During the war, Dirk always appreciated inheriting his mother’s Aryan features. Not just the blond hair and blue eyes, but also the Teutonic nose, slightly broad at the base and the high cheekbones, the determined shape of the mouth.
From his Dutch father, he inherited the dimple just to the right of his mouth that popped when someone told a good joke.
Not that he’d heard jokes in the last few years, not since before the war. But now the war was over and Otto Frank told him a good one at the café last night.
Dirk now ran his fingers over his worn jacket pocket. What to do with the notebooks and loose pages that comprised Anne’s diary? Otto had said, “Hold onto these for safekeeping. These are her originals and her rewrites. I call them versions A and B.” He pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. “I’ve altered them in my own hand in version C. I tried my best to imitate her writing. Some things the world doesn’t need to know.” His voice choked when he said “her,” as if mentioning her name outright would conjure up unwanted images.
The pages made Dirk’s bones rattle. What was he to say to his friend? No, don’t give me your most prized possession, the sole remnant besides a few camera shop poses of your young girl?
He strode along the wet cobblestone to his flat and sat on the edge of his ancient iron-framed bed. The cockroaches and rats would soon be out for their nocturnal festivities. He hadn’t bothered to turn on the light for perhaps thirty minutes. He took the notebooks now into his hand, the rough texture of the paper reminded him of rough-cut diamonds—a precious gift with edges that could draw blood, even perhaps kill. Each of the three notebooks was a different size and then there was that first diary, the red-and-white checkerboard book with the lock.
He continued to hold the notebooks while he reached up instinctively to grab hold of the string. He pulled and a meager light shone on his hands. Clean hands, because only clean hands could handle the gems that were Anne’s words.
He had never actually met her. He only met Otto after the war in his capacity to resettle Dutch Jews. He wanted desperately to read her version and then read Otto’s, to see, to feel the difference the camps had made.
He could not keep Anne’s books here. But at the same time, he had to honor his friend’s request. Dirk knew enough about the vulnerability of paper to think about preserving the pages in an archival-safe container of some sort. Though it had only been a few years, the checkerboard had already faded to a pink and off-white. He could go to the museum and make up some story that perhaps the curator might believe. This way he would be able to get free advice. If the curator discovered the ruse, he would not be amused. Recovering the Rembrandts and Vermeers from the Nazi salt mine vaults had left the curator without humor.
Dirk would have to find a place to store the bag or box where he could easily retrieve it when Otto asked for it.
Now he dared to ask himself the question he had pushed into the shadows: What was it about him that led Otto to ask this favor of him?
He was respectable, yes. Reliable, hard-working. But he hadn’t treated Otto really any differently from others who had come to him from Westerbork and the DP camps. If he asked himself honestly, Dirk didn’t even know if he performed satisfactorily at his job. He could perhaps find his Jews homes and jobs. But he could not—and he was always clear about this—he could not help them find their lost ones. That responsibility belonged to the Red Cross. He could not help them recover their lost lives, give them back the years they lost at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.
He tucked the notebooks into an old scarf and placed it in the first drawer of his bureau. He prepared for bed and turned out the light.
With Anne’s multi-volume diary still wrapped, Dirk carefully placed the package into his briefcase and set out for the Rijksmuseum. The air was stiff as if the tram wires would snap if the wind exhaled.
He had an appointment with the curator at precisely nine o’clock. Mr. Hendrik De Groot, a short dumpy man with pocked skin, thin lips, and a bushy red moustache stuffed himself behind his mahogany desk.
“I hope this doesn’t take long,” he said, twisting the end of his moustache. “We’re preparing a new exhibit of recovered Rembrandts. There’s much to be done.”
“Yes, of course,” Dirk said. “I am here to inquire about the lockers in the basement.”
De Groot’s hands dropped to the desk’s surface. “Basement?” He considered Dirk and Dirk knew what he was thinking: How could a young man know of such things?
He leaned in toward the desk. “The basement.”
