Anne Frank’s Amsterdam

Russell Shorto examines the dawning of one of the darkest periods in the history of the Dutch metropole.

Reuters, via Corbis

The stories of three families may give a sense of this hopeful, newly expansive, but brief moment of the city’s history. Of course, many of the Jews who moved into the new district were diamond workers. A cluster of streets preserves the memory of the time in their names: Topaz Street, Diamond Street, Emerald Square. One couple in particular moved to Sapphire Street. Another moved a few blocks up the river. The boy from the one family, whose name was Joël Brommet, fell in love with Rebecca Ritmeester, the girl from the other. They married, and the young man, who had an artistic sensibility, began to work with fabric and window design for shops. In 1925 they had a daughter whom they named Frieda, and the little family moved to the Zuider Amstellaan, or Southern Amstel Avenue, one of the wide boulevards that Berlage had laid out. Frieda spent her girlhood in the embrace of her extended family, living a few blocks from both sets of grandparents. She had an easy life, she tells me. Her parents doted on her.

Meanwhile, another son of a Jewish diamond cutter, whose name was Bernard Premsela, fell in love with a girl named Rosalie, married her, and moved with her to an address just across the river, in what is now called Spinozastraat. In the same year that they married, 1913, Bernard Premsela got his medical degree. He came under the influence of Aletta Jacobs, and in this expansive, liberal era he became consumed by thoughts of sex: that is, he realized that gender differences, sexual urges, and the act of sex constituted a large portion of what it meant to be human, and yet society had caged and perverted this vast and undeniable force. He decided to specialize in something that almost didn’t exist. He chose to become a sexologist.

Following Aletta Jacobs, he focused first on birth control. As a socialist, he saw it initially as a way to help lift people out of poverty, but as his ideas expanded he concentrated more on women. He believed that equality between the sexes should be a goal of society and that birth control was a tool to achieve this, for it helped protect women against, as he said, the “excessive procreative demands” of men. After Jacobs’s death in 1929, Premsela helped to found the Aletta Jacobs House, a family planning clinic, and became its director. The next year he held a public event at the American Hotel—one of the big new structures that architecturally defined the city’s new golden age—at which people discreetly submitted questions about sex to him in writing. For by now he was interested not just in birth control but in sex as a means of personal growth and liberation. He began a radio show about sex. He wrote a series of books with titles that sound more like they were written in the 1970s than the 1930s: Sexual Education for Our Children. It was all quite shocking to the prevailing conservative culture, but Bernard Premsela maintained a serious, dignified persona, and he pulled it off. It also helped that he enlisted the aid of Floor Wibaut, whose advocacy of sexual reform and women’s rights dated from his reading Multatuli in his early years.

At home, meanwhile, Bernard and Rosalie had three children, and when the time was right Rosalie taught them frankly about sex using her husband’s books. Benno, the youngest of the three, later remembered being aware in the schoolyard that he knew colossally more than his classmates knew about the human body and what people did in their bedrooms. Overall, he said, the atmosphere in their household was secular and progressive, which matched that of many Amsterdam Jews. “We may have been Jews,” he said, “but we were not religious at all. Socialism and humanism were of much greater importance.”

Jews were also emigrating to the city from other parts of Europe. Amsterdam was now, as it had been in different eras in the past, a famously liberal place: tolerant, relatively speaking, and a city whose planners had adopted quality of life for ordinary people as part of their program. Otto Frank was a German Jew, born in Frankfurt and raised in wealth: his father was the president of a bank that bore his name. At Heidelberg University, Otto became friends with a German American named Nathan Straus, whose family owned Macy’s department store in New York. Straus got him a job at Macy’s, and Otto crossed the ocean and threw himself into the adventure and whirl of midtown Manhattan. His father’s death, however, forced a change to his plans. He returned to Germany and took over the task of rescuing the bank. Then World War I broke out; he served in the German army. After the war, he married Edith Holländer. The two struggled through the painful postwar period, when Germans suffered economic depression, hyperinflation, humiliation, and poverty. It was a lousy time to be in the banking business. Otto tried to keep the bank afloat by moving it to Amsterdam. It didn’t work; he returned to Frankfurt and eventually the Michael Frank Bank went bust.

