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The photographer who helped rescue Anne Frank’s house

Maria Austria meticulously documented Anne Frank’s house in 1954

    A Dutch photographer whose post-war pictures helped save Anne Frank’s house from demolition is the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

    Maria Austria captured the ruins of Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter after the devastation of the Second World War.

    She also took more than 200 photographs of the Achterhuis, the hiding place used by Anne Frank.

    Born Marie Oestreicher in 1915, she left cosmopolitan Vienna for the apparent safety of the Netherlands in 1937, but was forced into hiding when war broke out.

    Her husband was deported to Westerbork, the Dutch outpost used to assemble Jews before they were sent to extermination camps elsewhere in Europe, but Austria survived the war working as a courier for the Dutch resistance.

    She went on to set up a photo agency, photographing avant-garde theatre and luminaries such as Bertolt Brecht, Yehudi Menuhin and Benjamin Britten.

    Although she did not publicly identify as Jewish and was not part of the Amsterdam congregation, she was frequently drawn after the war to Jewish subjects.

    “She was in hiding during the war — I think this experience pushed her closer to her Jewish identity,” said Bernadette van Woerkom, the exhibition’s curator.

    “Maria chose subjects that somebody who wasn’t Jewish might not have chosen. For example, she photographed Jews who came back from the concentration camps and Jewish orphans from Romania who stayed in the Netherlands for a while.”

    Martien Frijns, who compiled a book of Austria’s photographs, added: “In December 1945, the Jewish people from Westerbork returned to Amsterdam, and she made a photo story. It is [composed of] 11 photos, which are being shown for the first time — they are quite intimate, but intense.”

    Part of the display came from a large cache of photographs that documented the secret annex hideout used by the Frank family and four other Jews to evade the Nazis.

    The photographs were commissioned in 1954 by a Broadway director wanting to create the stage set for a play based on The Diary of Anne Frank.

    Austria took 200 shots of the annex, capturing every haunting detail.

    “It’s very thorough documentation. She captures every floorboard and lightbulb, all the detail, but also the general atmosphere of emptiness and desolation,” Ms van Woerkom said.

    Austria also photographed Anne’s father Otto Frank at the annex.

    “Otto’s children were in Bergen Belsen and so were two of Maria’s nieces, and they would have been about the same age. So there was a lot of handshaking, a commitment to each other,” Mr Frijns said.

    By the mid-1950s, the house was slated for demolition and Otto Frank was campaigning to preserve it as a museum. The popularity of Anne’s diary, the Broadway play and Austria’s poignant images — showing both traces of life and its stark absence —all played a role in its eventual preservation.

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