Many have noted the historical parallels between the current debate over Syrians seeking refuge in the United States and the plight of European Jews fleeing German-occupied territories on the eve of World War II.
Among the many who tried — and failed — to escape Nazi persecution: Otto Frank and his family, which included wife, Edith, and his daughters, Margot and Anne. And while the story of the family's desperate attempts ending in futility may seem remarkable today, it's emblematic of what a number of other Jews fleeing German-occupied territories experienced, American University history professor Richard Breitman wrote in 2007 upon the discovery of documents chronicling the Franks' struggle to get U.S. visas.
"Otto Frank’s efforts to get his family to the United States ran afoul of restrictive American immigration policies designed to protect national security and guard against an influx of foreigners during time of war," Breitman wrote.
The historian told NPR in 2007 that the documents suggest "Anne Frank could be a 77-year-old woman living in Boston today – a writer."
Instead, she died at the age of 15 at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
Otto Frank tried relatively late to obtain visas to the United States, a convoluted and ultimately doomed process laid bare in the nearly 80 pages of documents unearthed by the the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Even Frank's high-level connections within American business and political circles weren't enough to secure safe passage for his family.
"The story seems to unfold in slow motion as the painstaking exchange of letters journey across continents and from state to state, their information often outdated by the time they arrive," the New York Times wrote after reviewing the YIVO documents. "Each page adds a layer of sorrow as the tortuous process for gaining entry to the United States — involving sponsors, large sums of money, affidavits and proof of how their entry would benefit America — is laid out. The moment the Franks and their American supporters overcame one administrative or logistical obstacle, another arose."
Trying to get out
By 1941, the Frank family had already relocated from Germany to the Netherlands where, just a few years earlier, Otto Frank applied for visas to the United States — applications that were eventually destroyed, Frank wrote in a letter to his old college friend in the United States, Nathan Straus Jr.
"I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see U.S.A. is the only country we could go to," Frank wrote on April 30, 1941. "Perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance."
Frank asked his friend to potentially put up $5,000 to cover a deposit for the visas. "You are the only person I know that I can ask," Frank writes.
Straus was a connected man — the son of a Macy's co-owner, the head of the U.S. Housing Authority and, according to the Times, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt's. The YIVO documents show that Straus and his wife, Helen, became involved in the saga, appealing to the State Department and the Migration Department at the National Refugee Service.
Edith Frank's brothers stepped in to help; they had already come to the United States and were willing to supply affidavits of support. Otto Frank was worried that his wife's brothers, "as ordinary workmen around Boston," wouldn't have sufficient money to convince American immigration officials that they could support the Franks. Eventually, the brothers' employer submitted affidavits in support of the family.
Otto Frank may have been successful had he tried to leave sooner, but, as New York University professor of Holocaust studies David Engel wrote, "understanding the situation of Jews in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation, like understanding any aspect of the Holocaust, requires suspension of hindsight."
Prior to April 1941, Otto Frank's work was going well; his family was comfortable and some of the most restrictive moves made against Jews in the Netherlands hadn't yet been enacted. "Hence he preferred what seemed to him like the nuisances that encumbered an otherwise comfortable life under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands to the insecurity of life as a double refugee in a new country, even if a new country could be found," Engel wrote.
It appears that a Nazi sympathizer's attempt to blackmail Otto Frank triggered his efforts anew to secure visas for his family.
Shifting rules and attitudes
But as the Frank family filed paperwork, immigration rules were changing — and attitudes in the United States toward immigrants from Europe were becoming increasingly suspicious, Breitman wrote. The American government was making it harder for foreigners to get into the country — and the Nazis were making it difficult to leave.
By early 1939, more than 300,000 names were on the waiting list to receive an immigration visa to the United States, Breitman wrote. American consulates changed their protocol and weren't granting visas unless transportation to the United States had been booked. By June 1941, most U.S. consulates in German-occupied territories had shuttered or were closing — meaning Otto Frank would have to have gone to Spain or Portugal, legally, to apply at consulates there. In July 1941, a new division within the U.S. State Department took over visa pre-screening, meaning those in the United States would need to fill out new affidavits on behalf of potential immigrants.
Also, new U.S. immigration regulations meant the Franks couldn't get visas if they had any remaining close relatives in Germany, a restriction meant to counter the belief at the time that German authorities would use remaining relatives to pressure refugees into spying in the United States. By this time, Breitman wrote, American anxieties over foreigners from German-invaded countries had increased, particularly the belief in a "Fifth Column" — disloyal elements in European territories that made German takeover easier.
"It is a fact that some of the Germans and Italians who left their countries in recent years because of persecution by their governments have, nevertheless, become in our country strong defendants of their native governments and the practices of their present governments," American Ambassador to Cuba George S. Messersmith wrote in May 1940. "Among the so-called refugees in our country is a fair number who can be depended upon to act as agents of their government and who will violate in any way the hospitality which they are enjoying among us."
The Frank family fate
Such restrictions meant the "entire Frank family would have to get U.S. visas simultaneously, or none could qualify," Breitman wrote. "By the time Nathan Straus accumulated some of this information, Otto Frank had already concluded that the prospect of getting into the U.S. directly was dim. So he turned to Cuba as a possible refuge."
While some European Jews managed to get into Cuba, where they awaited American visas, the United States tightened its visa procedures — and by July 1941, the American ambassador told Cuba that refugees on tourist visas may not be eligible for American visas. That triggered Cuban anxiety that European refugees could be stuck on the island nation, and officials signaled the need to tighten Cuban immigration policies, Breitman wrote.
Both Straus and one of Edith Frank's brothers had explored Cuba as an option for the family, the documents show.
“The only way to get to a neutral country are visas of others States such as Cuba … and many of my acquaintances got visas for Cuba," Frank wrote to Straus on Sept. 8, 1941.
Despite the considerable hardships and expense — it usually cost about $2,500 per person to obtain a visa — Otto Frank managed to get a Cuban visa for himself on Dec. 1, 1941. Ten days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, and Frank's visa was canceled.
The Frank family went into hiding in 1942, a day after Margot Frank received a Nazi order to go east to a labor camp and a month after Anne Frank received a diary for her 13th birthday.
They were eventually discovered and sent to concentration camps, where Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died of typhus and their mother died of starvation.
On Jan. 31, 1946, the YIVO documents show, the National Refugee Service responded to an inquiry from Edith Frank's brother as to the whereabouts of his family: Otto Frank was alive in Amsterdam, five years after he began his desperate attempt to get his family to the United States.
"It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality," Anne Frank wrote in 1944 in her diary, which helped personalize the tragedies experienced by millions of Jews. "It's a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."