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Global Interest Stuns Pen Pals of Anne Frank

July 24, 1988|LYNN O'SHAUGHNESSY | Times Staff Writer

For decades, Betty Ann Wagner of Burbank kept a compelling snippet of World War II history on her bookshelf. Tucked in a book were two pen-pal letters, a postcard from Amsterdam and two small snapshots of a pair of schoolgirls.

Last week, the existence of the letters--which will be auctioned off this fall--triggered international attention because the correspondence came from Anne Frank and her older sister, Margot. The letters were dated less than two weeks before the Netherlands was invaded by German troops in 1940.

The memory of Anne Frank is immortalized by the diary the young Jewish girl wrote when she and three other family members were forced to hide from the Nazis in a building behind an Amsterdam house. The Germans eventually captured the family, which had fled from Germany, and all but Anne's father perished in concentration camps.

Wagner, then 14 years old, and her sister, Juanita Wagner Hiltgen, who was 11, were living in Danville, Iowa, when they asked the Frank girls to be their pen pals. They had been given the Franks' address by a teacher who had gathered names of schoolchildren when she spent her summer vacation in Europe in 1939.

The girls wrote to the Franks and a short time later received one packet of letters from the sisters.

Anne's letter, written in English, mentioned nothing about the war raging on the Netherlands' border. It was a chatty note from an 10-year-old who seemed eager to strike up a friendship with an American. She also enclosed a postcard of a canal in Amsterdam and wrote that she had a collection of 800 postcards.

The correspondence will be auctioned off Oct. 25 by Swann Galleries, a New York City gallery that specializes in rare manuscripts, autographs and artifacts. J.F. Westra, the director of the Anne Frank Center in Amsterdam, has verified the authenticity of Anne's writing.

"When I found out, I was touched. I was moved," said George S. Lowry, the gallery's president. "It was exciting. Some people break out into tears when they see this."

Lowry initially estimated that the packet would bring $20,000 to $30,000, but now believes it could fetch much more because of its "extraordinary emotional appeal."

'It Is Emotional'

"We are now touching a piece of paper that was once in the hands of Anne Frank. It is emotional," said Cornelis Suijk, international director of the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam.

Wagner and Hiltgen, who lives in Redlands, were stunned by the attention their letters have garnered.

"I just never dreamed it," Wagner said. "I expected some interest, but I didn't expect all of this. It's quite exciting. Even though everybody loves Anne Frank and they know the name, I didn't know we would generate this kind of interest."

The decision to sell the letters came earlier this year when Wagner and her friend and financial adviser, Charles Freedberg, talked about World War II over dinner. Wagner pulled out her copy of "The Diary of a Young Girl," where she kept the letters, and showed them to her friend.

"He couldn't believe what he had in his hands," Wagner recalled. "He was the first person I ever showed it to who really got excited. To other people I showed it to, it was no big deal."

Only Letters in English

Suijk said the letters do not enhance the story of Anne Frank or her family, but are valuable for their emotional value. Suijk, whose foundation operates a museum on the property where the Franks hid, said he knows of only three or four letters written by Anne Frank, and this is the only one in English. He suspects Otto Frank translated his daughters' letters into English and they copied his translations.

"It doesn't add to what we know about Anne, not really," Suijk said. "Through her diary, we actually know everything about her. This letter is just school kids writing to each other."

Anne wrote about her family and school and included the name and address of one of her friends who wanted an Iowa pen pal.

"Margot and myself are the only children in our house," she wrote. "Our grandma is living with us. My father has an office and mother is busy at home. I live not far from school and I am sitting in the fifth class. We have no hour-classes we may do what we prefer, of course we must get to a certain goal. Your mother will certainly know this system, it is called Montessori."

'Never Feel Safe'

Only Margot, who was 14, briefly mentions the war in her letter.

"We often listen to the radio as times are very exciting, having a frontier with Germany and being a small country we never feel safe," she wrote.

The Iowa sisters wrote again but never heard back from their pen pals. They blamed it on wartime censorship, recalled Hiltgen, 58, a corporate secretary. They waited until the war's end to try to renew their contact.

"We often talked and wondered about the family. Did they have enough food? Were the bombs dropping nearby?" Wagner said.

After the war, the sisters wrote again trying to re-establish correspondence with the Franks.

In October, 1945, the girls received a long remorseful letter from Otto Frank, Anne's father, who recounted what had happened to his family. He wrote how they lived in hiding and how hard it had been on everyone, especially Anne, Wagner said. Over the years, that letter was lost.

Wagner, who was teaching in a one-room school in Illinois, shared Otto Frank's letter with her 28 students. "I tried to impress upon them how much they had to be thankful for. I told them about Anne and read them the letter."

The sisters plan to use the proceeds from the sale to supplement their retirement benefits.

Wagner, 62, also will share half of her money with the Wayfarers Ministries Inc., a nonprofit missionary group she founded nine years ago that operates in 70 countries. The organization, which has no paid employees, sends Bibles, other books and teaching materials around the world and provides money for medical treatment, food or other short-term emergency needs.

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