Reviews

The Hidden Life of Otto Frank by Carol Ann Lee

Phoebe Kate Foster

Otto Frank was as complicated and paradoxical as Anne was straightforward and ingenuous.


The Hidden Life of Otto Frank

Publisher: William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins
Length: 411
Price: $26.95 (US)
Author: Carol Ann Lee
US publication date: 2003-02
Amazon
"Tragedy and beauty are not mutually exclusive."
— Anonymous

"Experience, that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God, do you learn."
— C. S. Lewis

Known for her critically acclaimed biography of Anne Frank, Roses from the Earth, Carol Ann Lee has now turned her meticulous research skills to attempting to document the identity of the person who betrayed the Franks to the Nazis. What actually transpires in The Hidden Life of Otto Frank is much more fascinating than just the possible solving of a six-decade mystery, however. In the process of uncovering the culprit who sent Anne, her sister and mother to their deaths, Lee also gives readers a detailed and not always flattering portrait of the man who, for so long, has simply been seen as the one dimensional "father of Anne Frank," the only member of his immediate family to survive the death camps and the force behind his daughter's diary being brought to light.

Otto Frank was as complicated and paradoxical as Anne was straightforward and ingenuous. In this biography, we can easily see the charming, lovable, thoughtful, kindly father that his daughter rhapsodized about in her writings. But another, less sunny side to the man that Anne affectionately called her "Hunny Kungha" emerges when we least expect it, sneaking out from between the lines and giving the reader small shocks.

The Frank family was a dysfunctional one. Otto was open about the fact that his marriage to Edith Frank was a marriage of convenience from his standpoint, although she was a highly intelligent, attractive woman who was obviously in love with him. His attitude toward her, though unfailingly civil, was so lacking in warmth and affection that even Anne, who didn't get along with her mother, observed that his behavior must be deeply hurtful to Edith. Otto was also remarkably uninvolved with his other daughter, Margot -- so much so that he had no idea that she was keeping a diary, too, while the family was confined to their hiding place -- a diary that was unfortunately never recovered and might have yielded another perspective on this complex famous family.

Moreover, Otto's relationship with Anne, blatantly the apple of his eye, seemed to have been a little too close for comfort, teetering on the brink of inappropriateness. For instance, he confided to her the details of an early, ill-fated love affair that had so devastated him he was unable to have romantic feelings for anyone else. He also took it upon himself to talk openly to Anne about sex and sexuality. His sense of humor was strongly scatological, a fact that he edited out of Anne's diary, along with certain references to his previous unhappy romance and unclear -- and unsettling -- remarks by Anne such as, "I long for more than Daddy's kisses, for more than his caresses. Isn't it terrible of me to keep thinking about this all the time?" What other reaction can a reader have to insights such as these than to blink and say, "Huh?"

In addition to the dysfunctional family flavors is Otto Frank's business affairs, another part of his previously "hidden life" that gives one pause. We learn that he was a war profiteer, selling goods to the German Army while simultaneously making plans to go into hiding when the Nazi dragnet of Jews reached his own household. The actual scenario of the Frank family's betrayal is worthy of a soap opera, involving a vengeful husband who believed that the all-too-charming Otto had had an affair with his wife, and a shrewdly opportunistic lowlife, Tonny Ahlers, who blackmailed Otto both before and after the war until Otto's death in 1980. With painstaking care and thorough documentation, Lee makes a convincing case for Ahlers being the Franks' betrayer.

Regardless of who actually turned the Franks in to the Nazis, after reading The Hidden Life, it appears that the burden of blame for the deaths of Anne, Margot and Edith ultimately rests on Otto himself -- certainly not the intention of the author, but a conclusion that is hard for an honest reader to escape. The father of arguably the most famous girl of the 20th century, idolized by his daughter as a perfect parent and remembered by business associates as a clear-headed, logical decision-maker, had dangerous flaws in perception and judgment that, sadly, proved fatal to those around him:

Julianne Duke, a former neighbor of the Franks' in Amsterdam whose family had emigrated to the United States, remembers that her parents asked the Franks to join them: "Mrs. Frank wrote that she wanted to emigrate, but Mr. Frank saw no need to leave Holland. He trusted in man's basic goodness, rather than focusing on the darker, irrational side of human nature."

