I recently listened to a book entitled, Treasures From The Attic, by Mirjam Pressler (in conjunction with Gerti Elias, wife of Buddy Elias, cousin of Anne Frank). I was not sure upon beginning the book, if it would hold any value concerning my interest in World War II and the Holocaust, but my concerns were quickly laid to rest as I listened to the story unfold. I’m not going to go into the story line really, except to say that the “treasures” that lay in the attic were partly about Anne Frank, but really more about the Frank family, and their torturous journey to learn the truth, and then to recover from it.
The many letters written to the various members of the family to other members of the family, told the tale of not just loss, but the tragic and horrific time of not knowing. It was the “not knowing” that most tore at my heart. First the fact that most of Otto Frank’s extended family had no idea that his little family; comprised of his wife, Edith and daughters Margot and Anne; had fallen into the hands of the evil Nazi Regime. As was the practice during the Holocaust, the family was separated, and Otto did not know of the fate of his wife and daughters at the time of his release from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of course, we now know that Edith had passed away on January 6, 1945, of starvation. His daughter, Margot died sometime in February or March 1945 of Typhus, and his daughter, Anne also died in February or March 1945 of Typhus. The bodies of the girls were thrown behind a building and later into a mass grave as their burial. The Jews were considered no more important that trash, and so were treated as such. While this is horrific enough, worse was the fact that all too often no record was kept of the dead, or their place of burial.
It was here that I began to feel the horrible longing, dread, and finally grief that the Frank family was going through. As anyone who has lost a loved on and doesn’t know what happened can tell you, the not knowing is almost worse than the reality of what happened. Your mind can conjure up so many things, and for Otto, who had also been in the camp can readily attest, the reality of Auschwitz-Birkenau was beyond all human comprehension, unless you had been there, and then you could not get it out of your head. Still, the months of waiting for news of his family, followed by years of grief and heartache over what they had suffered, was beyond anything that most people can fathom. As I finished the book, I felt a tremendous sense of loss, not only for the Frank family, but for the many Jewish families, who suffered in the camps, and after the Holocaust as they endeavored to locate lost loved ones, or at least to learn their fate. Many searched for years, and some have never found out the fate of their loved ones at all. It was truly heartbreaking, and yet, that search and not knowing, was the reality that was faced by many Holocaust survivors.
Hitler was an insanly, evil ruler, and he hated the Jewish people…that is a known fact. It wasn’t anything they did, it was just his own twisted mind. That said, the Jewish people found themselves hiding in order to save their lives. Anne Frank was one of the most famous of those persecuted Jewish people, most likely because of her diary, which was published by her father following her death at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, and his release following the liberation of the camps. Annelies Marie Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 12, 1929. She was the second daughter of Otto Frank and Edith Frank-Hollander, both of Jewish families that had lived in Germany for centuries. With the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in 1933, Otto moved his family to Amsterdam to escape the escalating Nazi persecution of Jews. In Holland, he ran a successful spice and jam business. Anne attended a Montessori school with other middle-class Dutch children, but with the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 she was forced to transfer to a Jewish school. In 1942, Otto began preparing a hiding place in an annex of his warehouse on the Prinsengracht Canal in Amsterdam. It was a wise move, given what was coming. The family moved in on July 15, 1942, when Anne’s sister, Margot received a letter telling her to report to the labor camps in Germany. Knowing what that meant, the family took refuge in the secret hiding place they had prepared. This would be their home for the next 25 months.
Nineteen months earlier, on December 1, 1940, Anne’s father Otto Frank moved the offices of the spice and gelling companies he worked for, Opekta and Pectacon, from an address on Singel canal to Prinsengracht 263. The warehouse on Prinsengracht Canal, where Otto Frank ran his business, was a perfect place to create a safe room for his family, should the need ever arise. On July 15, 1942, the need arose. The ground floor of the building consisted of three sections. The front was the goods and dispatch entrance, basically the storefront. Behind the storefront was the middle section where the spice mills were located. At the rear, which was the ground floor of the annex, was the warehouse where the goods were packed for distribution. On the first floor above were the offices of Frank’s employees…Miep Gies, Bep Voskuijl (known in Anne Frank’s diary as Elli) and Johannes Kleiman were in the front office. Victor Kugler in the middle and Otto Frank in the rear office above the warehouse and below the floors which would later hide him and his family for two years until their betrayal to the Nazi authorities. The Achterhuis (Dutch for “back house”) or Secret Annex…as it was called in The Diary of a Young Girl, an English translation of the diary…is the rear extension of the building. It was concealed from view by houses on all four sides of a quadrangle. Its secluded position made it an ideal hiding place for Otto Frank, his wife Edith, two daughters, Margot and Anne, and four other Jews seeking refuge from Nazi persecution. Though the total amount of floor space in the inhabited rooms came to only about 500 square feet, Anne Frank wrote in her diary that it was relatively luxurious compared to other hiding places they had heard about. Those in hiding had been so careful. The entrance to the secret annex was hidden by a hinged bookcase, and former employees of Otto and other Dutch friends delivered them food and supplies procured at high risk. Anne and the others lived in rooms with blacked-out windows, and never flushed the toilet during the day out of fear that their presence would be detected. In June 1944, Anne’s spirits were raised by the Allied landing at Normandy, and she was hopeful that the long-awaited liberation of Holland would soon begin.
