Observer Review: The Hidden Life Of Otto Frank By Carol Ann Lee Essay, Research Paper
Answers from the atticThe Hidden Life of Otto FrankCarol Ann LeeViking ?17.99, pp384Until the start of the Second World War, Otto Frank’s life was as soothing and wrinkle-free as freshly laundered linen. Born into an upper-middle-class German family – his were the kind of people who called on their neighbours only at the correct hour of the afternoon – he worried about the same things as any young man: who to marry, what to do for a living, how to make his way in the world and still have a little fun.Even when he was called up for military service and found himself at the Western Front, he managed to cling to his youthful optimism: ‘I miss nothing here and the danger I am in is only in your imagination,’ he wrote to his sister in 1916. ‘It’s really not that bad.’But that optimism began to slip, slowly, inexorably, from his grasp on the sunlit morning of 4 August 1944, when the Amsterdam annexe where he and his family had been hiding for two years was raided by the Gestapo and three members of the Dutch National Socialist Party.What happened in the six short months between the Gestapo’s arrival at the other side of a moveable bookcase and the day the Russians liberated Auschwitz, where Otto was held prisoner, changed everything forever. Like all survivors, the camps tore his soul in two. There was life before the war, a watery, untouchable dream, and there was life after: lonely, unbearable, pointless.This biography tells the story of how Otto stitched the two halves of his life together, something he achieved with the help of his youngest daughter’s legacy: her diary. It was Otto who judiciously edited (or censored, depending on your point of view) the words that tumbled out of Anne during the period when she and her parents, her sister Margot, and four friends lived their days as quietly as ‘baby mice’ in five small rooms; Otto who sought a publisher for them at a time when most people wished to forget all about the Holocaust; Otto who made sure that stage and film adaptations of the diary were true to her ’spirit’. What he got in return was a little peace of mind.Otto Frank served his country with distinction during the First World War (an officer, his love for the fatherland made Germany’s later behaviour all the harder for him to bear). Afterwards, a broken engagement already behind him, he married Edith Hollander in a Frankfurt synagogue. Edith was more religious than her new husband, a disadvantage in his eyes, but her dowry was substantial. It was, he later admitted, ‘a business arrangement’, though not even his well-to-do wife could help when, in the early Thirties, the family banking business plunged once again into the red and the couple, together with their two daughters, were forced to move back in with Otto’s mother.Their money worries were as nothing compared to their concerns about the political situation. In January 1933, they heard on the wireless that Hitler had been made chancellor. As the cheers rose in the background, Otto glanced at Edith and saw her sitting ‘as if turned to stone’. At first, he was reluctant to leave Germany but, when a decree was passed enforcing the segregation of Jewish and non-Jewish children in schools, he decided he had no choice.His brother-in-law suggested that he open an Amsterdam branch of a company selling pectin, which was used in the manufacture of jam; so, that August, he left the country where his family had lived for centuries. The Netherlands proved no safer. After Germany invaded, Edith wanted to emigrate to America but Otto, ever pragmatic, made his business look sufficiently ‘Aryan’ (he transferred controlling shares to non-Jews) and hoped for the best. He even sold his wares to the Wehrmacht.As circumstances worsened, however, he began to think about taking his family into hiding. Plans were made to house the family in an annexe behind the offices of his company at 263 Prinsengracht and, on the quiet, food, linen and furniture were moved into the building. When, on 5 July 1942, 16-year-old Margot Frank was ordered to report to the SS for deportation to a German labour camp, the family was ready: they simply disappeared.The following two years are now the stuff of legend, as the queues of tourists snaking out of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam testify.Some critics have accused the diary of sentimentalising the Holocaust, which is true, and though it is hardly her fault, the book ends with Anne’s fate delicately unspoken. Here, though, we go where those who interviewed Otto after the war so often feared to tread. We see him transported in a cattle car from Westerbork to Auschwitz. We watch him turn his head for a last look at his wife and children. We listen as he fights his desperate hunger by talking, not about food, but about Beethoven.Otto survived only because he was too sick to join the brutal German evacuation as the Russians approached. The account of his long journey from Poland back to the Netherlands is the most fascinating part of this book. Lee has found a diary he kept after his liberation and, though he used it only to record brief details of what he did and saw, it makes poignant reading.He was freed in January 1945. On 12 June, the day that would have been his youngest daughter’s sixteenth birthday, he wrote just one word in it: ‘Anne’. On 18 July, he checked the Red Cross lists and saw a cross by her name. Only then did he accept that she was not coming home.When he could finally bear to read Anne’s diary, which had been rescued by a friend, he found it ‘indescribably exciting’, and he set about finding a publisher. Given that the book has since sold 20 million copies in 58 languages, the resistance he met is almost comic. At Doubleday, the marketing team was told to ‘play down the grim aspects of the story’, and the feeling was that the book’s ’sales potential was small’.Otto, however, was cock-a-hoop to have a deal at all. For him, a secular but emotional man, Anne’s Jewishness was less important than her universal appeal as a symbol of freedom and tolerance. He wanted her ‘message’ to reach as many people as possible; if that meant watering down her faith, or flinching from the horrors of the camps, so be it.The final half of this biography, then, is not so much about Otto as it is about the book that gave his life fresh meaning. Lee takes you through the whole shebang, from his dealings with the saccharine, two-faced Frances and Albert Hackett, writers of the stage and screen adaptations of the diary (their Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway smash hit was so anodyne many people thought its characters fictional), to his endless legal row with the unhinged Meyer Levin, a Jewish writer they beat to the job.Meanwhile, gentle Otto is lost along the way, his second, passionate marriage to another Holocaust survivor, Fritzi Markovitz, and, in particular, his nervous breakdown only a little more than nodded to in passing. As in life, he fades into the background as soon as his ghostly daughter takes centre stage.But Lee does have a new theory about who betrayed the family to the authorities – and it is a good one, even if, at times, her dogged pursuit of it becomes a narrative red herring. Her suspect is Tonny Ahlers, a thug and anti-Semite whom she also believes blackmailed Otto until his death in 1980. Ahlers knew that at the start of the war Otto had continued to do business with the Wehrmacht (the pectin his firm produced was essential for the preservation of the German army’s rations), a fact he would undoubtedly have wanted to remain secret. Perhaps this was the reason why Otto, to the immense frustration of Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal, showed so little interest in tracking down those responsible for the murder of his family.When Audrey Hepburn met Otto in 1957, after she was asked to audition for the lead role in the Hollywood take on the diary, he struck her as somebody ‘who’d been purged by fire… he’d been there and back’. Carol Ann Lee recreates this tortuous journey meticulously, with a kind of orderly, Prussian care that her subject would have adored. And yet, when I finished reading her book, Otto was as opaque as ever, his motives often troubling.The problem is, I suppose, that it is only thanks to his quicksilver daughter that we have heard of him at all. He was a father first, and a father last, and not even the most determined biographer can change that.