“Your father, of course,” De Groot said, puffing out his chest with his mystery-solving skills.
“I should like to use one.” Dirk patted his briefcase and licked his lips. His mouth had gone dry.
De Groot opened his mouth to say something, but instead ran his fingers over his moustache. “This isn’t anything illegal, is it?” he asked.
“On the contrary. It’s to keep Dutch arts and letters safe.”
“Something of those Jews of yours? They weren’t the only ones who suffered. All of the Netherlands suffered on their behalf.”
If Dirk said anything in response, he risked getting access to a locker. He shrugged off the comment. Every day he read in the newspapers and heard on the streets all these statements of how great the Dutch were and how grateful any surviving Jews should be.
De Groot reached into the top right drawer of the mammoth desk and pulled out an old-fashioned key. He stood and led Dirk down a public hallway. Then he turned left into a much narrower and cooler one. There at the end was a lift. De Groot used the key to open its door and then again to allow the lift to operate. They descended one, two, three floors below. The scent of mold and dampness caused Dirk to cover his nose with his handkerchief. He clung to the handles of his briefcase.
The lift came to an abrupt stop. Iron gating created small spaces in front of him, storage areas, he guessed. But along the back wall were the lockers. Anne’s diary would be safe from environmental factors within the confines of those thick walls.
“I’ll leave you to it,” De Groot said. “I’ll wait in the hall.”
Each locker held a key. Dirk opened one. He slid the locks on his briefcase to his combination and the latch snapped open. “You’ll be safe here, Anne,” he whispered.
Moments later he rejoined De Groot and then found himself on the Number 12 tram with so many others in the morning rush.
Otto came to see him around 11 o’clock.
“I found someone to read the book,” he said, “a historian to read my version. If she likes it, maybe she can recommend a publisher.”
He turned oddly silent and stared out the window onto the boulevard. Dirk had seen that look before. The look that said how did it come to this? How could I survive when my loved ones did not? Why was I saved?
Otto cleared his throat. “My friend, nothing is more important than the publication of Anne’s book. It’s my duty, my obligation to her, to Margot, to my wife.” Otto turned his head away again.
Dirk had become accustomed to seeing that, too. He tried not to put more pressure on Otto by staring at him. Instead he chose to focus on the Montblanc fountain pen laying on his desk blotter. He remembered the birthday when his father, an art historian, gave it to him. He’d been twelve.
What had Anne written with? What had Otto written with when he took her edits and combined them with his own?
In his mind’s eye, Dirk visualized her ink scratchings with pencil edits just in case she changed her mind later. He should have paid more attention to this when he had the actual pages in his hands. He tried to remember. Did blurts of ink stain the pages? He could just imagine Anne’s fingers covered in ink.
“She wanted to publish the diary herself, you said,” Otto said. “She heard a radio program once in 1944. Someone, the minister of education, art, and science, I think, asked for diaries and memoirs written about the occupation. Anne decided then to edit her own material for publication.”
Without the war, Anne could have gone on to university, then maybe become a famous writer or editor. Or a famous movie star. Dirk stifled a chuckle. He wished he had known her. She had gumption. That wasn’t a typical Dutch trait or at least he didn’t think so. But then Anne hadn’t been born Dutch.
“Her diary is in a safe place?” Otto asked.
“I’ll give this historian a few weeks to determine the manuscript’s possibilities. Anne’s book, my book.”
Otto stood and extended his hand. Dirk took it and shook, strong and firm.
There were versions of the truth, Dirk conceded, just like walking into a store with multiple clocks, each confidently asserting the correct time, although they could be seconds or minutes off.
Otto constructed different versions of the diary. He’d admitted it. Which version or versions had Dirk locked up in the museum? He tried to put it out of his mind. He had more important matters to tend to. But every time the bell tower clock across the street chimed, it murmured: truth, truth, truth.
