“Can you keep a secret? I don’t suppose you can!
You mustn’t laugh, you mustn’t cry. But do the best you can.”
More than three hundred years ago those words resounded along the walls of the small passages in the house newly built by Dirk van Delft. The canal house fronted onto one of a circle of canals built over the previous sixty years around the thriving town centre. Warehouses were prominent, using the waterways of Amsterdam for the transport of freight. Private housing amongst the warehouses provided some living spaces for a burgeoning population of 200,000 citizens. The well to do family that lived at Prinsengracht 263 included four young children. The mother and her maid kept the children amused and involved in learning, from their earliest years. Children’s rhymes such as this were a staple of a child’s culture and as such, were playfully bantered about in this affluent household. The house was perfect to support the ritual of the children’s play. The home was a warren of small rooms and the rear annex was a bonus for the children as they grew. The layout of the house provided the youngsters with many opportunities to play hide and seek as well as spaces where a small child could conceal himself to while away the time on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
When the youngest, Bram, was six years old, he discovered a special place in a cavity at the entrance to the annex. Here, he would stow away his favourite drawings in an old tin box which his father had presented to him. There was a drawing of his father whose spindly stick legs rose all the way up to his head. There was a drawing of his house viewed from the canal. One day he added the bronze coin which his uncle had given him when he returned to Amsterdam from his travels. As Bram grew older, he eventually forgot about his special hiding spot which could only be reached from underneath the loose third step. Over the years, the house kept Bram’s secret and even when the children had grown to be teenagers and their parents moved them to a new larger address, the house faithfully and silently protected the little tin box. This little tin box held the memory of a little child who had once lived happily inside the canal house.
The next family to move into the house consisted of two children and their parents. Young Luuc was bored one day and climbed onto the top of the wardrobe in his parent’s bedroom. He had with him a writing implement which he had found on the street in front of the adjoining warehouse. Angry with his mother after being chastised by her, he wrote a swear word on a scrap of material torn from his undershirt. Luuc was horrified when the scrap of undershirt slipped from his short fingers and disappeared down behind the cupboard. Unbeknownst to the child his message slipped between a gap in the floor and was lost under the house. The house kept this angry secret too as the years fell away; another memory to be shared with no-one else.
Luuc lived in that house till he was an old man. He outlived his parents. His sister had moved away to be married to one of Amsterdam’s finest merchants. Luuc never married. The house grew decrepit around him and when he finally passed away in his ninetieth year, his nephew Daan inherited it. In 1740, Daan had the place renovated. The rear annex was demolished and replaced with a much larger annex. The façade facing onto the canal was updated and Daan used the front of the old house as a warehouse for his business. Thirty years later Daan signed papers with a merchant banker’s son, Theophilus Cazenove for sale of the property but later that year Theophilis went broke and the property reverted back into Daan’s possession at a fraction of the price for which he had sold it. What Daan did not know was that Theopolis had secreted away under the roofline some evidence of illegal trading with a Spanish company, prohibited at that time. The papers gathered mould over the next decades and eventually disintegrated inside the cloth covering in which they were wrapped; another forgotten secret which the old house gathered close to itself. The house on the canal waited and watched, to see what would happen next.
For a very long time the building remained empty except for short periods of time when it was utilised as a warehouse by various businessmen. At one time in the 19th century it was used to stable horses for a while. In the early 1900s Prinsengracht 263 became a factory involved in the manufacture of household appliances. An aspiring young worker at the factory, Tomas, impressed by the manufacturing processes taking place around him, began to work on his own invention, a device which would use electric power to boil water. He kept his plans secret from his employer and co-workers and stored them away in a hidden space in the roof space of the attic in the old annex at the rear of the building. Unfortunately Tomas was killed on his way to work one day when he was run down by a run-away horse. The world had to wait till 1931 for the electric kettle to be introduced to them. The house folded into its safekeeping, yet another secret. The unknown future was still to bring its greatest secret into the building. The house patiently waited and watched as life went by on the canal waterway in front.
From 1930 till 1939 a factory producing piano rolls occupied the canal house. Musical notes were sent forth from the premises into the homes throughout Europe and abroad. The old house enjoyed this part of its life. The place was always abuzz with the noise of industry but the musical notes emanating from the tested pianola roles, filled the rooms with overriding joy.
In the year 1940, on the first day of December while yet another war raged across the continents, a man rented the main house and the annex from the Pieron family who had owned it since 1901. The renter’s name was Otto Frank and he used the entire ground floor as a large workshop for his spice and gelling factory. The first and second floors were turned into offices and storage spaces. The First World War had not impacted severely on the Netherlands which had remained neutral throughout, but this Second World War was to see the country overrun by the German Forces. On May 14th, 1940, the German Forces had invaded the Netherlands. Rotterdam was badly damaged by bombs. Five days later, to avert the destruction of other cities, the country surrendered to Germany. This war was to be the pivoting force in introducing the canal house to its most precious secret of all.
