The Hideaway of a Young Girl : A Literary and Historical Pilgrimage

Six year old Anne at Montessori School in a happier time.

The Diary of a Young Girl is one of my most cherished childhood books. I was around the same age as Anne Frank when I first read the book and like many other adolescents, I could relate to the young girl and her angst. I was vaguely aware of the chilling horrors of the holocaust but at that age I mainly found a kindred spirit in Anne for she was a normal teenager like all of us encountering the same problems –squabbles with her sister, feeling misunderstood by grown-ups, dealing with the awkwardness of puberty, the onset of the first period and crushes on boys. Anne poured her heart out in her diary, her friend and her confidante whom she lovingly addressed as ‘Kitty’, during the two years she spent in hiding in ‘The Secret Annex’ with her family when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. Little did I imagine that one day I would be entering this personal space so vividly described by the spunky and precocious teen! I re-read her diary before going on a trip to Amsterdam and had quite a different perspective on it as an adult. The book, along with the moving and sobering experience of visiting the house, brought home with full force the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.


The Anne Frank Huis located at No. 263 in Prinsengracht in Amsterdam is where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for twenty-five months during World War 2 along with the van Pels family and the dentist, Dr. Fritz Pfeffer. They hid in the Achterhuis or back house (Secret Annex) located at the back of the Opekta and Pectacon office and warehouse where her father, Otto Frank, ran businesses making spices and seasonings for meat and pectin for jelly. Otto decided to find refuge here when the Nazis began rounding up all the Jews to send them to Westerbok, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen before deporting them to Auschwitz- Birkenau and Sobibor in German occupied Poland where they were ruthlessly exterminated.


Otto’s employees and friends played an important role in keeping the businesses running and the family safe. I am going to name them all as they risked their lives to protect the family- Johannes Kleiman, Miep Gies and her husband Jan Gies, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl and her father Johan Voskuijl. They did grocery shopping and brought food for their survival and books and magazines to entertain them and were their only contact with the outside world. Bep signed up for correspondence courses in shorthand and Latin in her own name to continue the children’s education. These well-wishers whom Anne referred to as ‘helpers’  represented hope in their small acts of kindness and show us how human nature is as capable of compassion as it is of cruelty.

The self-guided audio tour began in the warehouse which has a door to the left which immediately leads to a staircase up to the first floor where the offices were located. The interactive displays and audio clips shed a lot of light on the era and prepared us for what was to follow. We then entered the storeroom to access the secret annex which is connected to the main house by passageways. The doorway to the annex was concealed behind a moveable bookcase expressly constructed for this purpose by Bep’s father, Johan Voskuijl. It was a surreal feeling to step behind the original bookcase and enter Anne’s world. The living space was only 540 square feet in area. On the first floor we walked through the room shared by Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith and her sister, Margo, and then entered a small room shared by Anne and Fritz, the dentist who got on her nerves. On the wall we could see posters of celebrities just like the room of a typical teenager.

On the second floor is the area where the van Pels lived. It is the largest room of the annex and also served as the communal living room and kitchen as it had a stove and sink. Next to it is their son Peter’s room which is just landing space coming down from the attic. The house is bare other than a few photos and mementos but that adds to the poignancy and as a reminder of how the Nazis ruthlessly stripped them of their lives along with their belongings. Yet there are a few things here and there that make you well up with tears like the original strip of wallpaper where Otto marked the girls’ height as they grew.

Canal side entrance to the museum

Anne’s diary reveals how during the day they had to be very quiet and tiptoe around the place, tense and fearful,  lest they be discovered by the workers of the warehouse. They washed and got ready before the workers came in and then they got busy with their reading and school work. They prepared their own meals and canned food for future use. They were most relaxed at night after the workers left. They would listen to the BBC and Radio Oranje and discuss the war and politics. They celebrated birthdays, Hannukah and Christmas and tried to keep their spirits up. But they also had arguments living in such close proximity to each other and as the war progressed the tiffs got worse when they started running out of supplies. Often sleep was elusive as air raid sirens and bombings could be heard throughout the night. In spite of all the difficulties and dangers they faced, Anne’s diary was laced with her youthful idealism and optimism:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

“The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” Photo courtesy of


The entrance to the attic was barred. I was eager to climb up the stairs and take a peek in the area which served as a meeting place for Anne and Peter and their budding romance and which also had a narrow window from which they could furtively look outside into the world. Anne loved looking at a giant chestnut tree in the courtyard, a little slice of nature to soothe her confined soul. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go there but immediately realized how painful it must have been for the inhabitants who couldn’t go anywhere and as prisoners had nothing but the little hurried glance from the window to content themselves with. They were deprived of fresh air, of sunlight, of nature, robbed of all the little freedoms we take for granted every day.

After the tour of the annex, I descended to the museum area which houses photographs, documents and objects that belonged to the family including Anne’s original diary. It was heartbreaking to see the pictures of the family in happier times. There are touching video clips with interviews with people who knew the family including Miep Gies who was particularly close to Anne and Anne’s friend who met her on a few occasions at the camp and managed to survive the war. Anne made her last entry in her diary on August 1, 1944. Their hiding place was revealed on 4th August, 1944 when they were betrayed by someone who tipped the Gestapo and they were taken to the Westerbok transit camp on a passenger train and eventually to Auschwitz on a freight train.

Only Otto Frank survived the war. It broke my heart to imagine the pain of the man who lost his entire family all at once. Anne’s mother died of tuberculosis at Auschwitz and the girls contracted typhus at Bergen- Belsen where they were transported to from Auschwitz. And isn’t it a cruel joke of fate that they were on the verge of freedom, that their camp was liberated just two weeks after their death? It was Miep Gies who gathered Anne’s papers and notebook after the hiding place was ransacked and gave them to Otto who sent it for publication. Somehow the Gestapo had left these papers alone. Anne had expressed a wish to become a famous writer in her diary. Ironically, her wish came true but not in the way she wished for it to happen. Who knows what she would have achieved if she hadn’t been plucked before her prime? A young life was robbed of its potential. Millions of lives were robbed of their potential.

