A life worth introspective examination
By: Dick Hodgetts; Columnist
The Friends of the Library in Madison have the Anne Frank Exhibit open for our review at the East Avenue Library until April 30th. It is worth seeing, and making your own determination of the lessons of the Holocaust. Since I am both a father, and husband; my frame of reference drifts over to Otto Frank-Anne’s Dad.
Here are some aspects of the story that you may want to consider. Otto served in the German Army as an Officer in World War I. He must have formed some impressions as to Germany’s ability to conquer Europe from the horrors he experienced in trench warfare. After the War, Otto became a banker in Frankfurt, Germany. Like so many young men, he had fallen in love with a lovely young woman but, her parents decided he was not the right match for her-they wanted someone more prosperous. So he married a bit late in life and it appears that he and his wife were not deeply in love; at least Otto was not. They had two daughters: Margot and Anne.
After World War I, Germany goes through a serious economic and political mess. Unemployment rises (six million unemployed), inflation is out of sight (it takes a wheel barrow of money to buy a loaf of bread), and the German people turn to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party as the best hope they have to get out of the terrible stagnation they are experiencing. A concerned friend gives Otto a copy of Mein Kampf- Hitler’s book on how he will re-shape Europe, and warns Frank to take the Nazi’s seriously. Otto is indeed worried about the writings, and elects to move his family to Holland–most German Jews do not leave (A common line was: what can Hitler do? There are six million of us Jews in Germany.)
Otto establishes a small firm in Amsterdam that makes pectin, used in making jelly and preserves. (Among his clients: the German Army). Part of his thinking was that Germany would likely never attack a neutral country like Holland. Wrong again. Germany attacks and in a matter of months has conquered: Poland, France, and the low countries–of which Holland is one. His family is once again faced with German laws that make life simply awful for Jews. Otto and the office personnel in his firm, plan to move his family into the Annex–above his factory floor. There they live for two years. The exhibit does a marvelous job of telling what their life was like, and how Anne Frank began writing her famous diary. In 1944, the Allies had invaded France, bombers flew over Amsterdam in their non-stop bombing of Germany; and the Russians were pushing the German Army out of Russia-albeit slowly.
Someone in Amsterdam betrays the Frank family and their companions to the German Gestapo. Mrs. Frank and their two daughters are murdered by the SS; through direct action or active neglect. The others hiding in the Annex meet a similar fate when they are transported to concentration camps.
This is what provokes my thinking. Otto returns after the war, he has lost everything: family, business, money, position, his health, all his Jewish acquaintances. Yet he and friends see to it Anne’s diary is published. When she soon becomes the most famous teenage casualty in the world, questions arise: 1. Who arrested them? 2. Who betrayed them? 3. Did Anne actually die, or is she just missing?
Jewish activists later discover that the SS Captain making the arrest lives in Austria and works as a police officer. Yet, Otto defends him against those who want an example made of the Officer.
Several other folks are identified as likely informers as to the Frank’s hiding place. Yet again, Otto does not pursue any of those leads with passion. Another man who may have been the informer, blackmails Otto– threatening to reveal that Frank’s firm had sold goods to the German Army. Apparently, Otto pays the guy to remain silent. He also deals with some criticism once the diary has been published that he omitted Anne’s entries that deal with the less than harmonious marriage of her parents.
I write this living in one of the nicest places in America, and my perspective may be warped by being a late 20th Century American; but, in my mind he is either a Saint, or a very, very forgiving man. Do his life experiences in the trenches of World War I, and the death camps of World War II inure him against harming others? Or does he live an example of forgiveness that all of us should attempt to comprehend? While I make no judgments of this man, I will admit he perplexes me as I attempt to make sense of the tragedies of his life.
One of the best aspects of the Anne Frank exhibit is that it will cause you to think, not only about the young writer; but her family-and yours as well. And, maybe one of the unexpected lessons from of the exhibit is one Father who lives the remainder of his life forgiving those who did so many terrible things to his family.
Printed in the April 30, 2009 edition.