The Wall Street crash of 1929 set off depression in European cities starting the following year. Germany was hardest hit; as unemployment reached six million, the national socialists grew stronger. By 1933, Otto and Edith Frank had two daughters: Margot, who was seven, and Anne, who was four. The collapse of the bank coincided with the appointment of Adolf Hitler to the position of chancellor. Otto Frank was prescient, and he decided that for the foreseeable future Germany was not going to be a comfortable place for Jews. The Franks moved to Amsterdam, which they knew to be a refuge, as well as a place where Otto had connections. He got a job as the Dutch distributor for a company called Opekta, which marketed pectin, the gel that is the basis for making jam. The Franks took an apartment on the Merwedeplein, right around the corner from Frieda Brommet.

Amsterdam by now was suffering as well from the global downturn: 20 percent of the population was unemployed, and out-of-work men stood in lines to be transported out of the city to labor camps. For kids, though, at least according to the memories of people I have interviewed, it was still a haven. The 1930s unfolded like a languid dream. Frieda’s parents rented a beach house in nearby Zandvoort every summer. For her birthday, her father hired a band that would show up at her doorstep to serenade her. Neighbors soon discovered that Anne and Margot Frank had rather opposite personalities. Anne was outgoing and opinionated. According to one story, when she was four and got on a crowded streetcar with her grandmother, she called out, “Won’t someone offer a seat to this old lady?” Margot, three years older than Anne, was quiet and bookish but still a part of things. Jaap Groen, who was the same age as Margot and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, remembers playing baseball with Margot on the square in front of her house. Frieda remembers skipping rope with the Frank girls.

Frieda and Anne were precocious when it came to boys. Frieda, who was four years older than Anne, had several boyfriends in her teens. Two of them were named Andre. “But my great love,” she said to me one day as she reminisced in her apartment, and I think she meant really the great love of her life, “was Bob de Jong.” Bob combed his blond hair straight back and had a calm, patient face. She showed me a picture of herself with Bob, with both of them looking into the camera. He looks earnest and has a slight smile. Frieda looks a bit moody. “The eternal couple,” she said as we studied the picture together.

Bob’s family lived near Frieda’s, close to the Olympic stadium. “I never went to his house,” Frieda said. “He would come here, and then we’d walk. Through the Maasstraat to the Zuidelijke Wandelweg, then to the left. There was a café called The Calf. We’d go to the upstairs room because it was usually empty. We’d have hot chocolate if we could afford it, and if not we’d get coffee, which we hated. Then we’d sit in the empty room and cuddle.”

Bob and Frieda were still carrying on their teen love after Nazi tanks had appeared on the streets. For a short time, people in their neighborhood behaved as they had before: strolled along wide boulevards, while overhead the branches of the young trees that had been planted following Berlage’s design swayed under spring breezes. But a thickness was gathering in the air. Bob felt both it and his swelling heart. He wrote a poem:

But despite the sadness I seeWhile I wait for happier times,One thing shines out above all.That is Love, the little rogue,Who gave me the prettiest thing he had,A small precious treasureWho looks at me so happilyAnd seems like a little princess.

A few months later, Bob was among the first Jews to be taken by the Nazis, one of the first to go to Auschwitz. Frieda heard later that Dr. Josef Mengele had singled him out for a place in the ward reserved for subjects for his human experimentation program. Liberalism, the evolving attempt to fully express the human, was about to face an inhuman threat.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.


