Obituary: Fritzi Frank
Thursday 08 October 1998
Elfriede Markovits ("Fritzi" for short) was born into a close middle- class Jewish family in Vienna in 1905. Considering themselves assimilated Austrians, they kept a traditional home, attending synagogue on High Holydays. Tall and elegant, with "the stance of a Scandinavian", Fritzi had Aryan features that were to be a great aid to her in later life.
She was married at 18 to Erich Geiringer, a shoe manufacturer who exported moccasins, and with their two children, Heinz and Eva, they fled Austria after the Nazi invasion, moving to the Netherlands in 1938, to 46 Merwedeplein, in Amsterdam. Fritzi's path was already crossing Otto Frank's, who had moved his family from Germany and was now living in the house opposite the Geiringers. Eva Geiringer would often visit Anne Frank, and always found Otto "very kind".
Erich provided well for his family, organising a safe house in which to hide when he realised all channels of escape were cut off. When Heinz Geiringer received a summons on 5 July 1942 (at the same time as Otto Frank's daughter Margot) to a "work camp", the family (like the Franks) went into hiding.
For safety, the family split up and Fritzi found herself alone with Eva. "From the time Mutti [Mummy] and I went into hiding," Eva said, "I entered a seemingly protected world. My days were spent entirely in the company of my mother and I remember them as full of warmth and love, and terror of being discovered."
It was this bond, together with Fritzi's fierce protection, that helped them to survive when they were betrayed to the Nazis in May 1944. During a daring trip to visit Erich and Heinz, they were followed by an informer, who notified the Nazis of both hiding places.
It was Fritzi's initiative and quick thinking that enabled her daughter to survive the first selection at the women's concentration camp at Birkenau (a few miles from the main men's camp at Auschwitz). Fearing that Eva would be sent directly to the gas chamber, Fritzi insisted that her daughter wear her large coat and stylish hat, despite its being "a boiling hot day". Eva later reflected, "At only just 15, I was the youngest person by far in the transport line. Many mothers had lost daughters of my age. The hat and long coat had saved my life."
It was the first of many narrow escapes from death, averted not only by luck but by Fritzi's resourcefulness and intuition. When she was deemed too frail for work and selected for the gas chamber, she whispered instructions for Eva to tell her cousin Minni, who was also in the camp and was able to save Fritzi. When later Fritzi found herself on an enforced march to Germany, she dropped into the snow and feigned death, praying that the guards would not bother to waste a bullet on her, and moving only when it was safe to make her way back.
Throughout her ordeal, Fritzi found dignity in her maternal love, giving much of her precious food ration to Eva. After Russian troops liberated the camp, Fritzi and Eva were transported by train away from Birkenau. It was during this time that Eva briefly re-encountered Otto Frank and introduced him to her mother. Later, left behind after a short train stop, Fritzi managed to travel almost 1,000 miles across Russia on her own, without money and unable to speak the language, to be reunited with her daughter.
Her indomitable spirit enabled her to continue with her life after news that her beloved husband and son had died in Nazi camps. Heinz had died of exhaustion in Mauthausen in April 1945, while Erich had finally succumbed only three days before the end of the war. "We were both devastated, but it was our deep, deep bond which pulled us through," said Eva.
They returned to Amsterdam, where Eva renewed her acquaintance with Otto Frank, who was mourning the loss of his wife Edith and two daughters, Anne and Margot, who had both died in Bergen-Belsen. After he read out extracts from the diary which Anne had written whilst the family were in hiding (and which had been carefully stored to await her return), Fritzi supported his decision to publish his daughter's most private thoughts, agreeing that, the diary being of great human and historic value, he had no right to keep it to himself. It was published in 1947.
Fritzi and Otto married in November 1953 and moved to Basel in Switzerland. Following the enormous success of Anne Frank's diary, they found themselves inundated with mail. They became a kind of international "agony aunt" with people world-wide - mostly teenage girls - writing for advice. They received some 30,000 letters. "I remember them spending up to eight hours a day replying to mail," said Eva. "They were very much a team. Each letter was carefully discussed and they had many long-term correspondents. Only weeks before her death, a young Japanese girl had contacted me to say that she had saved enough money to come and visit her. She had a wonderful rapport with young people."
Otto found himself his daughter's heir. He and Fritzi together perpetuated Anne Frank's legacy, working "in the spirit of Anne for human decency and tolerance". They travelled extensively, meeting dignitaries including the Pope and Franklin Roosevelt's widow, Eleanor. Otto and Fritzi Frank devoted the rest of their lives to educating the young against bigotry and prejudice. Their work led to the opening of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in 1960.
Otto died in 1980, but Fritzi continued to work tirelessly. The Anne Frank Educational Trust was set up in Britain in 1990, organising exhibitions and events throughout the country, and Fritzi became a Patron.
Fritzi and Otto not only carried out Anne's written wish, "I want to go on living after my death", but ensured that her legacy would survive in the fight against racial bigotry and intolerance.
Elfriede ("Fritzi") Markovits: born Vienna 13 February 1905; married 1923 Erich Geiringer (died 1945; one daughter, and one son deceased), 1953 Otto Frank (died 1980); died London 1 October 1998.
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