Her photos shed light on history: The outstanding work of photographer Maria Austria (1915-75)


Henk Jonker, Maria Austria with camera, 1946. PHOTO/Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

The work of Marie Oestreicher, known as Maria Austria (1915-1975), is a revelation. A Jewish photographer from Amsterdam with Austrian roots, she has been unjustly neglected and even forgotten in Germany. [The photographer was born Marie Oestreicher. Her surname means “the Austrian” in German, and she eventually adopted the professional name Maria Austria.]

Given the current political situation, it is significant that an exhibition at the Verborgene [Hidden] Museum in Berlin rescues this important artist from oblivion. Not only was she a witness to and victim of war and fascism, she also captured the social contradictions after World War II with a critical and at the same time profoundly humane outlook.

Maria Austria, German soldiers marching in Amsterdam, 1944-45. Maria Austria Instituut, Amsterdam

Her work deserves to be presented in one of Germany’s and Austria’s major museums, not least because she is the source of the only photographic record of the hiding place of Holocaust victim Anne Frank and her family in the famous “Achterhuis” (Dutch for “back house”) or Secret Annex, located at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam. Anne took refuge in this house with her family and another Jewish family until she was denounced in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, where she died.

Today, the house is the site of the Anne Frank Museum. Maria Austria’s photos were invaluable during the restoration of the dilapidated rooms, which only took place after a lengthy campaign by Anne’s father, Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the family. The Dutch authorities had wanted to demolish the house.

For the first time, a selection of the approximately 200 Frank-Achterhuis photos can now be seen in Germany. Maria Austria took the photos in 1954, together with her husband Henk Jonker, in preparation for the first play and film about Anne Frank (The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, 1955, and the 1959 film of the same title directed by George Stevens).

She meticulously captured every detail, revealing in intimate fashion the traces of life in the cramped, gloomy Frank family dwelling: the concealed door behind the file cabinet, the steep wooden spiral staircase behind that and, above all, the wall which the adolescent Anne covered with postcards and newspaper clippings. Another photo shows the ever-present danger, taken from the attic of Maria Austria’s own hideout just a few houses away: German soldiers marching along the street in front of the houses.

Maria Austria, The Franks’ ‘Achterhuis,’ the attic. Maria Austria Instituut, Amsterdam

“These photographs are unequivocal and document forever the circumstances of Jewish families forced to go underground and hide from the persecution of the Nazis,” writes Marion Beckers, the curator of the Verborgene Museum, in its newsletter.

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