Amid Holocaust fatigue and farce, Otto Frank’s letters pack a punch.
Last week, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research revealed nearly 80 documents showing that Otto Frank, the father of the world’s most famous diarist, Anne Frank, attempted in 1941 to emigrate his entire family from Holland to America.
Due to immigration restrictions, labyrinthine bureaucracies and the ticking clock of America’s entry into World War II, his visas were never granted. Over a year later, the family secreted themselves into the attic that would become their doomed refuge and the setting for Anne’s memoir of crammed domesticity and human resilience.
The rest, as we well know, is Holocaust history.
Yet, perhaps this new chapter of Anne Frank’s story could not have arrived at a better time. After all, the Holocaust, in recent years, has lost some of its luster, alternating variously between fatigue and farce. Whether in response to over-saturation or the mere passage of time, the shock, apparently, has worn off. Many have grown bored with the Holocaust, becoming numb to all those numbers. Nowadays, falling skyscrapers have replaced crematoria as the atrocity du jour.
The kid gloves have come off, too. Just last week, Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and iconic Auschwitz survivor, was assaulted in a San Francisco hotel by a Holocaust denier.
Holocaust memory and sacredness has softened, and the results are everywhere. Nazis are depicted on Broadway as harmlessly gay. Feature films about Hitler have either humanized him or turned him into a caricature. Survivors of death camps are less esteemed than the celebrity survivors from reality TV. Sacha Baron Cohen, an Orthodox Jew from the United Kingdom, performs his honky-tonk tune, “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” to sing-along audiences in Arizona.
And in a double bill of Holocaust desecration, Iran hosted two international, if not paradoxical events — a cartoon contest mocking the Holocaust, and a conference dedicated to Holocaust denial.
Thankfully, we still have Anne Frank as a reminder of what happened to the Jews of Europe. For better or worse, she has always been the center of the Holocaust universe. Most people, after all, were initiated into the dark side, if not the actual horrors of the Holocaust, through the portal of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Yet, while Anne’s legacy is assured, Otto Frank has remained a somewhat more controversial figure. He has been accused of universalizing and sanitizing his daughter’s story, selling out her memory to Hollywood scriptwriters, diluting the diary of its essential truths.
Despite her youth, Anne Frank was no innocent. She was never unmindful to the moral madness of her circumstance. Her father, however, seduced the world by transforming the monstrous into something more palatable, highlighting Anne’s more hopeful words, such as “I believe that people are really good at heart.”
He was also blamed for selfishly and misguidedly trying to keep his family together, instead of maximizing their chances for individual survival by having them scatter and separate.
But through these desperate letters we see that the father was a writer, too, although his aim was not literary greatness, but human survival. Given his failed efforts, we now realize that the attic was, indeed, his last resort. The Germans had closed in, and, in response, Otto Frank closed his family in even more so.
Needing an American sponsor and money to obtain visas, he wrote to his college friend, Nathan Strauss, Jr., an heir to the Macy’s department store and man of great influence and connections. Otto Frank didn’t stop there. His brothers-in-law, who were both living in Massachusetts, managed to convince their employers to supply affidavits in support of the Frank family.
Reading these documents, however, is a tragic tease of wish fulfillment. With each letter, Otto Frank recognizes the hopelessness of his situation. By July 1941, the United States and Germany demanded the closure of each other’s consulates. In order to escape, Frank would have to leave Holland and find an American consulate in a neutral country.
Worse still, America’s immigration laws had changed. Apart from restrictive quotas, visas were no longer granted to people with immediate relatives still living in German territories. Even if he wanted to separate the family, he couldn’t do so if it meant sending anyone to America.
The forces of history keep roaring back — even from the dead. These files were only recently discovered, having been warehoused and silenced for decades.
Whether they contribute to the Anne Frank saga or the redemption of her father is unknown.
But it is useful to read them now, during this time of diminished reverence and heightened apathy, as yet another reminder of how the world’s most enduring Holocaust victim ended up that way rather than what might have become of her had her father succeeded: An elderly woman living somewhere in the United States, her life spared, her diary unread.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and law professor, and the author of “The Golems of Gotham.”
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