The diarist's father rewritten

Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review. He is no relation to Otto Frank.

And now the life of Otto Frank. For more than 50 years, we've been privileged to know the magnificent florescence that was his daughter Anne's talent; with "The Hidden Life of Otto Frank," Carol Ann Lee gives us a chance to meet, in different detail and scope, and presented in a voice other than his doting child's, the man who fathered the girl who wrote the diary that was the 20th century's most remarkable account of what it was like to live in hiding in Western Europe during the Nazi attack against Jewish humanity.

While at its core curiously unpsychological, Lee's book is nevertheless rigorous, almost forensic at times, in its quest to construct an objective account of a man whose story is not easy to tell. It is not easy because, after World War II, Frank became a sanctified, widely beloved and thus inevitably somewhat sanitized public figure, the father of both the diarist and (it seemed) the diary; because he apparently kept certain aspects of his wartime (and postwar) experiences secret; and because -- and this is no small matter -- he is already an indelible figure in an indelible book.

Yet no one who has read Anne Frank's diary can help but wonder how this gifted young woman was nurtured and to what degree she was understood by her family. Or what the truth was of Otto Frank's marriage to Edith Hollander, which their daughter depicted as being so loveless. Or who betrayed the Franks and their friends, and how. Or what actually happened to Frank, the lone survivor of the eight people who hid in the secret annex for two years. Or how, after the war, he lived with his shattering grief, the discovery of the diary and the phenomenon that the diary became in the decades afterward, which was especially problematic with regard to its editing (which he did) and dramatization. Or what, quite simply, he made of the rest of his long life.

Otto Frank was born in Frankfurt in 1889 to a family so assimilated that his grandmother went to synagogue only once, to be married. His father, a banker, died when Frank was 20. Frank studied economics in Heidelberg, fell in love and was engaged at 18, and put in some time in New York before returning to Germany, only to find that his fiancee had married another man. He fought in the Great War, losing two of his cousins (their surviving brother, interestingly, was Jean-Michel Frank, the gifted Parisian designer) and afterward tried to salvage the imperiled family bank, which eventually failed.

In 1925, when he was 36, Frank married Edith Hollander. The soldier who wrote home that he believed marrying for reasons other than love resulted in "half a life" characterized this union as a business arrangement (Edith had a sizable dowry), a fact not lost on the perspicacious Anne, who told her diary that her father's love for her mother was not "the kind of love I envision for a marriage." The couple's daughter Margot was born on Feb. 16, 1926; Annelies Marie was born on June 12, 1929. The Franks remained in Germany even as they began to feel early rumblings of anti-Semitism, but after Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933 Frank moved his family to Amsterdam, setting up a business related to his brother-in-law's Opekta company, which sold pectin.

It is with distinct foreboding that we come to the next round of familiar facts from this less familiar angle, since we know that so many of the accruing biographical notes will end up having such profound resonance in the Franks' lives. Frank soon assembled a staff in Amsterdam that included Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman and Miep Santrouschitz (later Gies), who were part of the group of people who made it possible for the Franks to survive during their time in hiding. The family became friends with Hermann van Pels, a scientist Frank engaged to be an advisor to Opekta; his wife, Gusti, and their son, Peter; and Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist, all of whom would join them in hiding in 1942. And eventually Frank moved his business into 263 Prinsengracht, whose 17th century front house and 18th century annex would become, as Lee aptly describes it, "one of the world's most famous addresses."

Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Jews were excluded from cinemas, sports arenas, swimming pools, parks, restaurants, hotels and libraries. They could not be visited by Christians or hire them to work in their homes. They could not own businesses, so Frank transferred his company, in name, to his employees. Although the Franks did their best to protect their daughters from the ever-increasing persecution, eventually they had to tell the girls that arrangements had been made for the family to go into hiding. In June 1942, Anne chose as a birthday gift a diary from a local bookstore. On July 5, Margot was ordered to report for deportation to a German labor camp. The next day, the Franks disappeared into the annex, along with the Van Pelses; five months later, they were joined by Pfeffer.

The experience of the Franks' two years of confinement is of course the substance of Anne's diary; but when Lee gives it to us over Otto Frank's shoulder, we see, with a different emphasis, the enormous responsibility her father had to take on. He lived with daily worries about food, rations, safety, the compatibility among the people in hiding, the way the confined space was to be used, how the children were to be educated and how his business might be sustained, all this while he "outwardly at least, maintained a positive perspective on their situation." Frank the stalwart is one impressive aspect of the man; another is Frank the engaged father: "I have to say that in a certain way it was a happy time," he recalled in a memoir he wrote after the war. "How fine it was to live in such close contact with the ones I loved, to speak to my wife about the children and about future plans, to help the girls with their studies

Such passages bring on an inevitable question: Is it possible to locate some of Anne's particular maturity and insight in the way she was raised? While Lee resists engaging in psychological hypothesis, she does manage to present a moving portrait of a man who, unmatched and disconnected in his marriage, truly reveled in, and under the bleakest of circumstances nourished, his daughter's special mind and spirit. (Whether he wholly grasped that specialness remains somewhat open to debate.)

As a biographer, Lee is much more interested in detective work, and it is through this that we come to know the elements of the "hidden" in Otto Frank's life. Much of this material is interwoven with the parallel, or shadow, story Lee tells, that of Anton "Tonny" Ahlers, a petty thief, an anti-Semite and member of the Dutch Nazi Party. In 1941, Ahlers approached Frank with a letter written by a former Opekta employee who thought Frank had had an affair with his wife; in it, this man accused Frank of making comments insulting the Wehrmacht, which could have been grounds for Frank's arrest. To suppress the letter, Frank began paying Ahlers off. The blackmail continued, according to Lee, whose evidence is largely circumstantial but nevertheless not unpersuasive, until Frank's death, although after the war the reason for the blackmail changed to Frank's wartime business dealings: Frank, it emerges, sold pectin products to the German army. Despite certain clear extenuating circumstances -- 80% of Dutch businessmen had dealings with the Nazis; Frank would not have otherwise been able to support this family; pectin was hardly war materiel -- this was information that, understandably, the graying, dignified father of Anne Frank might not have wanted known in his lifetime, if ever.

And there's more. Lee fingers Ahlers, again through circumstantial evidence, as the man who betrayed the Franks, informing the Nazis as to their whereabouts in 1944. In her book as it was published last year in the Netherlands, Lee only speculated as to Ahlers' culpability; but after the book appeared, she received a call from Ahlers' son, who told her, "My father did not 'probably' betray Otto Frank and his family -- he most certainly did betray them."

The son's accusation, which is shot through with extraordinary filial animosity, feels unfiltered and remains unsupported by hard evidence, but it is certainly corroborated by other members of Ahlers' family, and it has been seen as sufficiently viable to cause the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation to reopen the case. At the same time, it sent Lee back to the biographical drawing board: The American edition of her book, in which she further reports and develops the theory of Ahlers as the betrayer, is an unusual example of a biography being altered by, and perhaps in turn altering, the story its author sets out to tell. This is an interesting phenomenon, but it leads Lee into clunky writing, particularly the ill-judged prologue in which she "dramatizes" the first blackmailing encounter between Ahlers and Frank.

Lee stays with the whole Frank family through the betrayal, which took place on Aug. 4, 1944, and their subsequent deportation. She then concentrates on Otto Frank, who through good fortune and considerable mental effort ("The biggest problem was to save your brain," he later said, meaning, in part, not to think about food) managed to survive the Auschwitz death camp. She follows him as he finds his way back to Amsterdam, where he moves in with Gies and her husband and learns, first, of Edith's death. Bits of information regarding his daughters reach him: He hears they have been "very brave, esp. Anne, miss special Anne," as he wrote in the diary he began keeping after his liberation. And to his mother he wrote, "My entire hope lies with the children." On July 18, 1945, he saw their names on a Red Cross list and was told they had died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The day the Franks were arrested, Gies had rescued Anne's diary from the annex; when she learned that Anne had perished, she presented it to Frank. This document came as a revelation to her father: "Who'd have imagined how vivid her imagination was all the while?" he said to Gies; in his memoir he wrote, "I had never imagined how intensely Anne had occupied her mind with the problem and the meaning of Jewish suffering over the centuries."

Lee spends a good deal of time on the diary's publishing tribulations, offering a correction to one prevailing view -- that Frank edited out his daughter's enmity toward her mother and accounts of her emerging sexuality (he left in certain troubling passages; others Anne herself had edited out when she began rewriting the diary). She describes the book's debut into the world, where it was offered -- by publishers and later playwrights and moviemakers -- as the first document of its kind to emerge from the Holocaust, certainly, but also as a testimony against all, not exclusively Jewish, suffering.

It is to this de-Judaizing that Cynthia Ozick took such passionate exception in her 1997 New Yorker article, "Who Owns Anne Frank?" where she judged both Frank's editing and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's dramatizing of the dairy for the way they universalized the Holocaust. But there are some palliating factors, as when Frank is seen in the context of his bourgeois German upbringing (a middle-class Jew in Germany did not make waves) and when the historical moment is heeded: When the diary appeared in 1947, the war was still raw and the Holocaust was viewed as a much more tender, hushed and even shameful subject than it is today. While it may now strike us as strange that one decontextualized, optimistic sentence ("I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart") became the catchphrase for a diary that attests so clearly to Jewish persecution, it is interesting to learn that, in private at least, Frank acknowledged (as in his diary entry above) that his daughter recognized their assault as very specifically Jewish, and he often told a friend that the Nazis had "restored his Jewish identity to him."

In 1953, Frank married Fritzi Geiringer, a fellow survivor who lost her husband and children; with her he discovered, Lee says, "the romance that his marriage to Edith had lacked." He oversaw the preservation of 263 Prinsengracht as a memorial and gave his remaining professional, and in many ways existential, energies to tending the diary's legacy.

What lingers most at the end of Lee's book are certain vivifying moments and facts, some troubling, others inestimably haunting. Among the troubling, there is the execrable behavior of the Dutch during the war and afterward: Only 25% of the Jewish population survived, the lowest in all of Western Europe, and those who did return to the Netherlands were not exactly warmly welcomed home. Next there is the behavior of people who stood to benefit from, or had strong opinions about, the diary; they include Meyer Levin, who wrote its first theatrical adaptation and engaged Frank in a bitter legal battle when it was rejected; and Goodrich, Hackett and Garson Kanin, the play's director, who together gave it a "lighter" touch, and a far less explicitly Jewish content, on Broadway.

As for the haunting, the examples are myriad. There is Frank at Auschwitz, asking a young man he knew to call him Papa because "I need somebody to be a Papa for." There is Frank returning to the annex for the first time after the war and picking up a handful of beans from the floor -- beans he recognized as left over from a sack, carried by Peter, that had burst (he kept them for the rest of his life). There is the moment when he learns of his daughters' deaths in Bergen-Belsen, where a survivor described them as looking like "scrawny threadbare figures ... little frozen birds" and remembered Anne having such a horror of lice and fleas that as she was dying she threw her clothes away and covered herself only in a meager blanket. There is shadowy Edith coming into sympathetic focus by having told her husband, "I know how [Anne] feels about me, but I'm glad she has you." And there is the giving, grieving, remarkably enduring Otto Frank, of whom it was said at his funeral that he was "the creator of Anne Frank's spirit. When she died, he lived for her."

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