Some stories, in their telling, are so hard to believe and, at their end, are so hard to bear that—if they were not historically, demonstrably real—readers might be forgiven for dismissing them as over the top; stranger than fiction; too fanciful, and dreadful, by half.
And yet anyone who has made it past, say, the eighth grade in virtually any school system anywhere in the world knows at least the rudiments of Anne Frank‘s indelible story—and what’s more, knows it to be true.
The narrative elements that form the framework of Anne’s Diary of a Young Girlare as prosaic and as grotesque as those that animate the darkest fairy tales.
A young girl, wise and compassionate beyond her years, and her family go into hiding in Amsterdam during the Second World War, desperate to evade the Nazis who occupy their adopted country; the girl and those in hiding with her are eventually betrayed (by a person or persons still, to this day, unknown) and are sent to concentration camps; most of her former companions die—or rather, are murdered by Nazis and their willing proxies—along with millions of other Jews and “undesirables” in the coming years; Anne Frank herself is only 15 years old when she dies at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945—one month before Allied troops liberate the camp.
These and other wrenching elements of Anne’s tale, imparted in the clear, unsentimental prose of her famous diary, are now integral markers in the shared memory of disparate cultures all over the world.
Here, decades after the Frank family went into hiding, LIFE commemorates Anne’s unconquerable spirit—and bears witness to the suffering unleashed by the Third Reich—through the story of one seemingly incongruous photograph: a picture of children playing in a sandbox in Amsterdam in 1937.
LIFE magazine set the scene, and explained the significance of the sandbox photograph, in its October 12, 1959, issue:
Seven decades after Anne Frank and her family crept into their now-famous annex, and more than three-quarters of a century after a mother took a picture of her daughters and their friends playing in the sun in a small backyard in Amsterdam, LIFE.com offers these photographs—many of which never ran in LIFE magazine—made by Paul Schutzer during his deeply personal 21,000-mile trek into the past.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.