If you go online and search “Anne Frank video,” you will find a twenty-second snippet of black-and-white footage. It was shot in Amsterdam on June 22, 1941, right around the time that Bob de Jong wrote his poem to Frieda Brommet and just before the Nazi presence in the city became a horror. A couple on Merwedeplein got married on this day, and a friend captured the bride and groom leaving their apartment. Three things stand out in this simultaneously remarkable and humdrum bit of film. First and most obviously, as the camera pans upward for an instant you see Anne Frank, just turned twelve, pop her head out the window of her apartment to watch the couple step out into the daylight in their finery. What is striking is not only that we have here the only existing film footage of her but that this quick flash actually gives a sense of who she was. Nearly everyone who knew her remembered Anne Frank as fidgety and quick-witted, the kind of girl who could be a handful for her parents. Watch the film and you see her give one sharp turn of her head to say something to someone inside, presumably her mother or father. It’s a sassy motion; it brims with attitude. It fits precisely what we know of her.

The second thing the little film shows is the new section of Amsterdam, whose construction Floor Wibaut oversaw. It’s all fresh and clean looking and, most of all, modern. This is not the city of Rembrandt. It’s not even the city that Vincent van Gogh wandered during his sojourn in the 1870s. It’s recognizably a place that any of us today would feel at home in: you can almost hear the flush toilets flushing, and you know that, come evening, electric lamps will be snapped on.

The third thing that stands out is how normal life looks. At the end of the clip the camera pans down the street. We see people strolling, people on bicycles; two cars turn a corner. It’s a calm, sunny day and a couple are heading off to their wedding while others take casual note.

Over the previous year or so, as Nazi Germany made its first moves to swallow chunks of Europe, the Dutch had remained astoundingly at ease. They believed that history would repeat itself: as they had twenty-six years before, they declared themselves neutral, and most Dutch people thought that, as before, the combatants would respect the declaration. Indeed, Hitler vowed in a speech to the Reichstag that he would honor the Dutch stance. Then the next day he ordered the invasion of the country—saying, with some accuracy, “Nobody will question that after we have conquered.” Even after numerous indications of an imminent attack, on the evening of May 9, 1940, the editors of the newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad were sanguine enough to lay out a story with the headline “Tensions Defused. Expected Events Not to Occur.” In the predawn, within hours of the paper’s hitting the stands, people all over the country ran outside in their pajamas to watch heavy aircraft lumbering overhead. A couple of hours later, a man named Count Julius von Zech-Burkersroda, who was the German ambassador to the Netherlands, met with the Dutch foreign minister, Eelco van Kleffens. The count was a very old-school diplomat whose service had begun in the aristocratic twilight of 1909. He had been as duped by Hitler as had the Dutch. His job now was to read a declaration-of-war telegram to Van Kleffens, but in his shame and confusion words failed him, and the Dutchman took the paper and read it himself: “We inform you of the action of a powerful German force. Resistance is completely senseless.”

The Dutch military mounted a vigorous but brief defense, which may have been worse than immediate capitulation. After troops battled Germans to a standstill outside Rotterdam, Colonel Pieter Scharroo, the Dutch officer in charge, refused to surrender even when told an air strike was imminent. Ninety German planes proceeded to drop more than one hundred tons of bombs, setting off firestorms that destroyed the city center. Five days after German planes crossed into Dutch airspace, and after the Germans threatened to do to Utrecht what they had done to Rotterdam, the Dutch commanding general surrendered. The Nazi occupation had begun.

Amsterdam suffered little outright war damage. A German plane that had taken a hit in the skies above unloaded two of its bombs, one of which landed at the corner of the Herengracht and Blauwburgwal, destroying a building and killing forty-four people. Four days later, on May 15, 1940, a long column of German soldiers rode unimpeded into the city to take possession. Members of the Dutch Nazi party, the NSB, who had been getting thuggish in public for several years, lined the streets and gave the Nazi salute. Everyone else just watched.

