Special for the Prometheus edition of “The Frank Family That Survived.”
The long odyssey behind this book — my odyssey — did not end with the publication of the first edition of this book in summer 2004. Nor could it really end until I had visited two places that I had “hitherto visited in my imagination but not in actuality: Breitenheim, the main site of the first chapter, “Fatherland,” and the place where the Frank family saga begins; and No. 14 Pieter van der Zandestraat, The Hague, the streetside flat a half a mile away from German headquarters in the Binnenhof where, as the reader has seen, the Franks hid in plain sight from the Nazis for three years, and miraculously, survived.
The reasons for my not visiting the Hunsruck, as the still remote region of the Rhineland where the Franks hailed from, is called, were different from my reasons for not having visited No. 14. In the event, as much as I had wished to visit Breitenheim, the hamlet where Myrtil was born and raised-and which, at least to judge from the photos of it on the regional web site, appeared virtually unchanged from the old photos of it I had seen back at my work desk in America — as well as Meisenheim, the near by town where the Franks attended shul, I was not able to schedule a separate trip to Germany in order to do so.
In any event, I felt that the material I did have at hand, including the various descriptive eyewitness testimonies of my cousins Celia and Lotte, who had visited the area, the exhaustive commemorative book about Breitenheim published an its 700th anniversary, etc., etc., were more than sufficient to do justice to Max’s and Myrtil’s original milieu. So, I only visited the Hunsruck in my mind, as it were — and, as “Fatherland” bears witness, spent a good deal of time vicariously milling about.
Nevertheless, I certainly wanted to go to the real Breitenheim, if not for the book’s sake, then for mine. Of course, I had to see the Frank house, if I could, and I resolved to do. so as soon as feasible following the end of my residency at Cornell.
By contrast, my failure, or inability to knock on the door of No. 14 and actually go inside, not just stand outside as I had done on my innumerable visits over the years, as I noted in the Afterword, had been the result of something else I had been lacking — courage, I suppose — not time.
I certainly knew what the interior looked like; how could I not after all of those interviews with Flory, Sybil, and Dorrit? I even had the original blueprint. Nevertheless something had always held me back from actually crossing the threshold, just as it had when I had accompanied my mother on her initial postwar visit to the site of the Franks’ wartime cavalry in the long ago summer of 1965.
But, of course, I wanted to visit No. 14, as well. Then, I knew, my journey, as well as the Frank family’s one, would truly be over.
As things turned out, on my first trip to the Continent following the publication of “The Frank Family That Survived,” in October 2004, I managed to find the time, and the courage, to accomplish both of these things.
First I paid an emotional — and eye-opening — visit to the Franks’ old headwaters in the Hunsruck. Then, several days and a six-hour train ride later, I found myself once again in The Hague, this time crossing the threshold of No. 14 and opening that Pandora’s box, too.
It was, taken together, quite a journey — or journey’s end, I should say. The epiphanies came fast and furious.
THE FIRST SHOCK, a pleasant one I have to say, took place as I entered Meisenheim’s towering former synagogue, now known as its Haus der Begegnung, or assembly hall, as the guest of the formidable man who had helped save it, the retired town pastor, Gunther Lenhoff.
To be sure, I had been told by my Israeli cousin Lotte, family archivist and granddaughter of the family patriarch, Max, that a synagogue existed in Meisenheim, just down the road apiece from Breitenheim (as we Americans say), and that the Franks attended shul there, covering the two miles separating their place of worship and their home-cum-winery every Friday night by foot. But that was about all I knew.
I assumed — wrongly — that the sacred place had been a small structure, perhaps only a room. After all, how large could the synagogue be in a town so small that even today, the current population of Meisenheim is just over two thousand, roughly the same as a century ago — it is impossible to locate on all but the most detailed maps of Deutschland? I assumed-again wrongly, or partly wrongly, as it turned out — that the shul had been destroyed, or fired, during the Kristallnacht riots of November, 1938, as so many of its sister temples around Germany had been, including the near by one in Kaiserlauten, a sad photo of whose charred remains I had come across during my archival research. And if it had somehow survived that “spontaneous” pogrom, I assumed that it had been wiped out during the others to come during the yet-darker remaining years of the Thousand Year Reich. Again, wrong.
