On Friday 19th September 1997, I visited the Anne Frank House with Dennis Sear and John Croft, two British war Veterans. Dennis and John visited Holland to commemorate Operation Market-Garden, better know as ‘the Battle of Arnhem’. In 1944, Dennis had been in the Nijmegen area for several months. He was a cook with the Royal Engineers of 30 Corps and was amongst others involved with operation Pegasus – the operation which saved the lives of many British paratroopers in hiding from the battle of Arnhem. John had also been in the Nijmegen area for several months. He was with the 64th (London) Medium Regiment Royal Artillery and was amongst others involved in the shelling of the Germans from a position near the Nijmegen power station during the Battle of Arnhem. Dennis, who fought in eleven different countries during the war, had also been in Bergen Belsen, the concentration camp where Anne Frank died shortly before it was liberated by British soldiers in March 1945. Several years ago Dennis told us that he very much would like to visit the Anne Frank House. However, due to the full programs we never had the opportunity. This year the program was more relaxed and we had a spare day to visit the Anne Frank House. It was a day we shall not easily forget.
I had already written a letter to the Anne Frank House early in September. Afke – our eldest daughter – once wrote an essay about Anne Frank in school and she gave me the address of the foundation. In my letter I wrote that I wished to visit the Anne Frank House with a Veteran and asked them if it was possible to arrange something special. Within a few days I received a phone call from Anja van ‘t Hoenderdaal, from the educational department of the Anne Frank House. She said she looked forward to our visit and would give us a special guided tour. This made us feel very welcome.
Shortly before the annual Market-Garden pilgrimage I received a phone call from John. We had known each other for several years and John asked us if he could stay a few days after the pilgrimage. I told him that this was no problem and about my intention to visit the Anne Frank House and asked if he wanted to join us. He accepted my invitation with many thanks.
And so we met John at the Nijmegen railway station shortly before 9 o’clock on the morning of 19th September. Maud – my wife – took Dennis and me to the railway station. John looked liked a real tourist with his photograph and video camera and bag with accessories. At the desk in the hall of the railway station I bought a first class ticket for three persons. Later that day, on our way back, I realised that this was a good choice, as the second class was very crowded and I did not want Dennis and John to stand after all the walking we had done. After all they are not that young anymore (Dennis 75, John 79).
We had a pleasant journey to Amsterdam, the weather was excellent and we only had to change once, at Utrecht. John did a lot of filming and it was obvious that both Dennis and John enjoyed the trip. In front of the Amsterdam railway station we quickly found the right tram. This was not so strange as I had done some home work, and besides that I was born in Weesp – a suburb of Amsterdam – and I used to visit Amsterdam quite often.
In 10 minutes tram No.17 took us to the Westermarkt, to the foot of the old Westerchurch. We were a bit early so we first took a photograph near the statue of Anne Frank before we went on. Here also the medals were put on and after a final shoe inspection we entered the Prinsengracht to the Anne Frank House. We arrived there a few minutes before eleven, in good time for our appointment.
There was a long queue but Anja had told me to walk straight to cash desk and to ask for her. Within a minute she welcomed us and took us to a room specially for visitors, to a room which once was the private office of Otto Frank. There we also met Teresien Dasylva, a historian connected to the information department of the Anne Frank House. While we had coffee Dennis showed us his old photograph album and original ‘Orders of the Day’ signed by Montgomery. The photograph album also contained two photographs of Bergen Belsen. One was taken at a mass grave. German soldiers were forced to re-bury the dead bodies properly whilst they were guarded by soldiers of 30 Corps – the Corps Dennis was in. During the four days Dennis and his unit were in Bergen Belsen Dennis hardly had to cook at all. The other photograph was of eleven German women, obviously camp guards. Dennis told us that they used to make lamp-shades from human skin. He knew the name of one of the women. After the war he had recognised her photograph in an English newspaper. It was Irma Grese.
Afterwards Anja took us to the Anne Frank House. Whilst we were seated she told us about the family Frank, the period of hiding and of course about the house and the alterations. The first room she showed us was not yet open to the public. In the past the room was used as a kitchen by the staff of the Anne Frank House and would be restored into its former state. We then followed Anja with the crowd to the stairs leading to the Secret Annexe. Anja gave us a full explanation and answered our questions and from time to time also the questions from the public.
For a long time we halted at the bookcase which once was the secret door to the Annexe. John wanted to make a video recording of everything and also took a shot whilst Anja opened the bookcase. The bookcase led us to the room of Otto, Edith and Margot Frank. On the wall was a little map of Normandy where the advance of the Allied forces was marked with coloured pins. Whilst the family Frank hoped for an early liberation, Dennis and John were in Normandy. I wonder what they thought when they saw the map. We then entered the room of Anne Frank and Albert Dussel, the room where Anne wrote a lot of her diary and with the old photographs of film stars on the wall. I am sure some of the pictures were recognised by Dennis and John. The stairs to the second floor led us to the van Daan’s room which was also the living room. It was as if time had been turned back fifty years.