The Germans ensconced themselves throughout the city. The dreaded Sicherheitspolizei, the Security Police, which included the Gestapo, set up shop in a school on the Euterpestraat, in the new Zuid district created by Wibaut. The Reichskommissar chose as its headquarters a mansion on Museum Square, in what, curiously enough, is today the American consulate. A building on Vijzelstraat that was the headquarters of the Dutch Trading Association was taken over by the Luftwaffe. The building today is home to the Amsterdam City Archives, repository of the documentary remains of every Amsterdammer going back to the city’s founding. If you are invited into the office of its director, you can see a clock on the wall that has a small hole near the numeral 1. The story goes that the Luftwaffe commandant told the head of the trading association that he had to be out by one o’clock; when the man began to hem and haw, the commandant pulled out his pistol and aimed a bullet at the relevant numeral to underscore the deadline.

For the most part, though, things were calm in the months after the occupation set in. Look again at the snippet of Anne Frank film while holding in mind a backdrop of recent events. The Germans had just taken Crete by aerial invasion; a pogrom in Baghdad had resulted in hundreds of Jews being murdered, some of them hacked with swords; Croats had rampaged against Serbs in Croatia; Allied forces were conducting an invasion of Syria. Mass executions of Jews in Poland had begun shortly after the Nazi takeover of that country, nearly two years before. How, then, could peaceful, normal life be carrying on in the Jewish section of Amsterdam, a city that was under Nazi occupation and in a world that was being engulfed by the flames of war?

The disconnect points ironically to the subtitle of this book and the concept of liberalism. If you look at Nazism from a great enough distance, it seems like something that would undergird a bad science fiction or fantasy novel: a philosophy of racial purity based on the theory of a master race of warriors who swept down in chariots from their idyllic northern European homeland into India and Iran, where they spawned the philosophies of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism but over time became degraded by mixing with lesser races, while their northern remnants valiantly kept the bloodline pure. As if to accentuate the cheesy pop fiction image, Alfred Rosenberg, the chief architect of Nazi racial theory, argued that the original home of the Aryan race was none other than the lost city of Atlantis.

Silliness aside, the racial purity philosophy that powered Nazism—or, for that matter, “purity” as a goal in any social context—pretty much defines the opposite of liberalism. The Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, was historically a seedbed for liberal ideas: for tolerance of differences and for empowering the individual. It’s all the more curious, then, that the Nazis had a special plan for the country. For they did the Dutch the honor of believing that “pure” Dutch descent was on a par with “pure” German descent—both groups were held to be part of the same Aryan stock. They planned to incorporate the Netherlands into a greater Germany after the war. The Germans hoped therefore to occupy the country and quietly neaten up its racial situation—to separate the good genes from the bad—without causing the chaos and turmoil that ensued in Poland, for example. That explains the calm that Anne Frank and Frieda Brommet enjoyed in 1941. The plan, in other words, was to turn the homeland of liberalism into a place governed by a polar opposite philosophy: a totalitarian, lethally intolerant, radically anti-individual ideology.

In many ways, the Dutch obliged the Germans in their quest to sort out the country’s racial situation. Dutch society had, over the preceding decades, dealt with the increasing complexity of its social makeup by introducing something it called the pillar system. Pillarization was an effort to keep peace by giving different groups their own social space. The main pillars were Catholic, Protestant, socialist, and liberal. Each group had its institutional structures: its own newspapers, radio stations, schools, even banks. The pillar system had the advantage that it subdivided Dutch society into groups. Jews fell under the socialist pillar. Like everyone else, they were also cataloged; their addresses were on file. All of this made the Nazis’ work easier. Beyond that, at the slightest prompting from the Germans, a Dutch bureaucrat named Jacob Lentz took it upon himself to create a nearly counterfeit-proof personal identity card. Lentz was so proud of his handiwork that he traveled to Berlin to show it off, and he wrote a little book about it. The Germans loved it and ordered every Dutch citizen to have one; those issued to Jews were stamped with a large J. Nothing like it had ever existed before. This little device became, in the words of Loe de Jong, the preeminent historian of World War II in the Netherlands, “an indispensable aid to the persecution policy of the German occupation.”