One morning, a bleak Tuesday, he sauntered past the curator’s office to the archival catacombs. He opened his box and pulled out the various journals and loose sheets. He took the checkered journal into his hands and turned to the first page. This he knew was Anne’s original first volume. He read as long as the light held out. Turning the last sheet, at dusk, he sighed.
Dirk did not know what Otto changed or deleted. While he read, he could picture everything: the swiveling bookcase, the annex, the family gathered to hear radio broadcasts, the disagreements between Anne and her mother. He sighed again. Anne had most likely regretted what she said about her mother by the time she reached Bergen-Belsen. A once vibrant girl, who could have made her mark on the world, snuffed out. Otto was right to push for the diary’s publication.
Dirk replaced the papers and left. Out on the street, under a light flurry made visible only by the street lamps, a strange sadness came over him. Why had a Dutch citizen turned in the Franks? Why didn’t the Dutch, like the Danes, protect them? He’d also heard the rumors that another Jew betrayed them. To Dirk, Amsterdam had become a black and white city. Even blossoming tulips seemed gray. He knew why: The Jews were missing. Jews had lived and prospered here for hundreds of years. Without knowing, those who betrayed them gave up parts of themselves that could never be restored.
Newspapers published photos of the death camps. Dirk thought of Anne behind the barbed wire, her emaciated body, dark circles under her eyes, a body already dead. He found himself outside Otto’s old factory on the Prinsengracht. It was quiet except for the water of the canal slapping against the sides. In his mind’s eye the black sedans rolled along the cobblestone, eager to gobble the Franks and take them away. He entered the building and spotted the bookcase. Anne had been precise in her descriptions. The bookcase did indeed swivel. He broke through the cobwebs that now clung to his face and hands and climbed the stairs to Anne’s annex. Then immediately he knew. This space had to be preserved. The diary was not enough.
It was then he noticed the Condemned sign on the building. He didn’t know how he had missed it before. He would have to act fast.
The next day in the office, Dirk phoned Miep Gies at home where Otto was living temporarily. Naturally they would be the first people with whom he’d need to share his vision of turning the annex into a museum, a space that commemorated Anne’s life, not her death.
“He’s gone, Mr. Vandenberg,” she said. “He has moved to Switzerland. His family is there, you know. His mother, siblings.”
“Did he leave anything behind?”
“No, he had very little to take. I have his forwarding address. Would you like that?”
Dirk scribbled it down. He needed to keep in touch with Otto. He needed to know the progress of the book. It had to be published for his own redemption. As he leaned against the bank of his chair, he let himself remember what he had pushed into the shadows of his mind years ago.
His father was still working at the museum, but he seemed to be on the telephone constantly while at home. He’d been speaking more German, smoking more cigarettes. Dirk knew a little German but didn’t bother to pay attention. All he overheard were artists’ names—Rembrandt, van Gogh, Vermeer.
It wasn’t until after Germany’s defeat that his father, no, he had to go back farther than this. He had never suspected his own father would lie. His father said the museum would loan the works of these Dutch masters to the Nazi Reich. Dirk, in gymnasium in 1938, didn’t question him. It would have been impolite and disrespectful.
One night after the family’s evening meal, a man wearing a red armband and swastika called on his father. Listening in from the hallway, Dirk reasoned, was far more interesting than doing logarithmic calculations with a slide rule.
“We’ve commandeered additional works from Jewish homes,” his father said.
“They don’t need them,” the guest said.
Dirk had assumed the paintings would be on loan from the museum. Some of the most famous ones were there. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” and Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.” He had not considered the loans would come from private owners, private Dutch citizens.
After an hour, the guest left. Dirk’s father poured himself a shot of jenever.
“You lied, Papa,” Dirk said, inching closer.
His father took his glass and sat down in the tufted leather chair. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The paintings. You told me the Rijksmuseum would loan them. But you’re stealing them from our own Dutch people.”
His father sipped the jenever and smacked his lips. He did not make eye contact, which just brought Dirk to the arm of the chair.
