Courage… strength… inspiration… heartbreak… These are the words that come to my mind when I think about Anne Frank and her diary.
I first read the diary when I was in primary school, and again when I was in high school. Ten years later, I knew what it was about, but I couldn't remember the emotions I had felt reading it. Perhaps I was too young then.
Before I left Australia for a holiday in Europe, I decided to reread Anne Frank's diary. I knew I would be visiting the house in Amsterdam; I wanted that experience to really mean something. I spent my mornings and afternoons on the train to and from work, reading about the life and death of Anne Frank. Once again I was captivated by her innocence, the terror she experienced and the trauma of her family and her life underground.
I put myself in her place and lived that time in my mind, imagining what I would do in certain situations. I also allowed myself to feel emotions towards Anne and her family. I got angry at her mother, I admired her father and I loved Peter Van Pels as she did. I wanted the moment that I stepped into her house to be truly unique. It was.
Standing outside, I looked around me at the street Anne and her sister Margot stared at through closed curtains. I saw the road where Anne had described seeing soldiers patrolling and Jews fleeing, terrified, to escape the war. I looked where she saw friends and neighbours taken away by the army, marching towards certain death. Now the roads are littered with people dressed in clothes Anne dreamed of owning, faces as beautiful as the pictures she cut from magazines and posted on her walls, laughter and smiles as friends share stories and tourists scour the streets in search of history.
When Anne looked onto these streets during the heartache of World War II, she could never have imagined the happiness the people are blessed with today. The streets are filled with traffic – cars, buses, bikes – taking people to destinations of enjoyment. On the rare occasions Anne was able to sneak a peek outside, the only cars she saw were military, buses were full with Jews on their way to concentration camps, and those on bikes were simply there in a failed attempt to escape.
Nothing compared to being inside, though. It must have been the same for Anne and those who shared the dwelling with her. The house is built in two sections: four storeys (plus attic). The back section of the two top floors became the secret annex, where Anne and her family, the Van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer, spent 25 months.
They lived there until the arrest, when the annex was emptied of its furnishings by order of the German occupier. An anonymous telephone call to the authorities led to their whereabouts. While it will never be known for certain who reported them, two theories surfaced. One alleged the betrayer was Anton Ahlers, a Nazi and business associate of Otto Frank. The second theory pointed to a Dutch cleaner named Lena Hartog-van Bladeren, who worked in the office in front of the annex. But the true identity of the betrayer is still a mystery.
All were deported and sent to extermination camps, where only one survived. That one was Otto Frank, Anne's father (Anne died from typhus and deprivation in March 1945 in Bergen-Belsen. She was just 15 years old). Her father was found by the Russian Army at Auschwitz and upon recovery, learnt of the death of his wife and children. After the war, Anne's diary was found strewn across the office floor, where it was picked up and hidden away. It resurfaced many years later and was given to her father. The annex has remained in its authentic state.
I was speechless as I walked the same corridors and staircases that Anne and her family had walked. I had tears in my eyes while I stepped through the worn bookcase that served as a secret door to the annex. And my heart pounded as I made my way into the make-shift bedrooms. Although empty now, I pictured what they must have looked like. I couldn't comprehend how each person survived for 25 months in such extreme conditions, probably nothing compared to life in concentration camps.
Even now, as I think of it, I shudder at the image of the small room that Anne shared with Fritz Pfeffer – the pictures she had pasted to the wall to cheer her up, still there, faded and torn. A reflection on a young life – long lost.
Had I walked into the secret annex where Anne Frank and her family lived without reading the book beforehand, I don't think I would have truly understood what it meant to be there. I would not have felt despair walking into the rooms that served as kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms; I wouldn't have cared that there was barely enough space to fit a desk, let alone two or three beds; and I wouldn't have felt my heart pound remembering how scared Anne would have been writing about the view from the window, or listening to the news on the radio.
Going through the annex, I thought about how hard it must have been for Otto Frank to pack up his family and hide them from the world for more than two years; to stop his daughters from going out to play – from even looking out the window to feel the sunlight on their faces. I can't imagine how painful it must have been for him to watch the shine slowly fade from the eyes of those he loved the most, knowing he was unable to help them.
I wondered about Peter and Margot, what might have happened to them had they survived. But mostly, I considered Anne, how she experienced hell, first hand, yet through her diary – and sadly, her death – she has made so many people smile.
She was a young girl who dreamed of becoming a journalist, but she lived and died in an unfortunate time. Her writing has since inspired hundreds, and her words have touched even the hardest of hearts. Through her adversity, the world has learnt that life sometimes sucks. We also know that although life may seem tough, we need to appreciate what we have. There will always be people who live their lives in a secret annex.