Book of the week: A father's life out in the open

The Hidden Life of Otto Frank
By Carol Ann Lee
Penguin pound;17.99

Since 1947, The Diary of Anne Frank has sold more than 31 million copies in at least 67 languages. It is read in schools, has been turned into plays, a film and touring exhibitions; its author's name has become a byword for youth cruelly betrayed and snuffed out.

All this is largely due to the efforts of one man: Anne's father, Otto Frank. As Carol Ann Lee comments in her sensitive biography, it is no exaggeration to say that after the war the diary became Otto's life.

Yet what compensation was all that fame for the loss of not one, but two, dearly beloved daughters (Anne's sister, Margot, also perished at Auschwitz)?

Anne's readers know that Otto was a remarkable father. As Lee's biography makes clear, he was also a remarkable man. Tolerant, wise, highly educated, resourceful, he devised the plan of hiding and kept social and personal breakdown at bay for the eight people in the hidden annexe at Prinsengracht 263.

A complete realist, before 1933 he had moved his family from Germany to Holland, where he thought they would be safe; a buoyant optimist, he believed his support network would hold out until the end of the war. It lasted two years: pretty good, considering that Holland's record of survival of its Jewish citizens is the worst in western Europe (only 25 per cent compared to 75 per cent in France).

Otto was also a complex man. To keep afloat, his spice business supplied the German army. According to startling evidence revealed by Lee for the first time, the Prinsengracht betrayal involved someone by whom Frank had been blackmailednbsp; by for a long time - and who continued to blackmail him even after the war. Tonny Ahlers, an unsavoury thug and anti-Semite, put the screws on Frank before the war because, as a Jew, he continued to run his business despite Nazi laws. After the war he returned to his game with a twist, threatening to expose Frank for having dealt with the Germans. And so it seems he succeeded in extorting money from a man he had already sent to a death camp.

Despite this secret, Otto remade his life. He met and married a woman with whom he was, perhaps for the first time in his life, deeply in love. She had lost a husband and son in the camps, but they both adored her daughter and grandchildren. He passed over the hell of Auschwitz with casual comments such as: "I was liberated in 1945 two days after being on the point of execution by firing squad." He preferred to contribute to a better future (Jews call this tikkun olam: to repair the world). Surrounded by friends, he often affirmed his belief, which must have been in Anne's mind when she wrote her famous words, that there is good in most people. The reader should be the judge.

To read this review in full see this week's TES. Friday Magazine is taking a break over the summer.

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