The family remained hidden here for two years and one month, praying that the war would end, and Hitler would be defeated before they were found. They stayed there until they were anonymously betrayed to the Nazi authorities by a Dutch informer, arrested, and deported to their deaths in concentration camps. Of the hidden group, only Otto Frank survived the concentration death camps. It was on this day, August 4, 1944, that time ran out for the family and friends in the secret annex. The Nazi Gestapo showed up at the warehouse, and they knew everything they needed to know about how to find the group of Jews in the secluded hiding place. They went right to the bookcase door and charged into the secret rooms. I can only imagine the terror that followed…the screaming, the running, the fear of knowing what was probably coming next. They were sent to a concentration camp in Holland, and in September Anne and most of the others were shipped to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. In the fall of 1944, with the Soviet liberation of Poland underway, Anne was moved with her sister Margot to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Suffering under the deplorable conditions of the camp, the two sisters caught typhus and died in early March 1945. The camp was liberated by the British less than two months later. Otto Frank was the only one of the 10 to survive the Nazi death camps. Two short months…or six short months, if you look at when they were captured. What a waste of a life or lives, and all because of the insanity of one man.
I read yesterday, that Adolf Hitler went into his underground bunker, known as the Führerbunker, with his mistress, Eva Braun on January 16, 1945. It was a coward’s move, so as not to have to face the Russians when they marched into town. He left his men to finish out the war in a losing battle, and when they wanted to surrender, they were rewarded with death. They were considered cowards, and yet Hitler made his last trip above ground on April 20, 1945, his 56th birthday. He took that opportunity, in the ruined garden of the Reich Chancellery, to award the Iron Cross to boy soldiers of the Hitler Youth, and then he retreated back to the safety of his bunker. On April 28th, Hitler learned that Reichsführer, SS Heinrich Himmler, who had left Berlin on April 20th was trying to discuss surrender terms with the Western Allies through Count Folke Bernadotte. To Hitler this was treason, and he was enraged. He ordered Himmler’s arrest. He also had Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s SS representative at Hitler’s Headquarters in Berlin, shot. Those men were doing their best to stay alive, and Hitler sat in the safety of his bunker calling them traitors and cowards. Hitler’s bunker, while not elegant by any standard, was quite comfortable. He and Eva were well protected until the day they took their own lives on April 30, 1945…one day after their April 29th marriage. Their death came by cyanide poisoning, with Hitler’s accompanied by a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head. They did not want to face the possibility of a trial for the many war crimes he was responsible for.
In what was proving to be a crumbling empire, Hitler’s death camp soldiers knew they too, were in trouble, the day after he went underground. On January 17, 1945, the Russians were approaching Auschwitz. The decision was made to evacuate most of its population and send them on a death march. It was the largest and the most notorious of the death marches. Just nine days before the Soviets arrived at the death camp at Auschwitz, the SS marched nearly 60,000 prisoners out of the camp toward Loslau, 39 miles away. There, they were put on freight trains to other camps. Approximately 15,000 prisoners died on the way, which is why it was called a death march. Loslau recorded a freezing -4°F and lower at the time the prisoners were arriving. Residents tried to help the prisoners, and many prisoners regained freedom between Auschwitz and Loslau, as the residents helped them escape. The prisoners who were left at the camp were liberated on January 27, 1945, which is a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In years after the Holocaust, survivors, such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel, wrote memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947, Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I am not related to Anne Frank, but her story is one that, while I cannot relate to personally, nevertheless touches me deeply. Anne, like another woman who I have long respected, Corrie ten Boom, went through some of the deepest forms of hatred there can possibly exist in this world. Anne was a Jewish girl, just turning 13 on this day, June 12, 1942, and Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman who helped as many Jewish people as she could during the ugliness that was Hitler’s reign, and that would eventually take Anne’s life. The two women never met in person, to my knowledge, but while Anne may never have heard of Corrie, I’m certain that Corrie heard of Anne. The plight of the Jewish people touched Corrie ten Boom deeply too…deeply enough that she and her family risked their lives trying to hide the Jewish people from Hitler’s men, and act that eventually precipitated their capture and imprisonment, because it was against the law to help the Jewish people.
Hitler hated the Jewish people, and in reality, was probably afraid of them…hence his need to rid himself of them. Hitler was insane. During the time that Hitler was taking the Jewish people prisoner, and killing them, a young girl named Anne Frank was turning 13, and was given a diary for her birthday. Having been a young girl with a diary, I can relate to the excitement of getting a diary in which to record your deepest thoughts, hopes, dreams, and secrets. I can also say that at that time, I felt like my life was relatively boring, and so writing in my diary quickly became a chore, and was soon forgotten. I have to wonder if Anne’s diary might have suffered the same fate…had things been different. Most kids get pretty bored with writing down their thoughts everyday, but Anne’s life was about to change forever. She was about to spend the next two years in hiding in a secret room in her father’s office, along with four other families, dependent on loving Christians for their every need.
The Nazis were coming, and they were determined to kill every Jewish person they could. Anne and her family had to go into hiding. And so it was, that a young girl trapped behind a wall that led to a secret room, where silence was essential for survival, began to write down her thoughts and experiences in what would become the most read diary in history. Anne would not live to become an adult, to marry, or to have children, and yet, she would go on to become one of the most well known children in history. My great aunt, Bertha Schumacher Hallgren said that anyone could become a famous writer, if they just wrote about the events of their life, and colored it with some information about the time in history in which they lived. That is exactly what Anne Frank did. I have to think that she assumed that no one would care about her little life spent in hiding, much less about how a 13 year old girl felt about it, but after she died of Typhus in a prison camp called Bergen-Belsen, just one month before the end of the war, they did care. The Christian friends found her diary after their capture, and kept it in the hope of giving it back to her. Her father lived through that horrible time, and the diary was returned to him. He had it published in her honor in 1947. The book was called “The Diary of a Young Girl,” and has been made into a movie too, because in the end, it told the world about a very ugly time in history.