THE HIDDEN LIFE OF OTTO FRANK
By Carol Ann Lee
Morrow. 411 pp. $26.95
In The Hidden Life of Otto Frank, the first biography of Anne Frank's father, Carol Ann Lee offers us a scoop: the name of the Dutch citizen who, she says, told the Germans where the Frank family was hiding during the Holocaust. But buried behind the scoop in Lee's book is something far more important: an account of how Otto nurtured, but also shaped and in some ways distorted, Anne's story and her public image during the decades after her diary was found -- a diary that is one of the most powerful and widely read documents of the 20th century.
First the scoop. Who betrayed Anne Frank and her family? Based on archival research and interviews, Lee has fingered Anton Ahlers, a thuggish Dutch Nazi and violent anti-Semite, and has said that he probably did it for the reward the Germans were giving to those who turned in Jews. After Lee first went public with Ahlers's name last year, the man's son called her to confirm that his father, who died in 2000 at age 82, had indeed betrayed Anne. She got confirmation of this from other family members as well.
Dutch officials are investigating the matter, though one has said that he believes there's "no smoking gun" to prove Lee's case against Ahlers. The official especially distrusts the family's testimony -- a family that hated and had reason to hate Ahlers, who during the German occupation betrayed to the Germans not only Jews but also non-Jews, including members of his own family. Yet Lee's case against Ahlers, though not conclusive, seems stronger than those made against anyone else. Until other evidence comes along, this particular Judas -- as some with a religious imagination might see any betrayer of Anne, especially if he did it for the money -- will have to remain the primary culprit.
In the course of writing about Ahlers, Lee also tells us about his other relationship with Otto -- one that resulted in what Lee must have had in mind when she titled her book The Hidden Life of Otto Frank. It turns out, according to Lee, that Ahlers, a chronic blackmailer, victimized Otto repeatedly.
One of these occasions was in 1941, after the Germans occupied the Netherlands but before the Franks went into hiding. He showed Otto a letter to Dutch Nazi Party officials in which one of Otto's former employees denounced him for having made unflattering remarks about the German military and asking that "the Jew Frank" be arrested; Otto paid Ahlers off and took the letter.
Otto paid Ahlers off again, though not with money, in 1945, after returning from Auschwitz. By that time, Dutch authorities were arresting citizens who had collaborated with the Germans, and Ahlers was one of those they picked up. Otto repeatedly wrote to the authorities on Ahlers's behalf, telling them that Ahlers had helped him by giving him the denunciatory letter but not mentioning that he had paid Ahlers for it.
Why did Otto do this? Because of another hidden part of his life, Lee suggests. She contends that he was afraid that Ahlers would divulge to the Dutch authorities his own secret -- that he'd done business with the Germans before going into hiding.
Otto's firm produced pectin, an ingredient used in making jam, and he apparently sold some of it to the Germans. To be sure, more than 80 percent of Dutch firms did business with the Germans in order to survive. And selling jam makings was neither important to the German war effort nor significant business. Still, it was business, and Lee argues that Otto felt vulnerable on that account after the war. He'd moved from Germany to the Netherlands in 1933 after the rise of Hitler -- and, despite having been sent to Auschwitz by the Germans, he was concerned, strange though it may seem now, that the Dutch might still consider him to be a German with a German company. The letters Otto sent to the authorities for Ahlers, Lee writes, "would ensure that Ahlers" -- who knew of the pectin sales to the Germans -- "kept his silence."
But the most protracted period of payoffs, Lee suggests, took place in the 1960s, after Otto had become a public figure as a result of Anne's diary. Perhaps fearing that the charges of collaboration, absurd as they were, might damage his reputation as well as that of the diary, he may have paid off Ahlers with money he was making from the diary's commercial success.
A far more important dimension of Otto's life than the blackmailing, and one that had a direct bearing on Anne's diary, was the way in which he edited its contents and shaped its career. It's the diary, after all, that changed his life; had he not been the diarist's father, no one would now know of him, and Lee would never have written a biography of him.