Indeed, the Meisenheim shul wasn’t even on the to do list I had hastily put together the day before on the long, winding, scenic train ride from Frankfurt, sixty miles to the north, through the lush hill and dale of the Moselle Valley to Bad Kreuznach, the nearest train station to my eventual destination.
One can imagine, then, my astonishment — and delight — to find that the three story Meisenheim shul was not only several times larger than I had thought (and then some), but that it had been miraculously — and that is really the word — rehabilitated and transformed into a gleaming interdenominational assembly hall, complete with an elaborate ground floor museum scrupulously chronicling the history and destruction of the area’s Jews. I knew that Berlin had its Holocaust Museum. But little Meisenheim? Astonished isn’t the word. Amazed is more like it.
Pastor Lenhoff, a warm, slightly gruff man his early 60s who speaks fluent English, unlike most people in the district, outlined the remarkable tale behind the former synagogue’s salvation as he drove me from the tiny gasthaus just outside of Meisenheim, to the venerable heart of the nine hundred year old town itself, looking much as it must have, with the soaring spire of its medieval kirsche piercing the sky, as when my great-great-great grandfather, David Frank, first beheld it back in the 1740s.
The pastor, who also serves as custodian of the Haus der Begegnung, was, he said, scheduled to meet a busload of domestic sightseers from Frankfurt who were making their own pilgrimage to the reconsecrated house, evidently now a well-known site, later that same morning. Learning of my serendipitous pilgrimage the night before from the local historian, Karen Gross-after all, Meisenheim is a small town — Lenhoff had agreed to include me ‘in the tour. And I am very glad that he did.
Personally I had been ignorant of the arrangement until the burly cleric materialized at breakfast, in between orange juice and scramble.d eggs, and determinedly ushered me to his waiting car. The understanding I had had with Ms. Gross, whom I had been helpfully referred to by the regional tourist authority-whence I discovered that she was from Binghamton, New York, of all places — was that I was to go to Breitenheim.*
Breitenheim was tomorrow, Meisenheim was today: Jawohl mein Pastor! Ours not to reason why! Pastor Gunther promised to explain everything. And so he did.
And so, as my impassioned guide raced into the old walled town, I learned the tragic story of the rise and fall of Meisenheim’s Jewish community, which is essentially the story of the rise and fall of German Jewry in fine: I learned how, by the late 19th century, the by then well-assimilated Jewish community of 169 constituted nearly 10 percent of the town’s population; how the prosperous and secure Jewish congregants — presumably including my great-great grandfather, Gottlieb Frank, then residing in contiguous Breitenheim — pooled their resources, and, in 1890, just before my grandfather, Myrtil was born, erected a soaring four story synagogue. “It was the pride of the town,” Lenhoff asserted, keeping his eyes on the winding road.
Then, he continued, telescoping the story, for we were approaching the place, came the Nazi era, and Kristallnacht. “You know what happened then.”
I didn’t, actually. The minister duly enlightened me: yes, the Franks’ shul was put to the torch, and it most assuredly would have been destroyed; however, as Gunther explained, because the temple was located next to local Nazi party headquarters, the indigenous decided only to set fire to the interior. The building itself was spared and left vacant during the war years, small solace for the harried, vestigial Jewish congregation, which, like the scores of other Jewish communities in the Rhineland was completely expunged by 1942, most of its remaining members deported to the concentration camps at Theresienstadt and Gur, in the Pyrenees. One of the original congregants, who had fled to France during the war, did, in fact, return to live in Meisenheim following the war, said Lenhoff, who himself moved to Meisenheim in the 1980s. “But, of course she is gone now.”
The old, fire-scarred building was nearly gone by then, too. Purchased by a developer, it had been slated to be converted into a supermarket.
“That is when I stepped in,” Pastor Lenhoff said, still horrified at the thought of what would have been the old synagogue’s final desecration. “We want to have relations with good relations with Israel, and we are turning old synagogues into supermarkets?! How can we allow this?!”
