Edith Frank

Reading the diary of Anne Frank, we get to know her mother Edith Frank only superficially. Who was Edith, what was she like as a mother, and what happened to her during the war?

Edith Holländer was born in the German city of Aachen, close to the Dutch border, on 16 January 1900. She was the fourth child in a wealthy Jewish family. Her parents ran a family business, trading in scrap metal, machinery and parts, boilers, other appliances, and semi-finished products.

Edith had a carefree childhood until her older sister Bettina died. The cause of her death is unknown. At only fourteen, Edith was harshly confronted with death. She still managed to get on with her life: she finished high school and worked in the family business for a few years. 

‘We listen openmouthed to the stories about engagement parties of two hundred and fifty people, private balls and dinners.’

Marriage with Otto Frank

Photos from that period show a life filled with parties and dinner parties, tennis with friends, and holidays by the sea. Anne’s diary gives the same impression.

Edith met Otto Frank at the engagement party of Hortense Rah Schott, who was a friend of Edith and of Herbert, Otto Frank's brother. Some time later, Edith and Otto met again while on holiday in the Italian town of San Remo. They hit it off and two months later, on 8 May 1925, the couple celebrated their civil wedding in Aachen. Four days later, on Otto's 36th birthday, they had their Jewish wedding in the Aachen synagogue. 

The couple moved to a new housing estate in Frankfurt am Main, where Margot, their elder daughter, was born on 16 February 1926. Anne was born three years later. For Edith, they were happy times: ‘For us, too, the years on the Marbachweg were among the most beautiful’, she wrote at the end of 1937 in a letter to a girl who had lived next door to them in Frankfurt.

‘Mrs Frank missed Germany a great deal, much more than Mr Frank. Very often in conversation she would refer with melancholy to their life in Frankfurt.’

The economic crisis and increasing antisemitism 

But dark clouds were gathering over Germany: the economic crisis was hitting Otto's business bank and the increasing antisemitism did not bode well. The antisemitism was encouraged by Adolf Hitler, who blamed the Jews for the problems in Germany. His following and influence were growing rapidly.

In 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, Edith and Otto made a difficult decision: they left their country and emigrated to the Netherlands. The couple found a house on the Merwedeplein in Amsterdam. Edith concentrated on running the household, while her husband focused on his new business: trading in pectin. Edith, however, had a hard time settling in the Netherlands.

The violence of the Kristallnacht

Things were not going well from a business perspective either. In a letter to an acquaintance in Buenos Aires, Edith wrote that Otto was investigating the possibility of setting up a business in England. ‘Otto is working hard on an English business venture, we don’t know if it will come to something, perhaps we will move on.’ The ‘English business venture’ fell through in 1937. Still, the decision to start selling meat herbs and spices in addition to the pectin, improved the business results.

In the meantime, Edith’s family, who had been left behind in Aachen, witnessed the violence and destruction of the Kristallnacht in 1938. The Nazis destroyed thousands of synagogues and Jewish shops, arrested 30,000 Jewish men and imprisoned them in concentration camps. Her brother Julius escaped arrest because he had fought in the German army and been injured in the First World War. 

However, Edith's other brother, Walter, was arrested and briefly imprisoned in a concentration camp. In the end, both brothers successfully emigrated to the United States via the Netherlands. Edith's mother, Rosa Holländer-Stern, came to the Netherlands and moved in with the family in March 1939.  

Edith’s mother dies

All of Edith and Otto’s hopes that they would be safe in the Netherlands were dashed by the invasion of the German army in May 1940. Desperate attempts to emigrate to the United States with the help of Julius and Walter failed.

In January 1942, Edith’s mother died. She had been seriously ill for quite some time. In newspaper advertisements, Otto and Edith Frank gave thanks for the expressions of sympathy they had received. 

‘My mother is an example (…) that I do not want to follow.’

Edith goes into hiding

When Margot received a call-up to report for a so-called ‘labour camp’ in Nazi Germany, Otto and Edith decided to go into hiding the very next day. They were prepared: an empty part of Otto's business premises - the Secret Annex - had already been converted into a hiding place. Edith was to stay there for more than two years, with a rebellious Anne and a thoughtful Margot. 

In the hiding place, Edith and her daughter Anne often clashed. In her diary, Anne did not spare Edith. At the same time, Anne realised that their quarrels were exacerbated by their difficult circumstances. She managed to keep things bearable: ‘I usually keep my mouth shut if I get annoyed, and so does she, so we appear to get on much better together.’ 

Edith was ‘an excellent mother’

According to Otto, Edith suffered more from their arguments than Anne did. ‘Of course, I was worried about my wife and Anne not having a good relationship. However, she truly was an excellent mother, who put her children above all else. She often complained that Anne would oppose everything she did, but she was comforted to know that Anne trusted in me.’ 

Edith had a hard time in the Secret Annex. According to Miep Gies, one of the helpers, she suffered from feelings of despair. ‘Although the others were counting the days until the Allies came, making games of what they would do when it was all over, Mrs Frank confessed that she was deeply ashamed of the fact that she felt the end would never come.’ 

The Secret Annex is discovered 

On 4 August 1944, Dutch police officers, headed by SS-Hauptscharführer Karl Josef Silberbauer, raided the hiding place and arrested the people in hiding and two of their helpers. After time in the Amsterdam prison, Edith was sent on to the Westerbork transit camp.

As convicted offenders, Edith and her daughters had to take old batteries apart for reuse - dirty and unhealthy work. According to fellow prisoner Rosa de Winter, in Westerbork Edith was ‘quiet; she seemed numbed all the time...’ 

At the beginning of September, the Nazis deported Edith and her family to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. Mother and daughters stayed together and depended on each other, more than ever before. When Margot and Anne were temporarily isolated in a separate barracks because they suffered from scabies, Edith and two fellow prisoners dug a hole to pass them some extra food.

Edith is separated from her daughters

At the end of October, Edith was separated from her daughters. Margot and Anne were put on a transport to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Edith stayed behind in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Rosa de Winter she found a companion, as she had also been separated from her daughter. ‘We comforted each other and became friends, preparing for the worst.’ 

Edith fell ill, developed a high fever, and ended up in the sick barracks. Rosa de Winter described the last time she ever saw Edith. ‘One morning, new patients were brought in. All of a sudden, I recognised Edith, she came from another ward. She was only a shadow. A few days later, she died, completely exhausted.’ 

Edith Frank died on 6 January 1945, three weeks before the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

  1. Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation [NIOD], The Diary of Anne Frank: the revised critical edition (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2003), B-version, 2 January 1944.
  2. Frank, Otto, "Memories of Anne" (typescript, 1968).
  3. Gies, Miep & Gold, Alison Leslie, Anne Frank remembered (London etc.: Bantam Press, 1987), p. 130.
  4. Schnabel, Ernst, The footsteps of Anne Frank (London etc.: Longmans, Green and Co, 1959), p. 127.
  5. Winter-Levy, Rosa de, Aan de gaskamer ontsnapt (Doetinchem: Misset, 1945), p. 24.
  6. Winter-Levy, Rosa de, Aan de gaskamer ontsnapt, p. 29.