“Jews are not Dutch,” his father said. “They are Jews.”
“You’re wrong. Pieter is in my class. He’s going to university like any other boy with high grades in Holland. He’s Jewish.”
His father took another sip. “The world is changing, Dirk. It’s best not to be so naïve.”
“But you’re lying. Haven’t you always told me to tell the truth?”
Now his father looked at him over his wireframed glasses. “There are different truths, and we have to live with them all. Art is changing. Holland is changing. Europe is changing. We must change with it to survive.”
Dirk wanted to slap the glass out of his father’s hand. But he couldn’t. His father’s furry gray brows knitted together. His teeth clenched. This was an unwanted discussion, Dirk could see that now.
“Go back to your schoolwork now,” his father said.
As Dirk sat on his bed, he didn’t realize he’d placed his head in his hands. Papa was in the business of bodies, not art. He was in the business of exchanging Jews for protection. Dirk’s tongue pressed against the back of his teeth. His father had become despicable.
Dirk opened his chemistry book, but images of Jews—he knew a few from school like Joop Opperman and Arthur Geismeyer—replaced the elements of the periodic table. He was not going to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instinctively, he knew he’d have to erase the footsteps and establish a new legacy, no matter how long it would take.
Jopp Opperman disappeared from school. So did Arthur. At first it seemed like nothing. An absence here or there happened. But after a month, Dirk sensed something was wrong. Then the Nazis overtook the country. Food and tempers ran short. Small children openly begged for bread on the streets of Amsterdam.
One night at dinner, Dirk counted how many slices of bread were in the basket on the table. They had to have come from a whole loaf, with caraway seeds. And yet he didn’t want any. Papa took a piece, slathered it first with butter and then swiped up the gravy from the roast goose.
“How was school today?” Papa asked, his mouth full of fatty goose flesh.
Without looking up, Dirk said, “Good.”
Dirk did not want to talk to this man. What happened to the father he knew? The one who taught him how to skate on frozen canals, how to tie a tie, how to compliment a young lady. An imposter—a Nazi imposter—had replaced Pieter Vandenberg.
That night, Dirk sneaked into the kitchen and took the bread from the breadbox, along with a jar of congealed goose fat. He padded to the front door and strode to the last place he had seen the begging children. One girl, maybe about eight years old, stood there, shivering in her thin dress. She rubbed her hands. He returned home empty-handed.
Maybe it was 1947. Dirk was reading the newspaper and came across a book review of The Annex, Anne’s book. Or was it Otto’s?
So Otto did what he set out to do. Would he come back for the originals?
Dirk had made lists and lists of Dutch Jews and their resettlements. He did not come across Otto Frank’s name. He wanted to forget. Forget the war, forget Otto, forget Anne, forget the Annex.
But the dead could talk. He phoned Miep Gies. Now he told her about the museum, surprised that no one else had come up with the idea since that day at the Prinsengracht.
“You’ll need money,” Miep said. “And there’s going to be a lot of red tape, especially if you get the government involved and it will need to be involved.”
Dirk knew she was right. He thought about contacting Amsterdam officials, the park commissioner, the Red Cross. He didn’t know which were appropriate. Maybe the first thing would be to pull together people who would care. He’d need Otto, Miep, and then he had another idea: His own father. Although now ailing, he still had connections that could prove useful and maybe working on this idea with Dirk would redeem him in some way.
On the day of the committee meeting, Dirk noticed the tulips in bloom. His favorites were the variegated ones, because life was never all one color. Even in darkness, there is light; in light, there is darkness. He wanted to pluck one that reminded him of the flesh of a plum. He wanted to twist the stem through the buttonhole in his lapel, but it was an offense to deface public property. He hurried to the meeting, although he knew he was at least fifteen minutes early. The Minister of the Interior would be there, but Dirk was more nervous about his father. Would his collaboration with the Nazis in looting art leak into the conversation?
