An absorbing biography of Anne Frank’s father does not settle the question of who told the Nazis.
“In a certain way it way it was a happy time,” Otto Frank wrote in an unpublished postwar memoir that Carol Ann Lee includes in her absorbing new biography of the father of Anne Frank. “I think of all the good that we experienced, whilst all the discomfort, longing, conflicts and fear disappear[ed].”
The fact that Frank could so describe his family’s horrific two-year “time” as onderduikers — the expression the Dutch used to describe the estimated 25,000 Jews who “dived under” to escape Holland’s Nazi occupiers — culminating in the Franks’ betrayal and deportation to the death camps, speaks volumes about this intriguing man. It also gives some idea of where Anne derived her lofty spirit, as well as why she idolised him.
Not everything that Lee has to say about Otto is so nice. She also asserts that he both knew and was blackmailed by his putative betrayer, a Dutch Nazi by the name of Anton Ahlers, both during the war and long afterwards, charges which have provoked a furor in Holland, where Otto has traditionally been seen in a sainted light.
However, even if they are true, these accusations — including the charge that Frank’s spice firm, Opetka, did business with the Wehrmacht, part of the “dangerous arsenal of information” which Ahlers supposedly used to blackmail him after that war — only serve to make Otto seem more human.
As Lee herself makes clear, the only one of the eight onderduikers at 263 Prinsengracht (now the Anne Frank House) to survive the camps, Otto Frank was no saint.
Otto admittedly did not love his wife, Edith, whom Anne derided in her diary, and with whom Lee sympathizes. He may have had an affair, perhaps more. His company probably did do some business with the Wehrmacht — as did many other Dutch enterprises, including Dutch Jewish businesses, during the first two years of the Dutch occupation. While in hiding he may have lost his cool and tried to commit suicide.
Yet by any measure, Otto Frank was a remarkable man: his life was extraordinary and, for the most part Carol Ann Lee, the author of previous biography of Anne Frank, does does justice to both aspects.
Here, for example, is a man who, following the end of the first world war, delayed his return to his desperate family in Frankfurt in order to return two horses he had borrowed from a Belgian farmer — and arrived home two weeks later only to have his furious mother slap him for his mitzvah. Here, most importantly, was a man, who, in July, 1942, was willing to make the lonely decision to take his family underground, a decision which, as Lee records, transformed him.
Moreover, despite his horrific experiences and losses, Frank continued to be proud of his German heritage, reminding a friend of the many Germans who behaved “correctly” and who also suffered. Not many German Jews who survived the war were as magnanimous.
In addition to presenting a more rounded portrait of Otto Frank, Lee also succeeds in presenting a much more full portrait of the Dutch Holocaust, a tragedy within a tragedy: of the well-assimilated pre-war Jewish population of 140,000, only 30,000 survived. Tellingly, she notes that the Germans never had more than 200 policemen on duty in Amsterdam at any one time, yet still managed to keep the Dutch capital in check — which she interprets as devastating proof of Dutch pliability.
Lee is also, rightly, scathing about the shoddy, even violent treatment accorded to those relatively few Jews — including “stateless Jews” like Otto — who returned from the camps or from “under” (as did my own mother’s family, who successfully concealed themselves for three years in a flat in the Hague).
A particularly fascinating section of the book is that in which we witness Otto’s struggle to published Anne’s diary and his difficulty decision to allow a Gentile couple — the playwrights Frances and Albert Hackett (who were recommended to him by Lillian Hellman) — the adapt the book instead of Meyer Levin, the American Jewish journalist. It was Levin who originally championed the book, however, and he became a lifelong enemy of Frank as a result.
Inevitably, Lee, who is a better writer than she is a historian, makes a number of mistakes. The terror bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940 which killed nearly 1,000 Dutchmen and forced the Dutch to capitulate, was possibly the most horrific event of the first year of the war, yet Lee devotes only three words to it. Later, she records Johannes Kleiman, one of Otto’s employes and underground helpers, asking the Dutch police to begin the investigation into the Franks’ betrayal in February 1945, while Holland was still occupied — a self-evident impossibility.
This sort of thing tends to make one sceptical of the reliability of her claims to have solved the riddle of the Franks’ betrayal (as does the lack of footnotes). It is very possible that Anton Ahlers was the person who actually made the call that sent the Sicherheitsdienst barrelling up the stairs of 263 Prinsengracht on August 4, 1944. But there were many people who were in a position to know of Otto’s secret besides Ahlers — and just as many who could have used the 40 guilder reward money.
But as Lee herself convincingly demonstrates in this significant and fascinating book, as a man as well as his daughter’s literary executor, Otto Frank himself had little to hide.