguste van Pels in the film The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Winters later donated her beloved Oscar to the museum.
From the joint room, visitors can slip through the secret door behind the bookcase to get to the annexe. At the request of Otto himself, the annexe is kept empty, except for some displays that inform the visitors of what the Franks’ life in hiding was like. Visitors can see Anne and Margot’s height marks on the wall. In the room Anne and Fritz shared, there are multiple photographs of Anne and her family that she herself stuck and were left there ever since.
The attic is also open for visitors, with pictures and labels telling the story of the arrest and deportation to Auschwitz as described by Otto. In addition, multiple screens show interviews with Otto talking about the two years they lived in the annexe, shattered between the hope for all their misery to end and the terror of getting caught.
Every year over a million visitors flock to the Anne Frank House. The museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 10:00 pm, with some changes applied to special days like the Holidays. Entrance is only allowed with tickets bought online, and every tour lasts for a certain period of time. Still, visitors need to be prepared for a long wait before they enter the museum.
You do not need to be a history enthusiast or obsess over World War II like millions of people to visit the Anne Frank House. But you do need to learn about this period of human history, not to get upset as much as to have a better view of the world and become nicer and kinder to others.