A Family History Like Too Many Others

By Daniel Mendelsohn, a professor of humanities at Bard College, is the author of “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 18/02/07):

AS soon as I read last week about the discovery of the desperate, faded letters written by Anne Frank’s father, I knew my mother would call. “Did you see the paper?” she asked. Yes, I said, I had. “Did you read the letters?” Yes, I said, I did. “I couldn’t,” she murmured. “It’s too sad. They’re too much like my uncle’s.”

Yes, I said, I knew.

The revelation of the existence of a dramatic 1941 correspondence between Otto Frank and American friends and bureaucrats abroad, letters in which his efforts to get his family to safety unravel painfully before the reader’s eyes, now make it clear that we had, after all, really known only the last two acts of the Holocaust’s most famous story. About the long, fraught concealment in the famous secret annex, the whole world knows from Anne Frank’s diary; about their betrayal, deportation and the deaths of three of the four Franks and the four others hiding with them, we know from Otto Frank himself, the sole survivor.

But the new material, which lay for years in an archive of New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research until a researcher’s curiosity about a clerical error brought it to light, now gives us the searing prelude to those well-known chapters, one that involves America as well as Europe — and one that, as my own family knows well, may be the story of many American families without their even being aware of it.

For Otto Frank’s frantic letters from Europe to America appealing for advice, money, bureaucratic assistance — which are available now for inspection by scholars, but will inevitably be made public and, because of the enormous draw of the Frank name, scrutinized, pored over and learned by a vast worldwide audience, in time — will in fact be merely the most famous examples of a genre of writing that was tragically common during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Many if not most Jewish Americans at the time had emigrated from Europe a generation earlier, and as World War II loomed, a large number found themselves the often helpless objects of poignant entreaties by old friends and relatives trapped in Europe as the cataclysm approached.

Certainly this was the case with my grandfather, among whose effects, after he died in 1980, we were shocked to find a cache of desperate letters from an older brother in Poland, written throughout 1939, begging for money, affidavits for visas, anything to save him and his family — or indeed, save any or all of his four teenage daughters, girls around Anne Frank’s age. That my grandfather never mentioned this correspondence to us was an indication of the shattering guilt he must have felt at not having been able to help his family. It was a feeling shared by many Jews in America after the war, who are likely to have kept such feelings similarly hidden from their children and grandchildren.

As with any genre, such letters had their characteristic tropes. There’s the uneasy opening, hovering between an emphasis on the writer’s desperate situation and an awkward acknowledgment that his relationship to the addressee is perhaps not of recent vintage. To an old college friend Otto Frank wrote, “I would not ask if conditions here would not force me to do all I can in time to be able to avoid worse …Perhaps you remember that we have two girls.” A similarly agonizing tension colors the letters of my great-uncle, Samuel Jäger. “You’ll be wondering … why I’m writing to you after so many years,” one of them begins, although he soon gives the reason in this and many other letters: “From reading the papers you know a little about what the Jews are going through here, but what you know is just one one-hundredth of it.”

There is, too, the painful appeal for money. Otto Frank, we learn from the new documents, needed a $5,000 deposit to obtain a visa. “You are the only person I know that I can ask,” he wrote his college friend. “Would it be possible for you to give a deposit in my favor?” Virtually the same stiff entreaty echoes eerily through my great-uncle’s letter to a rich cousin: “Many families have already emigrated to America provided that their families there put down a $5,000 deposit … perhaps you could manage to advance me the deposit.” My relative added, with a poignant naïveté, that his next letter would be addressed to Franklin Roosevelt himself — a futility that the more sophisticated, better-connected Otto Frank knew enough to spare himself.

Above all, such letters demonstrate movingly the overriding preoccupation that nothing was as important as saving the children. “It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for,” Otto Frank wrote. “If only the world were open and I’d been able to send a child to America or Palestine, it would be easier,” my great-uncle mourned as he started losing hope. Even after seven decades, such expressions of personal tenderness by people in the process of being overwhelmed by the tsunamis of history cannot fail to move us.

Expressions of the personal in the face of seemingly impersonal forces — reminders that each of the millions who were lost was, indeed, a recognizable person — are what made Anne Frank and her family famous in the first place. Now, as the voices of those who would deny or diminish the Holocaust grow louder with each passing year, drowning out the fading chorus of the witnesses and survivors, the equally human voice of her father, audible once more, will similarly draw the world’s attention to parts of the drama that took place an ocean away from the secret annex: in particular, to the appalling failure by the United States to do more for would-be immigrants. (Among other things, Frank’s letters are a concrete reminder of the crushing diplomatic obstacles facing would-be immigrants, a fatal Catch-22 that even American diplomats at the time were shamed by.)

That failure, as we know, is one from which we as a nation can never stop learning. But the fact that this latest and unexpected addition to the Frank file was casually found in a relatively neglected American archive reminds us, too, that there are many thousands of similar stories on this side of the Atlantic still waiting to surface, if only we bothered — or knew — to look for them: stories that could be part of your own family history, too.