The Hidden Life of Otto Frank by Carol Ann Lee

“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.