Via a corridor on the roof we walked to the attic of the house next door where there was an exhibition. We saw the diary of Anne and a video of interviews. On the wall I saw a photograph of a mass grave similar to the one in Dennis’ photo album. It brought tears to my eyes and with difficulty I drew it to Dennis’ attention. It is unbelievable what humanity is capable of.
At the end of the exhibition, at the first floor, there was a little shop where people from all over the world bought books and magazines to show their families the story of the Anne Frank. I took my last photograph there of Dennis and John and a group of young Japanese tourists. At least two generations difference, Dennis and John Veterans who knew everything about the horrors of the second world war, and the Japanese tourists who probably never heard of the role of the British army in the liberation of Holland. Before we left the building Anja gave us a present from the Anne Frank Foundation as a souvenir of our visit to the Anne Frank House. We thanked her very much for her valuable time and the most kind reception. I promised to send her some of my photographs and I was glad that our visit was such a success.
It was 1 o’clock when we left the Anne Frank House and the queue was at least a hundred meters long by now. A week before our visit our newspaper reported that more than 600.000 people had visited the Anne Frank House already this year, which is more than 3000 visitors a day. Before we took the tram again we had a look from the bridge at the Prinsengracht near the Westerchurch. We saw the first canal boats and everything was so peaceful in the sunshine.
We decided not to make a trip by boat but to see Amsterdam by tram so we could do whatever we wanted. Firstly, I took Dennis and John to the Dam square. Unfortunately the huge National Monument was being restored but there was more than enough to see, like a piper, the Royal Palace, the New Church, the Bijenkorf and of course the hundreds of pigeons. A guy, ‘out-of-work’, was selling pigeons seed. Two artists, obviously visiting Amsterdam, gave a free demonstration.
From the Dam square we continued our tour by tram to the Leidseplein. There we firstly had something to eat at ‘Broodje van Kootje’ which means ‘A roll from Kootje’. We could ask for any kind. From the small terrace in front of the shop we had a nice view of the Leidseplein square. In one of the cafes (pubs) in the square we had something to drink. It was what we call a ‘brown café’ and at this time of the day it was not very busy. After ‘our lunch’ we walked through the Leidsestreet in the direction of the Mint tower.
In the Leidsestreet I showed Dennis and John the tram track. It is a single track being used in both directions. Only at the bridges is the track a double track and that’s where the trams pass. In a book shop John bought a map of Amsterdam and Dennis and I waited at a bridge where we saw the canal boats again. Both John and Dennis were still wearing their medals and were very often spoken to by people in the street. Of course the medals had to be explained. At the end of the Leidsestreet John saw a bank and he went in to ‘rob’ it. Dennis and I had to look out. After a successful robbing we continued our way along the Flower Market at the Singel. Here I gained a lot of points. My British friends were very much impressed by the strange and exotic flowers. John did a lot of filming and Dennis bought some ‘real’ Delft blue tiles and a bouquet of Roses which he would hand over to Maud during the farewell party.
Via the Mint tower we went into the Regliersbreestreet where I asked Dennis to stop for a photograph. I am still wondering if he noticed that he was standing in front of a sex shop. His wife Maud will probably ask him the question ‘did you go in, or had you just come out?’, when I send her the photograph. Hope she doesn’t ill-treat him with the rolling-pin!.
Via the Regulierbreestreet we went to the Rembrand square where the statue of our famous Dutch painter Rembrant was photographed and filmed. The square is famous because of its social life at night.
After the Rembrand square we walked to the Herengracht via the Thorbecke square to the bridge where Maud (my wife) and I often went after we had been to the cinema. We had not often seen this place during the day time. Most of the time it was dark when we dreamed away by the lights from the boats and lamp-posts. After this last look at one of the Amsterdam canals we walked back to the Rembrand square via the Thorbecke square which is also a busy place in the early hours. I showed Dennis and John ‘the night-clubs’ area. Not a place to be proud of but without doubt a place which is part of our capital city.
At the Rembrand square we took the tram back to the Amsterdam central station. We had to wait a few minutes and Dennis took the opportunity to have his photograph taken with two young Amsterdam ladies. I wonder if they had the slightest idea who the old man was and why he was wearing the medals. Anyway it turned out to be a nice photograph at the end of our trip to Amsterdam. Our journey back to Nijmegen was reasonably comfortable although the train was rather crowded. As I have said before it was fortunate that we had a first class ticket.
Back home we could look back on a very successful day. Nothing had gone wrong, the weather had been kind and last but not least the reception at the Anne Frank House was one that we could only have dreamed of. Here I want to thank Anja van ‘t Hoenderdaal once again for her time and her devotion to the guided tour. I hope the Anne Frank Foundation can look forward to many more visitors in the future and that the ideals of Anne Frank will live on.
Your sincerely, Jaap Been