The Hidden Life of Otto Frank
By Carol Ann Lee
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.
Even those who haven't read it have the dim sense that they know that a Jewish family hid in a secret warehouse annexe in Amsterdam to escape the Nazi terror; that the family's teenage daughter wrote a diary that survived the family's betrayal, though the daughter didn't. And that the diary's last, tear-jerking words concern Anne's belief that people are really "good at heart". Readers put the book down with a lump in the throat wondering who could have betrayed such a sweetheart. The Diary of Anne Frank makes readers understand that every one of those millions hunted down and killed was a real person who loved and was loved.
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. He pieced it back together from papers rescued by one of the band of helpers from the years in hiding; he was involved in its initial translations (he spoke four languages); he went along with sentimentalised dramatisations because of his conviction that education about the human reality behind Nazi war crimes was the only way to prevent their recurrence.
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)? Readers of the diary will know how engaging Anne's personality is: the teenage bitching about her mother; the breathless flirting with sexuality; the serious, questing attempts to make sense of existence. How much does a father miss such a daughter (the apple of his eye, as one family friend says)? How to come to terms with the loss?
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 blackmailed 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.
Otto's motives for paying Ahlers after the war remain obscure, but perhaps a clue lies in his remarks to friends that he still felt fragile and vulnerable. Simply getting Anne's diary published in the postwar years, when no one wanted to know about the Holocaust, had been difficult enough.
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.