He strode to his office and laid his briefcase on his desk. He waved to his secretary to meet him in the conference room. He hoped the coffee was good and strong. She handed him folders of the agenda and the proposal to be distributed. Dirk had worked day and night to estimate the costs and the investment required. They would need to set up a foundation. He had the forethought to invite a lawyer and an accountant. He also invited Amsterdam’s leading scientists and intellectuals. His father had recommended them.
He laid out the folders on each seat while the secretary opened the blinds and one window. He smiled at her. This meeting required fresh spring air and maybe with a little luck, the scent of tulips would weave its way in. It was fitting in a way that Dirk did not pull the tulip out of the ground. That action would have killed the flower and today’s conversation was about life.
Everything was ready. Dirk could be a powerful negotiator. He had learned from his father.
It wasn’t that Dirk’s father took control of the meeting. He didn’t. But when Pieter Vandenberg spoke, despite his now raspy voice from too much smoking in his youth, he captured his audience with his authority and conviction.
“I know,” he said, “that a foundation given the mission of commemorating Dutch Jews, and Anne Frank in particular—”
“Although she was born German,” the Minister of the Interior was quick to point out.
“Yes, but she represents Dutch Jewry and her diary has appeared first in Dutch,” Papa continued. Dirk instinctively knew where his father was going with this. This foundation, this museum, was bigger than Anne.
“The museum, while not for profit, will add significantly to the city’s tourism revenue. If you turn to page twenty-eight of the proposal,” Dirk added. They were working in tandem now as if their relationship had turned prewar when Dirk was just a pre-gymnasium pip and his father a statue of greatness.
“Mr. Frank, what is your opinion?” Dirk asked.
Otto looked up from his papers and stared out the window. “Good,” he said, “good.” He took out a worn handkerchief and dabbed at the corners of his eyes. “I wanted to do this before, but I lacked the funds.”
They would raise money through grants and private donors.
“What about a black-tie fundraising gala?” the Minister of the Interior asked.
The accountant immediately shook his head. Otto said, “No, this would not be good. It is not the right way to honor those who perished.”
“Of course,” Papa said. “I have prepared a list of private donors.”
Dirk almost laughed when he saw Papa’s name topped the list, followed by many German surnames. Guilt money, as if now donating would render them rein of their heinous duplicity. But money was money and Dirk had to be practical. Collecting from these men would certainly be less arduous and time-consuming, more efficient than writing grant proposals and waiting sometimes a year or more to hear whether the proposal had been accepted.
“We have a plan then,” Dirk said. They would have a foundation. Dirk was to serve as Executive Director. That was the plan, but not the reality. It took years for the Anne Frank House to become real. The city introduced one obstacle after another. The Americans got involved, who knew why. It all seemed so much simpler that spring day in the conference room.
In the meantime, Dirk married, took his bride to Curaçao. She liked it there and they stayed for ten years until matters with Anne’s house resurfaced and the city finally consented with a certificate of occupancy.
Just the thought of that made Dirk break into laughter. Otto and his family had no certificate of occupancy in the annex, Auschwitz, or Bergen-Belsen. Why did it matter so much now? Dirk journeyed back to Amsterdam in May 1960 and witnessed the dedication of the Anne Frank House. He hurried to the Rijksmuseum and rushed past the curator’s office, long emptied of Hendrik De Groot. He clambered down the narrow stairs. Once again, he held the papers in his hands. He thought he should be wearing archival gloves. He had learned enough from his father to know the kind of care such delicacies required.
An hour later, he presented them to the curator of the Anne Frank House. He had done his job. And there in the crowd, white-haired with a moustache, stood Otto. Dirk tipped his hat.
About the author
Barbara Krasner is Director, Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center, housed at Mercer County Community College. She teaches in the Liberal Arts division at MCCC and in the Holocaust & Genocide Studies program at The College of New Jersey. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a PhD in Holocaust & Genocide Studies from Gratz College. She is a frequent contributor to Kelsey Review.