The Frank Family That Survived

Buy the Cornell University Press edition at amazon.com!

In the fall of 2004, a long journey came to an end when Hutchinson, a division of Random House UK, published my historical memoir, “The Frank Family That Survived.” As proud as I am of “Serling,” with its Pulitzer nomination, I think that “The Frank Family” is better yet.

The outstanding reviews the book has received from the international press seem to bear this out. I was especially heartened by Christopher Silvester’s review in The Daily Express, which called the book

an extraordinary tale of survival, part-family memoir and part history, in which the author’s passion and judgement are finely balanced…While the diary of Anne Frank…became a revered international bestseller, this book explains in a way Anne Frank could never have done, the context of what happened to her and others like her. It is an indispensable contribution to a dark chapter….

Like “Serling,” there is also a saga behind “The Frank Family That Survived” — one that, for me, began one hot afternoon in July of 1965, when my mother, Dorrit, took me to visit No. 14 Pieter van der Zandestraat, the small streetside apartment in the centrum of The Hague, where she, my grandparents, and my aunt “dived under,” somehow managing to survive for 1022 days before emerging into the sunshine of freedom when The Hague was finally liberated in May, 1945.

It was then, when I first contemplated the scene of my family’s long ordeal that, at least unconsciously, the seed for my future book was planted. So moved was I by the occasion that, while my mother conversed with No. 14′s current occupant, I raced across the street to take a dramatic photo of the flat through a broken window of a landing of the apartment building across the street (below). And then, for all practical purposes, I forgot about my visit, and returned to the happier business of being a 14-year-old.

Twenty years later, I assayed a feature about my mother’s experiences for The New York Times Magazine on the occasion of what would have been Anne Frank’s 50th birthday. But the project, originally intended as a mitzvah, became something of a Pandora’s box — and a personal nightmare. I was not prepared for the fact that the three surviving onderduikers (Dutch for “people who dived under”) would remember their experiences so differently, no less have differing interpretations as to why they managed to survive all that they did.

But they did, and I became stuck. A friend of mine, David Harris, now executive director of the American Jewish Committee, advised me to put the troublesome project aside for 10 or 15 years or so, until I had sufficient perspective to handle walking through the figurative door of No. 14.

In the event, another 20 years would pass before I opened the door for “The Frank Family That Survived,” the two-part documentary I wrote and narrated for BBC Radio 4 in September, 2001.

The fact that the program was broadcast the Sunday following the terrorist attacks of September 11th evidently magnified their impact. “This is the sort of thing that gives us hope,” went one of the emails I received after the show.

The show, which also got outstanding notices from the British press, was probably the most successful thing I have ever done, and probably the most meaningful. Within a few months, the radio show had morphed into a book project, and I was back on the authorial trail.

Of course, the show and the book are very different specimens. The show, as strong as it was, only ran 28 minutes, and the combined scripts to 5000 words, requiring me to narrow my focus on the Franks’ wartime years, and then only the highlights. With the book, I was determined to do something larger: to meld the historical and memoir forms to make a true historical memoir. I wanted to rewind the Frank family saga to where it began, back in the little town of Breitenheim, Germany, where my grandfather was born in 1893 and the Franks were the only Jewish family in town, and take their story forward through the decades — from the good years in Berlin to the deceptively peaceful interwar years and the horrible ones that followed, until their final liberation — and use it as a means not only of recording and enshrining their extraordinary personal story, but also as a prism through which to view through their turbulent times.

On another level, I also like to think that the book serves as a kind of miraculous postscript to “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Instead of being put off by the formidable posthumous reputation of Anne Frank (another one of the things that originally threw me off when I first attempted to do something with the story), I hope that now, with the passing of what would have been her 75th birthday, the martyred diarist, who speculated in her journal about Jews in similar circumstances, would have wished it to be known that 60 miles away, there was another Jewish family who shared a similar journey, but a happier destiny.

In addition to the introduction by Sir John Keegan and postscript, four chapters are archived herewith:

-Chapter 2, “Ultra Dada Days,” which describes the anarchic conditions the newlywed Franks found when they moved to Berlin after the Armistice, but in which their love and Myrtil’s career as a government official nevertheless flourished;

-Chapter 6, “Submerging,” which follows the Franks once they had made the fateful decision to resist the German overlords of occupied Holland and “dive under,” and explores the first disorienting, heartbreaking phase of their “dive,” while the great Jew-catching raids of the fall and winter of ’42 went on around them, in Amsterdam and The Hague;

-Chapter 10, “The Raid,” which describes the horrific period immediately following the failure of Operation Market Garden to liberate northwestern Holland, as well as the onset of the V1/V2 program and the November 1944 slave labor raid on Pieter van den Zandestraat in which the Franks were nearly discovered; and

-Chapter 12, “To See The Sky,” which describes the joy — and horror — of liberation, as the Franks, along with their Dutch countrymen, simultaneously experience the relief of freedom and the full realization of what the Germans (with the aid of not a few collaborationist Dutch) had wrought during the occupation, including the virtual destruction of Dutch Jewry, all of which influence the Franks’ ultimate decision to move to America.

Interested in purchasing a copy? For my friends in the Great Britain, “The Frank Family That Survived” is available at most branches of Waterstone’s, Blackwells, and Borders. In Holland, it’s also available at the Waterstone’s in Amsterdam, the English Language Bookstore, and other better bookstores. Or you can buy it on the Net at amazon.com.