After The Annex
By Bas von Benda-Beckmann
The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most widely read nonfiction books in the world. An account of the Nazi occupation of Frank’s home city of Amsterdam, it has sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into over 65 languages.
In the 80 years since she wrote it, aged between 13 and 15, it has become a staple in children’s school and public libraries, repeatedly adapted for cinema, film and stage. Anne’s natural introspection, clear perceptions, and her descriptive powers — including in emotional analysis, whether of the looming terror or of first love — may explain the success of such an unaffected and gifted communicator.
The Diary runs from July 1942 to August 1944 while she, her sister (Margot) and her parents (Otto and Edith) were concealed, together with four family friends Herman and Auguste van Pels, their son Peter; and dentist Fritz Pfeffer, in an annex to her father’s canalside business premises on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht.
It was only in 2018 that stories surfaced of how they might have been betrayed (with a Jewish notary, Arnold van den Bergh, also suspected following an investigation that ended in 2022). The Diary concludes: “I’ve told you many times, I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things.”
Bas von Benda-Beckmann’s After the Annex is the first meaningful attempt, based on thorough research in archives and available eyewitness accounts, to reconstruct as precisely as possible what happened to the Annex eight after their arrest.
It tracks Anne’s painfully short life, deported by cattle truck to the Dutch transit camp at Westerbork, on through the horrors of Auschwitz to her death of typhus at Bergen-Belsen.
It acts as a counterpart, explaining what Anne could not know, and supplying a mass of original material, joining the dots between witness accounts of brutality and murder, and the fastidious records of an army of occupation proud of its policies of degradation and ultimate extermination. In the style of a forensic investigation, it also traces anyone who may have encountered the Franks.
An academic working with the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Benda-Beckmann intersperses his text with personal material, including previously unseen letters and heartrending photographs.
Since all eight were transported to Auschwitz, an entire chapter is dedicated to the camp, including meticulous German operational plans, with inmates’ descriptions of how Anne and her family appeared to them.
Each chapter is headed with a witness quotation and more litter the narrative. At Westerbork holding camp, fellow inmate Rosa de Winter-Levy found Anne and Peter looking “happy and free”; at Bergen-Belsen, another fellow inmate, Ellen Daniel sadly said: “The only thing I remember about her was that she cried all day long. She didn’t want anything and couldn’t do anything.’’ It was a tragic decline, yet witness statements intermittently contradict one another regarding the mental state of Anne and Margot.
The consensus, however, is that a surrender of the will to live was a commonplace precursor of succumbing to camp conditions and endemic disease. It led inexorably to the demise of the vibrant teenager who had celebrated her exuberant “joy in life”, her life erased without anyone knowing exactly when and where she died. Only that she was buried together with her beloved older sister sometime in March 1945.
It is a pathetic irony that their father had been liberated from Auschwitz by the Red Army some two months earlier.
From there began Otto’s long and ultimately disappointing quest to find out what had become of his family. In the ensuing months Otto would discover that he was the only survivor out of all eight and two years later he published The Diary. After the Annex provides the context to complement Anne’s unique testament.