I stepped out of the building with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat. Outside it was business as usual in the city with the hustle and bustle of tourists and their bikes and boats calmly floating down the same canal from Anne’s time and the same chiming of the bells of the Westerkerk that Anne heard regularly throughout the day. But a small nondescript corner in this bustling city will forever bear witness to the tribulations and trauma of not just one family but a race at large and to the resilience and indomitable spirit of a young girl who showed so much dignity in her suffering. And as for the old chestnut tree, unlike Anne it died a natural death. It finally succumbed to disease but not before scores of cuttings were taken from it and planted all over the world to grow new trees. And similarly Anne’s legacy lives on through her story which continues to inspire countless people everyday around the world.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: I recommend booking tickets online in advance before visiting the museum. The lines outside can be very long if you decide to purchase tickets on the spot. I had tried to buy my tickets online a few weeks before my trip but they were already sold out. I tried again a few days before my visit and luckily I was able to obtain them as they had some cancellations. Keep trying even after they are sold out. There are always people cancelling the last minute. Photographs are forbidden in the museum not only to preserve the original artifacts but also as a respect to the sanctity of the place. 






A President and a Poet


I was taking a leisurely stroll on a late autumn afternoon near Harvard Square when I quite serendipitously stumbled upon a sign that read ‘Longfellow House’. I was standing right in front of the house of one of America’s most celebrated poets whose works I’ve enjoyed since my childhood. I stared in disbelief at the imposing mansion in front of me and decided to take a peek inside. I discovered that it’s a historic home open to the public for tours. The tours are free and are conducted by the National Park Service. The next tour was about to start in fifteen minutes and that’s how I ventured on a literary pilgrimage without seeking it or planning for it in advance. It was a dual pilgrimage for not only was the house the former home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but also served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Boston siege. In fact ‘Longfellow House- Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site’ had known many notable inhabitants but the two most renowned ones as indicated by the sign were the President and the Poet.

Before entering the house, I lingered for a few minutes in the charming formal garden IMG_1530which is patterned after a Persian rug and has a latticed pergola and a sun dial. The moment I set foot in the eighteenth century house, I was transported to the past. The friendly and knowledgeable tour guide enhanced the experience by sharing inside stories and reciting poems at the most opportune moments. Longfellow was initially a tenant in the house formerly known as Vassall- Craigie House and eventually received it as a wedding present from his father-in-law in 1843 when he married Frances (Fanny) Appleton. The furnishings and artifacts of this elegantly appointed house are not reproductions like you find in many historic homes but real items that the Longfellows used in their daily lives. There are amazing antiques, paintings, ceramics, textiles, busts and decorative screens from North America, Europe and Asia. Many of the items were collected by the Longfellows’ eldest son Charles during his exotic travels to China, Japan and India and some of the paintings and portraits gracing the walls were created by their second son Ernest who was an artist. The house with its manuscripts, letters and a collection of more than 14,000 books in over a dozen languages including the works of Dante, Plutarch and Goethe reflects the vast erudition of Longfellow who was a Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard and fluent in many languages. It was while living in the house that he translated Dante’s “Divine Comedy” into English and also wrote many of his well known poems like “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.”

The house steeped in history and brimming with poetry will appeal to history buffs as well as to poetry enthusiasts. Though the two eminent men were not contemporaries, the most interesting moments are when their stories entwine. IMG_1543The Longfellows made very few structural changes to the house as they took immense pride in its historical past and its connection to Washington. A marble bust of Washington placed near the staircase in the entry hallway by the couple honors the home’s distinguished history. The cozy study is the same room where Longfellow wrote his poetry and where Washington strategized to drive the British out of Boston. The elegant parlor used by Fanny Longfellow for her social gatherings is the very room where Martha and George Washington hosted a ‘Twelfth Night’ party to celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary. I had two moments that gave me the chills. The first moment was IMG_1548when I stood near the marvelous staircase near the front door and the tour guide told us that we were standing in the very spot through which many famous people had entered the house. In the brief nine months that General Washington lived there before he became the first American President, he entertained visitors such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Hancock and other revolutionaries. Longfellow, in turn, received Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Charles Sumner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Makepeace Thackeray among other luminaries.

The second moment that sent a shudder of excitement down my spine was when I saw the lovely portrait of the Longfellows’ three daughters immortalized by the poet in ‘The Children’s Hour”, a beloved poem that I had memorized and recited during my school days:

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

IMG_1537I could imagine the children running down the stairs “plotting and planning” to take their father by surprise, throwing their arms around him and smothering him with kisses, and, he in turn, promising to keep them enshrined in his heart forever. The house where the Longfellows raised their six children carries within its walls all the memories of an idyllic and blissful family life along with the painful memories of sickness, bouts of mental illness and tragedies like Fanny’s death in a fire accident. A grief-stricken Longfellow wrote “The Cross of Snow” while looking at his wife’s portrait eighteen years after her death:

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

It’s believed that Fanny Longfellow’s ghost still hovers around the home. Some people who have toured the house claim to have seen a strange apparition of a lady in white in the upstairs bedroom. Longfellow himself expressed this uncanny feeling in his “Haunted Houses”:

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

The spirits in the house “as silent as the pictures on the wall” still linger and imbue the property with their otherworldly presence. As I crossed the hallway to leave the house, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair might descend down the staircase any moment to greet me just as they had their Dad more than a century and a half ago.