Otto, who had moved the family from Germany to Amsterdam at the time of Hitler's rise to power, greatly underestimated the severity of the Nazi threat in Holland. While others in both his and Edith's family accurately interpreted the signs of the times and emigrated to safety in England, America, Switzerland and South America, urging him to do likewise, he chose to remain in Amsterdam as Dutch Jews lost their civil rights and received orders to report for deportation to labor camps. His faith in the strength of 'civilized society', coupled with his business ambitions and fear of financial insecurity, influenced him to make the decisions that ultimately doomed his family. It is inevitable to wonder to what degree his disaffection for his wife caused him to ignore her justified alarm for the family's safety as Hitler's noose tightened around the Jews of Amsterdam. One can only surmise the magnitude of Otto's guilt as the unwitting enabler of his beloved daughter's fate and the sole survivor of his immediate family that fueled his mania to make her a posthumous global personality.

A considerable amount of the book is devoted to Otto's post-war life, in particular his determination to bring his daughter's diary to the public attention and the subsequent disputes and litigations surrounding its translation to the screen. The 'legend' of Anne Frank was fashioned by the powerful Broadway and Hollywood PR. machines that created a product which bore little resemblance to the real person and the reality of the Holocaust, and ignored issues which were, frankly (no pun intended), not big box office items at the time -- in particular, the inconvenient Jewishness of the characters that would "set [them] apart from the people watching them…for the majority of our audience is not Jewish," in the words of the screenplay writers. In these transactions that brought his family's experiences to stage and screen, Otto once again showed a certain characteristic lack of judgment and foresight. Disturbed at the way the process was going, Otto wrote in a letter:

"How could I face the reproaches of my conscience, of my family, of…others who never understood that I gave away the rights to get money without any promise from the producer to respect the quality of the material."

Ultimately, the Hollywood spin-makers and image marketers, who successfully managed to manipulate Otto, turned Anne into a bizarre combination of an ethnically sanitized white-bread Girl Next Door "with the perky charm of a…Junior Miss" and a martyr along the epic lines of Joan of Arc. What Anne intended in her diary to be a "chronicle of how we lived, what we ate, and what we talked about as Jews in hiding" was cleansed of any undesirable Semiticism (even down to the selection of a noticeably non-Jewish actress to play the lead) and became a universalized one-size-fits-all film deliberately "devoid of Nazi horrors…the valiant, often humorous, story of a wonderful family hiding out in a time of great stress" with an ending that did not even hint at the real Anne's awful fate. Why? "Because no one wanted to have a sad, hopeless ending" and the American public was "growing tired of the Holocaust." Though the watered down stage and screen versions of the Franks' experiences helped boost sales of the diary and made Anne Frank a household name, it was a far cry from what Otto had intended when he had begun his quest to publish his daughter's writing.

While the reader may learn more about Otto Frank than he or she ever wanted to, this book goes a long way in correcting the media skew of the Anne Frank story, and for better or worse, depicting the Frank family realistically. None of us, if we are being honest, would really like to have our intimate diaries published with all our unexpurgated thoughts revealed to the world or to have our lives put under the microscope after our deaths (or, God forbid, before our deaths) and have all our warts and pimples held up for public scrutiny. All of us have things we'd prefer to keep hidden -- the skeletons in our closets that come trooping out at 3:00a.m. on a sleepless night to haunt us with our failures and torment us with our wretched inadequacy. The Hidden Life of Otto Frank is the expose' of a man who was indeed Everyman, someone with whom we can easily -- or maybe uneasily -- identify, a man who was a compelling combination of the quixotic and the pragmatic, and a poignant reminder that good people can make very bad mistakes.

With intense interest in Anne Frank personally, both in America and especially in Europe, as well as the immense popularity everywhere of the traveling Anne Frank Exhibit, it is easy to forget that the real story is not about Anne or Otto or the Franks per se, but about an unfathomably dark moment in history when world leaders and good citizens turned a blind eye to the clear evidence of unspeakable horrors and permitted evil to thrive until it was almost too late to reverse the tide. By giving a name and a face and a context and a life and a voice to one of the millions of Holocaust victims, Otto Frank undoubtedly hoped to engrain permanently in future generations the concept of "never again."

The Hidden Life of Otto Frank is a well-written, thoroughly researched, thought-provoking and high readable book that will take a deservedly prominent place on the shelf of Holocaust works. The dust jacket blurb says that the identity of the Franks' betrayer is "the most heartbreaking question of modern times." After reading the book, though, the most heartbreaking question seems to be how a man of Otto's intelligence and savvy and acumen could fail to smell the stench of the crematorium growing closer and stronger every day -- a question that is not really answered, either by the author or by Otto in his post-war letters and diary. The Hidden Life of Otto Frank stands as a stark warning that even in the most civilized, well-organized and well-educated societies, evil can and does arise, and take over with the tacit cooperation of their civilized, well-organized and well-educated citizenry -- and the quiet acquiescence of the rest of the civilized world. How can these things happen? is the conundrum of our modern world, and a timely reminder to the 2lst century that the price of freedom is, indeed, eternal vigilance.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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