Lee shows us how decisions that Otto made about editing the diary, finding a publisher, arranging for foreign translations and publications, and having a play written and a movie made from it, determined how Anne's story would be told and remembered. Otto's sense of himself as an assimilated Jew likely affected these decisions, as did his sense of what should be said by and about Anne. Other books have also covered this territory, but not as part of an overall account of Otto's life.
In editing Anne's diary, Otto removed some of Anne's critical comments about her mother and some of her references to her own sexuality. He also diminished, somewhat, her focus on her Jewishness. But it was through his choice of writers for the stage adaptation that he most significantly distanced Anne from her Jewish roots and leached from her story the dark themes that, in the diary, were plainly a part of it.
He chose the husband-and-wife team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, light-comedy Hollywood screenwriters whose credits included "It's a Wonderful Life." Not surprisingly, they crafted a sentimental and upbeat play. And the play's director, Garson Kanin, wanted Anne's focus on Jewish suffering to be translated into human suffering in general. Lee notes that, under Kanin's direction, "almost all references to Jews and Jewish suffering were erased."
Otto allowed this because he wanted Anne's story to light up the world and to be embraced by all of humanity. That's why he preferred the Goodrich-Hackett play and rejected Meyer Levin, who wanted to put on a play that adhered more closely to Anne's life and words. Anne's book, Otto wrote to Levin in 1952, "is not a Jewish book." And he warned, "So do not make a Jewish play of it!"
With regard to maximizing the audience for Anne's story and making it universally embraceable, at least in those early years after the Holocaust, Otto's instincts may well have been right. The diary has reportedly sold more than 31 million copies in some 67 languages. A million saw the Broadway play in 1955-56. Tens of millions have seen the story on other stages, and on film and television. Streets and schools have been named after Anne. The annual number of visitors to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is approaching a million. One Protestant church in Japan has an image of Christ on one wall and an image of Anne on another.
But is audience all? What about the responsibility to show the whole truth? Anne had to go into hiding only because she was a Jew. She was betrayed only because she was a Jew. She was sent to her death only because she was a Jew. To soft-pedal her Jewishness -- to avoid mentioning it or to focus on her universal qualities -- is to deny the essence of her plight and the reality of her fate.
Moreover, after her diary was interrupted by her arrest, Anne's life wasn't uplifting or inspiring at all. A witness who saw Anne and her sister Margot in Bergen-Belsen described them as "two scrawny threadbare figures" who "looked like little birds." They contracted typhus. Margot rose from her bunk one day and fell dead to the floor. Soon after, Anne, wrapped in a blanket, told the witness that, horrified by the lice and the fleas and hallucinating, she had thrown away her clothes. Cadaverous, she died. The witness and her sister carried the bodies of Anne and Margot to a mass grave that contained as many as 10,000 corpses. That was three weeks before the camp was liberated.
Ignoring the spiritually uplifting and optimistic play, and reading only the diary, one can see that even in her hiding place Anne had a realistic sense of what might happen to her as a Jew and how terrible human beings could be. "We assume," she wrote in her diary entry for Oct. 9, 1942, "that most of [the Jews] are being murdered." And on May 3, 1944, she wrote, "I don't believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists. Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago! There's a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!"
This is a part of the real Anne Frank, one that's no less real than the part that said, more famously and upliftingly, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart."
Otto may have been right that, in his time, the world preferred an uplifting Anne, not a depressing one -- and a universal Anne, not one who was too Jewish. Clearly, as we can see in Lee's biography, he had those preferences himself. One hopes, though, that in the six decades since Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, during which we've witnessed repeated genocides, we can stare such horror in the eyes and recognize its face without the need to universalize the victim or transform the horror into consolation and kitsch. *
Walter Reich, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at George Washington University and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, was the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998.