- Written by Andrea Gross Andrea Gross
The day is sunny, the weather a bit chilly but still pleasant. I shade my eyes and look up at a row of four-story brick buildings fronted by a small patch of green grass.
The buildings themselves are rather plain; each floor appears to contain two apartments.
Here, in Amsterdam’s Rivierenbuurt neighborhood, a 30-minute tram ride from downtown, I can see how ordinary people go about their daily lives, oblivious to the touristy hubbub of the central city. It’s the sort of place I might live had I been born Dutch.
It’s also the place where 75 years ago this month — in June 1942 — an ordinary young girl celebrated her 13th birthday. Her favorite present was a small autograph book that her father had purchased at the corner bookstore.
Less than a month later this girl, whose name was Anne Frank, and her family were forced into hiding to escape the Nazi onslaught.
For Anne the ordinary pursuits of childhood came to an abrupt end. No more playing marbles with her friends. No more jumping rope in the summer and ice skating in the winter.
Cut off from schoolmates who would have filled her autograph book with best wishes and witty sayings, Anne used her birthday present as a diary, one that has been translated into 70 languages and sold more than 30 million copies.
A small child comes over and touches my hand. “You lost?” she asks in halting English.
“I’m looking for Anne Frank’s house,” I say.
She points to a window on third floor of one of the buildings. “That’s where Anna lived when she was little.”
The Franks’ apartment, where they lived from 1934, when they emigrated from Germany, until 1942, when they went into hiding, now serves as a retreat for aspiring writers. Although it’s been restored to look as it did when the Franks lived there, it’s only open to the public on special occasions.
The child leads me to a bronze statue at the end of the park. It depicts a teenage girl gazing wistfully at the row of apartment buildings. It is the only official recognition of the fact that this is the neighborhood that nurtured Anne Frank.
“Anna is saying goodbye to her home,” says our new friend.
She also says goodbye, and my husband and I walk a few blocks to the Montessori school that Anne attended from 1934 to 1941. The building, which is still a functioning Montessori school, is painted in pastel colors overlaid with quotes from the diary of its most famous student.
Finally we stop at Boekhandel Jimmink, the corner bookstore where Anne’s father purchased his daughter’s birthday present. We ask if they have replicas of the famous diary. The clerk points to a small stack of books on a back table.
“We don’t get much call for these,” he says apologetically. “Not a lot of tourists come here, and among locals Harry Potter outsells Anne Frank.”
We continue our search for Anne’s childhood haunts in central Amsterdam, an area that today is filled with galleries and small shops. Anne loved to explore the narrow streets near her father’s offices, which were in stately homes along the Singel and Prinsengracht canals.
She also spent many happy hours at the nearby Bloemenmarkt, the only floating flower market in the world.
The Secret Annex, where the Franks spent two years hiding from the Nazis, is only a few blocks away. Unlike her old neighborhood, her hiding place is one of the most visited sites in the Netherlands. The line to get in stretches around the block.
A few months later, on a different trip in a different country, we attend a talk by a Holocaust survivor. Quite by chance the speaker is Hannah Goslar, one of Anne’s closest friends, the one referred to in her diary as Lies (a Dutch contraction of the name Elisabeth).
Hannah was one of the last people Anne saw before she died in the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945, a few months before her 16th birthday.
“I grew up in the apartment downstairs from Anna Frank,” she begins. “Has anyone been to that part of Amsterdam?”
We raise our hands.
“I haven’t been back in years,” she says softly. “Tell me, what is it like today?”
We tell her that as we walked to the school that she and Anne attended, we saw a menorah in the window of a first-floor apartment. She smiles. “You know,” she says, “in her diary Anna wrote that ‘despite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.’ Perhaps she was right.”