AMSTERDAM (JTA) — Under normal circumstances, the queue to enter the Anne Frank House stretches far along this capital city’s Prinsengracht canal.
Tourists who had booked their visit at least two months in advance – the only way to guarantee entry — line up at assigned time slots to see the former hiding place of the world’s most famous Holocaust victim.
They wait for 15 minutes and, barring delays, enter in one large group the cramped space where Frank penned the diaries that years after her death would become the bestselling memoir “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
Now, with international tourism shut down across Europe because of the coronavirus pandemic, the square in front of the Netherlands museum is empty and the building looks deserted.
Each week, the museum’s staff greet thousands of locals who had been put off by the wait times and long queues but are now seizing the opportunity to visit the must-see attraction in their own backyard.
Many are entering the historic site for the first time.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve walked past the Anne Frank House countless times, but I was just always put off by that long line of tourists,” one of the local visitors, 62-year-old Stella Ruisch, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after she and her daughter visited the museum on June 12, what would have been Anne’s 91st birthday.
Before the pandemic, the Anne Frank House was the third most-visited museum in the Netherlands, with about 3,500 visitors daily. About 10% were local, according to Dutch media reports. Now traffic is at 1,000 daily visitors — and they’re almost all from nearby, the museum’s business administrator, Robin Finch, told the AT5 television station.
The museum shut down in March and remained closed until June 1, when it reopened with a drastically reduced capacity due to social distancing measures. Currently the small building housing the museum accommodates 35 people at a given time, compared to 80 before the pandemic.
That means visitors can now find themselves alone for minutes at a time in one of the rooms that are decorated to resemble how they looked when the Franks and other Jews in hiding stayed there from July 1942 to August 1944.
Corridors that one usually walks quickly to make way for other visitors can be studied at leisure. The sounds of the house, such as creaking floorboards and the rustle of leaves on a nearby tree, can be heard without the constant shuffling of feet and chatter.
“The steep staircase is deserted, its worn steps a reminder to hordes of people,” journalist Anouk Boone wrote for the NRC newspaper in a column about her first-ever visit to the museum earlier this month. She recalled studying the pencil marks that Anne’s parents made to measure her growth. They show Anne sprouted 13 centimeters, or 5 inches, during her 25 months in hiding there.
Boone wrote that the relative emptiness at the museum helped her concentrate on the experience.
Anne Frank’s story is taught in most Dutch schools as part of the mandatory Holocaust education curriculum, so locals likely know more about her story than many visitors from places as far away as China, Japan, Brazil and the United States, who account for a sizable chunk of the visitors in typical years.
But at the Anne Frank House, some locals are discovering new aspects of the girl’s story.
“My mother survived World War II as a young woman, and it’s never far away from my mind,” said Ruisch, a journalist who is familiar with Anne’s biography. She also knew about the other residents of the former hiding place: the three members of the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer, refugees from Germany who immigrated to the Netherlands in 1937 and 1938, respectively.
Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith, fled Germany in 1933 with her and her sister, Margot. Of the eight people who were living in the hiding place known as the secret annex when it was discovered by the Nazis in 1944, only Otto Frank survived the Holocaust.
Ruisch had another insight from her visit, which she wrote about for the website Meer dan Vijftig.nl.
“It made me focus on Anne Frank and her family as part of this large group of refugees from Germany who came here to escape the Nazis,” she said, adding that she had been only vaguely aware of that nuance in the story beforehand.
Boone wrote in her NRC column that she would always feel embarrassed when she cycled past the Anne Frank House because she had never visited in her many years living nearby. But she would “lose the shame” as soon as she saw “the never-ending queue.”
While it may be upgrading the locals’ experience, the absence of tourists is dealing a serious blow to the museum budget. The independent institution gets no government subsidies, relying on admission fees and donations for its overhead and educational activities in more than 40 countries.
Currently, “ticket revenues will not be sufficient to cover the operational costs by a long shot,” Garance Reus-Deelder, the museum’s former managing director, wrote last month.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the Anne Frank Museum, which opened in 1960, to close at the beginning of a major year for its mission: the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe from Nazism.
The anniversary, which government institutions and many museums in the Netherlands are observing, is also generating interest from locals in the Anne Frank House, according to Rembrandt Frerichs, a musician from The Hague and father of two children.
His 11-year-old son watched a video diary released by the Anne Frank House during the pandemic lockdown that simulates how Anne would have documented her time at the secrete annex had she lived in the digital era.
“We figured it was time to visit the Anne Frank House as a family, and now that the tourists are gone, we’re definitely going to do it this summer,” Frerichs said.
Some viewers of the vlog commented that the experience of being confined to their homes this spring offered a glimpse of the reality that Anne and the others inhabited.
Frerichs, a non-Jew who visited the Anne Frank House many years ago, isn’t sure about that.
“I think there’s just no basis for comparing our situation with theirs,” he said.
Still, the successful jazz musician, who often was on tour before the pandemic, found himself thinking of the Franks in assessing his way of dealing with this spring’s wrenching changes.
“I’m an optimist,” Frerichs said. “I keep telling myself that things are about to get better, even when rationally I’m not sure they ever will. I just wonder if they had similar thoughts in that little secret annex.”