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The diarist's father rewritten

The Hidden Life of Otto Frank, Carol Ann Lee, William Morrow: 412 pp., $26.95

March 02, 2003|Michael Frank | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review. He is no relation to Otto Frank.

And now the life of Otto Frank. For more than 50 years, we've been privileged to know the magnificent florescence that was his daughter Anne's talent; with "The Hidden Life of Otto Frank," Carol Ann Lee gives us a chance to meet, in different detail and scope, and presented in a voice other than his doting child's, the man who fathered the girl who wrote the diary that was the 20th century's most remarkable account of what it was like to live in hiding in Western Europe during the Nazi attack against Jewish humanity.

While at its core curiously unpsychological, Lee's book is nevertheless rigorous, almost forensic at times, in its quest to construct an objective account of a man whose story is not easy to tell. It is not easy because, after World War II, Frank became a sanctified, widely beloved and thus inevitably somewhat sanitized public figure, the father of both the diarist and (it seemed) the diary; because he apparently kept certain aspects of his wartime (and postwar) experiences secret; and because -- and this is no small matter -- he is already an indelible figure in an indelible book.

Yet no one who has read Anne Frank's diary can help but wonder how this gifted young woman was nurtured and to what degree she was understood by her family. Or what the truth was of Otto Frank's marriage to Edith Hollander, which their daughter depicted as being so loveless. Or who betrayed the Franks and their friends, and how. Or what actually happened to Frank, the lone survivor of the eight people who hid in the secret annex for two years. Or how, after the war, he lived with his shattering grief, the discovery of the diary and the phenomenon that the diary became in the decades afterward, which was especially problematic with regard to its editing (which he did) and dramatization. Or what, quite simply, he made of the rest of his long life.

Otto Frank was born in Frankfurt in 1889 to a family so assimilated that his grandmother went to synagogue only once, to be married. His father, a banker, died when Frank was 20. Frank studied economics in Heidelberg, fell in love and was engaged at 18, and put in some time in New York before returning to Germany, only to find that his fiancee had married another man. He fought in the Great War, losing two of his cousins (their surviving brother, interestingly, was Jean-Michel Frank, the gifted Parisian designer) and afterward tried to salvage the imperiled family bank, which eventually failed.

In 1925, when he was 36, Frank married Edith Hollander. The soldier who wrote home that he believed marrying for reasons other than love resulted in "half a life" characterized this union as a business arrangement (Edith had a sizable dowry), a fact not lost on the perspicacious Anne, who told her diary that her father's love for her mother was not "the kind of love I envision for a marriage." The couple's daughter Margot was born on Feb. 16, 1926; Annelies Marie was born on June 12, 1929. The Franks remained in Germany even as they began to feel early rumblings of anti-Semitism, but after Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933 Frank moved his family to Amsterdam, setting up a business related to his brother-in-law's Opekta company, which sold pectin.

It is with distinct foreboding that we come to the next round of familiar facts from this less familiar angle, since we know that so many of the accruing biographical notes will end up having such profound resonance in the Franks' lives. Frank soon assembled a staff in Amsterdam that included Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman and Miep Santrouschitz (later Gies), who were part of the group of people who made it possible for the Franks to survive during their time in hiding. The family became friends with Hermann van Pels, a scientist Frank engaged to be an advisor to Opekta; his wife, Gusti, and their son, Peter; and Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist, all of whom would join them in hiding in 1942. And eventually Frank moved his business into 263 Prinsengracht, whose 17th century front house and 18th century annex would become, as Lee aptly describes it, "one of the world's most famous addresses."

Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Jews were excluded from cinemas, sports arenas, swimming pools, parks, restaurants, hotels and libraries. They could not be visited by Christians or hire them to work in their homes. They could not own businesses, so Frank transferred his company, in name, to his employees. Although the Franks did their best to protect their daughters from the ever-increasing persecution, eventually they had to tell the girls that arrangements had been made for the family to go into hiding. In June 1942, Anne chose as a birthday gift a diary from a local bookstore. On July 5, Margot was ordered to report for deportation to a German labor camp. The next day, the Franks disappeared into the annex, along with the Van Pelses; five months later, they were joined by Pfeffer.

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