Frank and Free (Jewish Chronicle [UK] 9/2/04)

Nine days after Anne Frank’s family went into hiding — or, as it was called in those times, “dived under” — my mother Dorrit, together with her parents, Myrtil and Flort Frank, and her sister Sybil, spent the first of 1,022 days concealed at Number 14 Pieter van de Zandestraat, a small, side-street flat in The Hague. And, just as their namesakes did in Amsterdam, my mother’s family had many close shaves, living, as they did, but a few minutes’ walk from Gestapo headquarters.

The closest was probably that of November 21, 1944, when a German slave-labour party conducted a house-to-house search of their previously overlooked street. By then, Anne and her family, as well as the four other “divers” at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, had, like so many, been betrayed, and dispatched on the penultimate train to Auschwitz and (except for Otto Frank) to oblivion.

But, five months after D-Day, resigned to losing the war, and already beginning to cover up their tracks, the German overseers of occupied Holland were no longer actively looking for Jews.

They were satisfied that they had already found and exterminated most of Holland’s pre-war Jewish population of 140,000. And indeed, nowhere in Western Europe was the Holocaust carried out as thoroughly as it was in the Netherlands.

But, although they were no longer looking for Jews that November day, for ever seared into my mother’s memory — and later, mine — if the Germans had found any, they would doubtless have killed them on the spot.

And yet, somehow, the search part went past Number 14. Why? How? God’s will, said my grandmother, the most religious of the four. Destiny, insisted my mother, the most romantic. Chance, said my aunt, the least sentimental of the Franks, when I interviewed her years later. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to speak in detail about these matters to my grandfather, Myrtil, who originally took the courageous decision to take the family “under.”

There was still much to get through. In fact, the worst part of the Franks’ ordeal, the so-called “Hunger Winter” of 1945, still lay ahead. Some 20,000 Dutchmen, including many of the estimated 25,000 Jewish “divers” who had somehow survived until then, were to perish during the horrific last half-year of the war, when the Germans allowed Western Holland, one of their last redoubts, to starve.

In addition, the Franks — my Franks — like their fellow Hagenaars, had to face the dange of misfiring V2s. The rockets, which the Nazis loaunched against London, often fell backwards, incinerating swathes of the Hague.

And yet, incredibly, on May 8, 1945, more than 1,000 days after they had first “dived under,” the Franks emerged into the bright sunlight of freedom, one of a handful of Jewish families who survived, underground and intact, the entire German occulation and the Dutch Holocaust, in which 80 percent of Dutch Jewry perished.

Even though after years of research and hundreds of hours of interviews with members of my family — and now, with a fairly clear idea what they endured during those thousand days and what transpired behind the door of No. 14 Pieter van de Zandestraat — I still find myself today standing in front of that same flimsy door, wondering how they managed to survive. So, was it God, destiny or chance? Or was it a combination of all three?

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