Of course, Lenhoff himself have the funds to save the building. But, fortunately, a number of other equally indignant, equally conscience-stricken Meisenheimers whom he hurriedly contacted did. But what to do with the building, its blackened interior still showing the scars of Kristallnacht? With no Jews left, and — inspite of the return in modest numbers of Jews to some of the larger German cities — no realistic prospect of cultivating a new one, the temple’s saviors decided-stroke of genius-to turn the violated building into an inter-denominational meeting and culture house, The ground floor, where the original pews and altar had been, it was decreed, with the blessing of the town’s fathers, would a museum dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the town’s, and the region’s, vanished Jewish way of life.**
It was certainly a lot to take in for a 15-minute car trip. And then, all of a sudden, we were there.
I was dumbfounded. I knew, of course, that there were people in Germany — good Germans, if I might use that expression — gentiles committed to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, and what preceded it, but to meet one in the flesh was a revelation.
“I was of the generation,” said Gunther, his voice rising as he shut off the car engine, “who asked their fathers when they returned from the war — if they returned” (Lenhoff’s father, a soldier in the Wehnnacht who served in Russia, was captured, sent to Siberia, before finally returning home in 1951), “how could this” — happen? How?”
Quickly, for the Frankfurt group would be arriving shortly, the cleric-cum-curator escorted me into the meticulously assembled Jewish museum on the ground floor, where the altar and pews used to be.
A bus exhaust sounded: the group had arrived. The pastor excused me, leaving me in my speechlessness to examine the various exhibit cases filled with photos, paper ephemera, and various relics dating from the Jewish community’s great days, including the central role it had once played in the local wine industry. There was a familiar piece of paper in one of the cases. I looked closer. It was a leaf of my great-grandfather’s stationery, the same one Lotte had sent me, the one with the elaborate letterhead showing the old Frank house-cum-wine cellar which I had used to conjure up Max and Myrtil’s lost world back in America. And now here I was. Next to it was a bottle of Max’s Wine.
There was one more mind-blower: a plaque on the wall of the museum, a gift from the Israeli Franks, “dedicated,” the carefully sculpted lettering proclaimed, to the memory of Max and Johanna Frank from their relatives in Israel and America.” Unbeknownst to me, Lotte’s family had arranged for her grandparents to be memorialized in their former place of worship and had been kind enough to include us, her American relations, in the inscription. First we American Franks heard of it!
Astonished though I was by all these Frank-related artifacts, as well as impressed by the care that had been taken to assemble and display them, I have to say I was no less astonished, and moved, by the dioramara ringing the room putting the story of the Franks and their less fortunate co-relgionists into its full, harrowing context, especially the nook devoted to the Nazi era, which detailed the fate of the 21 Meisenheimers who were killed in concentration camps. Next to it was a map of Germany and the other occupied territories showing where the major Nazi concentration and prison camps were located, including the ones at Amersfoort and Vught in the Netherlands.
I was equally impressed, when, once the tour group entered the room, its justifiably proud curator in tow, to see that this was the section which drew the greatest attention. These Germans remembered.
“My name is Gordon Frank Sander,” I said, finally finding my voice, “and I am proud to be here.”
There were still two more things I wanted to do while I was in the vicinity.
First, I wanted to try and find my great-grandfather’s grave; I had seen an old photo of it from the 1930s. Amongst the various illustrative materials on the wall of the museum was a photo, apparently recent, of the town’s old Jewish cemetery, set in a forest clearing, looking in good shape. Perhaps the pastor could help me find it, and Max, as well? “I haven’t been to the cemetery in 20 years,” Gunther said, after he had bid his other guests farewell, “but, why not, let’s try.”
So off we zoomed into the countryside, up a mountain, then another, then up a dirt road; then by foot across a stream — the good pastor was beginning to show signs of tiring, I have to say, at this point. Then, after scaling a picket fence with a huff and a puff (whoops! careful!), we were in the cemetery, with its hundred or so moss-covered graves, rising out of the mist, as if in a dream, surely the most beautiful graveyard I have ever seen. Why the fathers of the extinct congregation decided to set it in this virtually inaccessible locale is mystifying. However, inconvenient though it was for the decedents’ descendants, the mountainous locale had also been the graveyard’s salvation. None of the graves, I was relieved to note, had been desecrated. Little wonder: what Nazi (or neo-Nazi) could find this place?
And so off we strode through the graveyard, in search of Max. Gunther took one end of the graveyard, I the other. Here, Max…Where are you, Max?
Alas, Max was nowhere to be found. No matter, I assured the pastor, as we made our laborious way back to Gunther’s car, turning pastoral myself, he knows that we are here.***
Indeed. And I thanked this redoubtable man for one of the most memorable days of my life.
That left Breitenheim. In the event, the trip to Breitenheim, the next day, was also memorable, if in a different, not so pleasant sort of way. As I said, I had yearned to visit the old Frank house, to go inside, to see where Myrtil and Julius had grown up, perhaps see a bit of the old wine cellar. Of course, I had to see the house!
Well, with Ms. Gross leading the way, I did indeed see Breitenheim, or most of whatever there is of my ancestral town — hamlet is more accurate — there is, or was, to see: about thirty houses grouped around an intersection. At one point there had been a store, told me, but it had closed. There had also been a gasthaus, the same one I had seen in the Breitenheim book, the one in the photo of the eight festive, tankard-bearing men, all but one of whom would soon die in the impending war, taken in 1938, from the aforementioned Breitenheim book. The one, I thought had been the Frank house.
No, the scrupulous Ms. Gross corrected me, I was wrong. That house, the house in the letterhead, was around the corner.
And so it was.
No, I didn’t go in; nor did I try. Anyway, the current occupant, the putative daughter of the former Nazi mayor of the town, the same one who had putatively bought it from Max after he had gone bust during the hyperinflation of the Twenties, did not, when she suddenly opened the door and looked at me-was that a scowl I saw on her face appear too eager to have me inside.
Did she know who I was? Perhaps she guessed. It wouldn’t have been hard. I tried to catch her attention; she had come into the yard to do take in her laundry. Again, she looked away.
“This area was very brown during the war,” Karen had told me the night before.
So I gathered.
And thus, from one day to the next, I suppose you could say, I saw, or glimpsed the two faces of Germany on my Rhenish sortie: the forward-looking one, exemplified by Gunther, the “good” Germany, if you will, the Germany my grandfather loved…and the other one, the one he fled to Holland for.
That night, my final night in Meisenheim, I took a walk in the dark, over the river Glan, glistening in the moonlight, to the lush park on the other side, laid down and looked up at the sky. One last surprise, a final epiphany: the skies were clear, clear enough to see shooting stars, something I had never seen. in the polluted industrial skies over Europe before. And then it occurred to me: these were the same skies my grandfather had seen when he was a young boy, perhaps even from this same spot.
In a way, I felt, I had come home-at least as much as I, as a Jew, could feel at home this bucolic corner of the country that my grandparents, and parents, had once called, with pride, their Fatherland, before the Nazi deluge.
NO. 14 PIETER VAN DEN ZANDESTRAAT
So much for the Hunsruck. So much for my German roots; and for the moment, so long.
Now it was time to fast forward from the late 1800s and early 1900s to the thousand days of 1942, and 1943, and 1944, and 1945, to the time, and the place, when time stopped for the Franks and they “dived under” to escape their venomous former countrymen.
One more stone to turn over. Time to visit No. 14 Pieter van den Zandestraat. If — if — I could get in! The “success” of my German sortie gave me courage. There was no stopping me now.
And so, the very next Saturday afternoon — I figured that I would have a better chance of gaining entry if I came then — there I was, once again, striding through the cobblestone streets of The Hague’s centrum west, headed for the same fateful entranceway I had first stood before when I was an impressionable 14-year-old boy, accompanying my mother back to her wartime Golgotha.
I caught my breath and rang the bell once, then several times. No answer. Through half-closed eyes the cul-de-sac looked exactly the same as it had in 1965, or, for that matter, every other time I had visited it since; only the upscale cars parked on the Dutch street hinted at the centrally located neighborhood’s recent gentrification. Other than that, and the prewar Mondriaan-patterned front glass window through which the sequestered Franks once peered out — when they dared to peer out — now replaced by one large clear, glass window, nothing seemed to have changed. The curtains were drawn, just as they had been during the Franks’ long concealment; just as they were when Dorrit and I returned in 1965; just as they were when I had returned, in 1974, and 1977, and 2002, and 2003.