Otto eventually brought his wife and two teenage daughters to live with him in the annex. From the very first day, the old house witnessed the strange behaviour of the little family. During the daylight hours while the business of the factory went on as usual, the residents in the annex crept about silently as if they were trying to conceal their presence. Soon another couple and their teenage son, Peter, joined the strange living arrangements of Otto and his family. Sometime later a third man who had been a dentist in Germany until the outbreak of the war, moved in to share the accommodation. The entrance to the annex had been concealed behind a movable bookcase on a landing which connected the now secret annex to the main house. No-one who worked in the factory could even be aware of the existence of the secret annex. Behind it, at ground level was a courtyard created by the walls of the surrounding buildings. Otto no longer worked in the business area but he communed secretly with two men now in charge of the factory. Sometimes at night Otto and the other inhabitants of the annex would enter the main house, quietly and without light. They would move around carefully leaving no sign of their visit to be discovered by the workers the next day. The secret occupants were enabled by two women who brought food to them regularly. The women worked for Otto’s company, Pectacon. They provided the hidden group with all the things which they needed to survive.
Puzzled by this bizarre behaviour, the house waited for a clue as to why these humans were living this strange life. The clue came when Otto’s fourteen year old daughter wrote in a book each night to her friend Kitty. She wrote about her life in hiding. She wrote about the inconsequential happenings of daily life in the secret annex. She wrote down her thoughts and ideas, her yearnings and her memories. Through this diary and through her expressed thoughts and actions, through her kindness to the others and the display of love and concern she had for those around her, Anne came to be the centre of the secret life taking place in the annex. The house tried valiantly to protect the group of eight from exposure. It tried to suffuse the occasional loud squeak of a floorboard. It tried to echo the warning sound of approaching footfalls of the factory workers below who may have stayed late to finish an order on occasions. At night it blacked out the candle light which otherwise may have shone through the window over the courtyard. The house was used to keeping secrets. However, this secret was to be kept with the utmost of urgency. Of this the house was certain. This secret was a matter of life or death and the house kept silent and attracted no attention to itself.
One evening the appointed floor manager of Otto Frank’s Pectacon Company, van Maren, had become suspicious and had been insistently enquiring as to whether there was another part of the building not in use. He knew of the many Jewish citizens who still lived in hiding all over the city of Amsterdam. Van Maren suspected that some Jews were concealed in a secret part of the factory. On this night he quietly sprinkled flour on the floor of the workshop to see if any footprints would be discovered on the morrow. Just before dawn the next morning the old house sprang a leak on the ground floor in the workshop. Fortunately for the secret occupants, the flour and evidence was washed away.
The house did its part in protecting the occupants for more than two long years. In 1943 the Pieron family, who still owned the house, sold it. The new owner remained completely unaware of the hidden annex and its occupants. However, one day sadly, the secret was exposed. The traitor who informed on the Frank family was never exposed. Nazi soldiers came and tore Anne and her family, Peter and his parents and the dentist away from their hiding place. The ordeal was horrendous for the frightened victims. The house railed against the violence of it. The soldiers had tipped the contents of Otto’s briefcase onto the floor so they could use the case to carry the gathered jewellery and important possessions of the Frank family and their friends. Among the discarded contents was Anne’s diary. The house welcomed a cold breeze that came rushing through the open entrance to the annex. Inexplicably a scarf left on a nearby chair was swept up and landed across the fallen diary. The soldiers did not notice Anne’s diary. The house hid it from their sight. Guarding its secrets once more. The next morning one of the two women helpers gathered up some of the possessions from the annex, including Anne’s diary.
When the war ended, of the eight occupants who had hidden in the house, only Otto, Anne’s father, had survived the Concentration Camps. The others had not lived. After the liberation, the building at Prinsengracht 263 was in danger of being demolished. Otto Frank returned to the house and gratefully accepted the diary from his good friend. As Anne’s story became better known through her father’s publication of her diary, people agitated to prevent the demolition of the canal house. The Anne Frank Foundation was established and the old home was restored. During the restoration a workman noticed some loose panelling on some steps leading into the secret annex. When he went to replace the wood panel he discovered a very old tin box. After prising it open he found some old child-like drawings. One was a figure of an extremely tall man with spindly stick legs that went all the way up to his head. In the box too was an antique bronze coin.
Eventually the house was opened to the public on May 3, 1960. Otto was there to see the opening ceremony. He stood in the attic of the annex and remembered his daughter Anne and the impact her diary had made on the world. Today Prinsengracht 263 and its neighbouring building at 265 are open as a museum visited by people from all over the world. The little house on the canal has survived and has held fast to its secrets across the years. Perhaps if you visited today you might stumble across Tomas’ designs for his electric powered kettle, still hidden in the attic roof space of the annex. Then again, maybe not, as we know this house is very adept at keeping secrets.
“Can you keep a secret? I don’t suppose you can!
You mustn’t laugh, you mustn’t cry. But do the best you can.”
Yes………………… I can.