The helpfulness of the Dutch points to one of the darkest statistics of the war. Jews in the Netherlands had far and away the lowest survival rate of Jews in Europe. Where 75 percent of Jews in France lived through the Nazi period, for example, only 27 percent of Dutch Jews did. Of approximately 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam at the start of the war, an estimated 58,000 were dead by the time it was over, most of them in concentration camps. The Dutch themselves aided, inadvertently but with great efficiency, in a systematic effort at eradicating their country’s liberal heritage.

Jews too were instrumental in the assistance they gave the Germans. The Nazi occupiers ordered two prominent Amsterdam Jews, Abraham Asscher, a diamond merchant, and David Cohen, a professor, to form a Jewish council that would transmit instructions to the Jewish population. Asscher and Cohen did as they were told. The council published a weekly newspaper through which it passed along orders such as the decree that all Jews wear yellow stars, and when deportation orders began to come, it advised people to obey them. Of course, at the time no one had any idea that those being deported were headed to death camps; Asscher and Cohen convinced themselves that they were making the best of an impossible situation. But as Loe de Jong writes, “The path of collaboration . . . ​is a most slippery one.” The Nazis slowly enmeshed the Jewish council into their system, by first asking its members to issue deportation notices only to German Jews living in the Netherlands, then broadening the decree to include all Jews, then “suggesting” that the council itself make the lists of those to be deported. Finally, after most everyone had been rounded up, Asscher, Cohen, and the other members of the Jewish council received their own deportation notices. While all the other members of the council died in concentration camps, Asscher and Cohen survived; in 1947 they were found guilty by a “Jewish Council of Honor” of abetting the Nazis.

Via the Jewish council, the Nazi overlords of Amsterdam steadily tightened the noose around the neck of the city’s Jewish population. First, Jewish teachers were dismissed from their positions. Then Jews on the city council were forced to resign. As NSB members caught on to what was happening, they brought the aggression out in the open, committing group assaults on Jews in public. In February of 1941 a vast meeting was held on the Noordermarkt, at which a general strike was proclaimed to protest what was transpiring. The strike was organized by the Communist Party and the call was taken up by the socialists. Striking was a tool that workers had become familiar with, and it seemed a rational move, but of course it was against an opponent that was playing a game of an entirely different order from that of factory owners. The strike was remarkable in that, despite the existence in Amsterdam of the same pervasive anti-Semitism that was prevalent in every other European city, it was held overtly in sympathy with Jewish fellow residents, as well as in support of Dutch workers who were being shipped to forced labor in German factories. It was a remarkably daring citywide action. De Jong calls it “the first and only antipogrom strike in human history.”

The February Strike brought the city to a halt. And it got the Germans’ attention. The noose was now tightened more assertively. Jewish doctors were forbidden to practice. Then Jews were barred from city parks, from concert halls, from libraries, from restaurants, from public buses. As of March 1942 it was against the law for Jews to have sex with non-Jews. In May came the ruling that all Jews had to wear a yellow star when they went outside. At some point during my series of weekly interviews with Frieda Menco, who in 1942 was the teenaged Frieda Brommet, I asked about the stars. She described the ritual around them. “Everyone got several of them. They were made of cotton.” “Did you pin it on your coat?” I asked. “No, my mother would sew it on. I remember when we were going out she would say, ‘Do you have your star on?’ Like she was asking if I had my hat on. Do you want to see one?”

I was taken aback. “You have one?”

She rummaged in a drawer and laid a small piece of fabric in my hands. It was very thin; its yellow had a faintly metallic sheen; the lines of its intersecting triangles looked childish, as if they had been drawn by marker. I noted, however, that it said Jude, the German word for Jew, rather than Jood. “This one wasn’t mine,” Frieda said. “I got it from an old German Jewish woman. After she died, a friend of hers invited me to look at her things, to see if there was something I wanted to have. What I wanted was the star.”

Frieda’s mother felt the heaviness of those feathery bits of cloth. The heaviness was reinforced by the next order: Jews were not allowed outside after 8:00 p.m. “Now we are trapped,” Rebecca Brommet said at the time. “Now we have fallen into their hands.”

Copyright 2013 Russell Shorto. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc.