The Frank Family That Survived: The BBC Radio Documentary

From BBC Radio 4, September 2001

In July 1942, two Dutch Jewish families, both called Frank, entered into hiding from the Nazis, one in Amsterdam, the other in The Hague. In “The Frank Family That Survived,” broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this week, the grandson of that ‘other’ Frank family describes their life behind closed curtains and in constant fear of discovery. It’s a harrowing story which has taken Gordon Sander many years to feel able to write about.

In 1979, when I was a young journalist, I decided to quit work on a story I had begun writing about my mother’s family’s experiences while underground in Nazi-occupied Holland. At the time, I was unable to deal with the pain and “Rashomon”-like vertigo that came along with the tale.

So I put the story aside. I had a life. I fell in love. I moved to London. Finally, last year, over two decades later, at the request of a sympathetic BBC radio producer, Richard Bannerman, I reopened my Pandora’s box of wartime memories. “The Frank Family That Survived,” a two-part radio series I wrote and recorded for Radio 4, and which is broadcast this weekend, is the result.

Perhaps I ought to refresh your memory about “Rashomon” — although if you ever saw the Einsenstenian 1951 thriller by Akira Kurosawa, I won’t need to. Based on two short stories by the Japanese author Ryunosoke Akutagawa, “Rashomon” is overtly a thriller about the rape of a woman, Masago, and the murder of her husband, Takehiro, in a forest; but it is also about the nature, and knowability, of objective truth itself.

Set in the 11th century, the film opens with a conversation between three men — a woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner — who have taken refuge from a rainstorm under the ruins of Rashomon Gate. The priest recounts the details of a rape-cum-murder trial he has just witnessed.

As he talks, the audiences see the four main defendants: Masago; the bandit Tanjomaru; the spirit of Takehiro, conjured up by a medium; and the woodcutter who admits that he witnessed the murder. Each conflicting viewpoint of the event is depicted, the “truth” changing with each new defendant’s explanation, leaving the audience to try to reconcile these.

I was deeply affected when I first saw “Rashomon” at a Greenwich Village art house during my postgraduate film buff days. Not long afterward, the spirit of the film came to haunt me when I first tried to put the story of “The Frank Family That Survived” to words 20 years ago, after successfully pitching the story to an editor at The New York Times Magazine.

Here was the story:

On July 9, 1942, as readers of “The Diary of a Young Girl” know, Anne Frank, led by her brave father, Otto Frank, went underground with her family and four other onderduikers (divers) at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, now the site of the Anne Frank House.

Five days later, my equally courageous and resourceful grandfather, Myrtil Frank, also led his family, included his wife, Flory, my then 22-year-old mother, Dorrit, and her 17-year-old sister Sybil, into hiding at a small, street-level flat in The Hague, which had been lent to them by a Dutch friend.

On May 6, 1945, 1022 days after their underground odyssey began, after innumerable close shaves, including house-to-house searches that miraculously missed them, misfired V2 missiles and mis-dropped Allied bombs that nearly incinerated them, and a long, final Hunger Winter of 1944/45, during which they nearly starved, the Franks of 14 Pieter van der Zaanderstraat emerged, haggard but happy, to greet their saviours.

And, not long after, to confront the ghost of Anne Frank of “Het Acterhuis,” as the original, posthumously published version of Anne Frank’s diary was called.

My idea was to publish a version of my mother’s family’s story on what would have been Anne Frank’s 50th birthday as a kind of miraculous appendix to Anne Frank’s tragic tale. I wanted to do a mitzvah.

Not surprisingly, my editor went for it, and I proceeded to interview the three then survivors of my Frank family, my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother. My grandfather, Myrtil, and who may have been the greatest hero of the tale, had, unfortunately, died in 1968. Nor, unlike in “Rashomon,” could he be conjured by a medium. But I felt that between the three witnesses I had enough to piece together the original story.

Immediately, there were problems.

First, although I was already familiar with the outlines of my mother’s experience and had even visited her former hiding place in The Hague several times, I really had only the faintest notion of what she had experienced there.

The closest I had come to fathoming that had been years before, during a family viewing of the Cold War film “Fail-Safe.” The film ends with a harrowing filmic “countdown” consisting of a montage of New Yorkers innocently awaiting their imminent incineration by a just-dropped nuclear bomb. In the middle of the “countdown,” which evidently reactivated memories of the V2 missles and Allied bombs, my mother burst into hysterics, as if that filmic bomb, headed for New York, was actually headed for our Queens, New York home.

But that was as about as close to my mother’s experience as I had gotten, and that had been a long time ago.

Soon, though, as I interviewed my mother, and she recounted for me the endless days and nights of waiting and praying while the bombs and missiles fell and the Germans searched the streets, I realized why she had run into our bedroom that evening years before. And I came to see and hear much more.

Also, I began making connections between my mother’s experience — and her interpretation of the reason why she felt she had survived, whilst nearly 85 percent of the pre-war Dutch Jewish population of 160,000 had perished — and my own childhood development and outlook on life.

Why had she survived? “Because,” my mother, ever the romantic, had decided, “of something called destiny.” Evidently she had passed down this belief to my brother and me when we were very young. Now I understood why we were so damn arrogant! Of course: our mother had been “destined” to give birth to us.

Unsurprisingly, my mother’s interpretation of the “Miracle of 14 Pieter van der Zaanderstraat” differed from those of Flory and Sybil. Why had the Franks gotten through those endless 1022 days? Why had the German search party that in November 1944 finally came to Pieter van der Zaanderstraat inexplicably passed by their door?

My grandmother, the most religious, felt sure that it was His inscrutable will. My Aunt Sybil, the least sentimental of the three, was convinced that it had just been pure luck, nothing inscrutable about it.

Even more problematically, from my story-telling point of view, the three Franks also differed on some of the less mystical aspects of their experience — for example, how often their Dutch friends actually came to help. My mother, who was the most fond of the Dutch, recalled that at least one of their courageous bands of helpers came every day or thereabouts. My less misty-eyed grandmother, Flory, remembered that “they” came only once a week or so. Sybil claimed that they came even less often than that.

And they remembered other things differently, as well.

The absence of a diary or journal, such as Anne Frank had kept, made it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile these contrasting memories and images: “Rashomon” redux. What had begun as a mitzvah had turned into an autobiographical quagmire, and something of a personal nightmare.

A friend of mine, David Harris, who was my confidante on the project, and is now executive director of the American Jewish Committee, saw my dilemma and, wisely, advised me to put the story aside for 10 or 15 years or so, until I had a little more perspective on it.

And so I did. My editor at The New York Times was disappointed, but she understood.

In the event, I actually waited longer, over two decades, to tell the story of “The Frank Family That Survived.”

Comments are disabled for this post