Cache of letters cast new light on fate of Anne Frank's family

Andrew Gumbel
Thursday 15 February 2007 01:00 GMT

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A newly released cache of letters written by Anne Frank's father reveals the family's efforts to escape Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in the year before they were forced into hiding. Otto Frank made repeated entreaties to government agencies and friends in the United States to try to secure visas for himself, his wife and two daughters but met only intransigence.

The correspondence, made public yesterday by the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research in New York, casts new light on the fate of the family whose experiences of the Holocaust were poignantly captured in Anne Frank's diary.

Specifically, it highlights the dilemma of well-to-do Jews such as Otto Frank, who had established comfortable lives for themselves and their families and had no reason to suspect the scale of the Nazis' genocidal ambitions until it was too late.

Frank had one exceptionally well-placed friend in the United States, Nathan Straus, the heir to the Macy's department store fortune and head of the US Housing Authority. In his first letter to Straus, in April 1941, Frank asks almost apologetically for financial assistance to secure visas. "I would not ask if conditions here would not force me to," he writes. "It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance."

Even Straus, though, was powerless to help. The United States had a strict refugee intake quota, in part because of fears of infiltration by Nazi and other foreign spies. In fact, the Franks had first applied for US visas in 1938.

As the months went by and direct entry to the US became more obviously impossible, Frank changed tack and tried to win passage to Cuba instead. The Straus family agreed to put down the hefty deposit for Cuban visas and, on 1 December 1941, the Cuban government issued a single visa in Otto Frank's name. Ten days later, however, Germany declared war on the United States and all avenues for refugees of German origin such as the Franks were abruptly closed.

As Anne Frank chronicled, the family ended up hiding in a back attic in the pectin-extraction factory where her father worked, and where several employees helped keep them concealed for two years.

When German police stormed the building in August 1944, the parents were taken to Auschwitz, where Anne's mother Edith died. The girls ended up in Bergen-Belsen where they both died in a typhus epidemic weeks before the camp was liberated by the British Army.

Otto Frank survived Auschwitz and later returned to Amsterdam, where he recovered his daughter's diary and secured its publication. He died in Switzerland in 1980.

The new batch of letters were buried for decades in files kept by the National Refugee Service, later renamed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The Yivo Institute started taking custody of those files in the early 1970s but made no exhaustive examination.

The Frank correspondence was discovered by chance in 2005 by a part-time volunteer smart enough to realise what she had stumbled upon.

"With the release of the file, the plight of the Franks becomes even more poignant, since the family was unable to escape even with the help and support of a prominent American," the head of the institute, Carl Rheins, said yesterday.

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