I rang the bell a fifth time. I was tempting’ fate now. The neighbors of whomever lived at No. 14 began to peer at the intruder — and on such a small street, especially a Dutch street, any non-resident is a potential intruder. Did anybody live at No. 14? There were no plants or other evident signs of life in the window, as there usually are in Holland. Perhaps the place was in the process of being rented. Had I come for nothing? If so, why wasn’t the current occupant home on Saturday afternoon? Aren’t all Dutchmen home on Saturday afternoon?
In any event, this one wasn’t. And all those pairs of eyes drilling holes in my back were making me nervous. Time to leave. Perhaps later; yes, later. Disappointed, yet still hopeful, I left a note under the door of No. 14 stating who I was, how I was the author of a book about a Jewish family who had hidden from the Germans at this address, and so forth and so on, and that I would be back later, and so forth and so on. Then, depressed at having worked up the courage to finally knock on that door for nothing, I returned to my hotel and fell into a deep sleep.
Take two. Several hours later, having refortified myself with several jonge genevers I made my way once again through the dark, somewhat macabre streets of centrum west, gulped, and rang the bell of No. 14 once again.
Again nothing. Then, magically a light came on. So, someone did live at No. 14. Now, nerves still getting the better of me, I doubted that the current occupant would, in fact, let me in. I worried that my strange note had put him (or her) off. Who cared that my family had once hid from the Germans there? Anyway it was late, and, as I well knew from my own experience, one doesn’t go knocking on people’s doors late at night, unless it’s an emergency.
I was in luck. The man who opened the door turned out to be friendly. Yes, he had read my note, Yes, he said, I could come inside. He had heard something about his apartment being used during the war by a family of onderduikers. Klaas Pen was his name; he worked for a Dutch airline. He poured me a drink. I gave him a copy of my book.
There were some surprises here, as well. Firstly, there was the size of the place. The handsomely removed apartment, which Pen said he had purchased several years before, seemed considerably larger than the dank chamber that had been described to me. But then, I realized, the Franks had only used part of the flat. It was a nice place for a single man, especially with the spacious back garden, something that Flory, Dorrit, and Sybil had completely left out of their accounts. No wonder: they never used it.
The other surprise was a secret compartment hidden in the back of one of the closets. Pen told me that he had discovered it when he had bought the apartment five years before. The tiny space, no more than one. hundred cubic feet in all, conceivably might have been large enough for the four Franks to stand in, if they were standing ramrod straight, during a raid.
Yet, oddly, neither my mother nor my grandmother had ever mentioned it. It certainly wasn’t used during the slave labor raid on the street in November 1944, when the Franks had their closest call. Perhaps my grandfather felt that there was no point; that the thoroughgoing Germans, expert at finding such hidden spaces by then, would have discovered theirs as well, as soon as they broke down the door.
Klaas and I sat there, nursing our drinks, reflecting on the miracle that had transpired within these same walls. Why did the Franks survive, I wondered again? How did they get through it all? How did they manage to survive for over a thousand days while hiding, essentially, in plain sight?
One thing struck me again: the Franks’ neighbors on Pieter van der Zandestraat deserve some of the credit for their against-the-odds fate. Surely, someone must have suspected that something fishy was going on behind the drawn curtains at No. 14, what with Jeanne and all the Franks’ other helpers’ constant excursions in and out, not to mention those of Myrtil’s.
Still, no one told, not even during the hongerwinter, when a successful tip might have meant a possibly life-saving reward from the Nazis.
“This was a good street,” I said.
“Still is,” said Klaas. I finished my drink and left. I felt at peace.
I hadn’t come home-although the franks had indeed once considered Holland home, they never considered No. 14 anything more, or less, than their hiding place — but I felt that I had visited another, very sacred place, indeed.
My journey was over.
*Binghamton, New York is the hometown of Rod Serling, the subject of my first book, “Serling,” and a place I have spent a lot of time in. It’s also close to Ithaca, where I live.
**1 bolstered what I learned from Lenhoff by reading the excellent booklet published by the town about the meeting house, and the story behind it.
*** It turns out, according to Gross’s records, that Max is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Bad . Kreuznach. However, she confirmed, his father, Gottlieb, was buried there.