The main characters

Otto Frank

Otto Frank is best known as Anne’s father. Without him, Anne's diary would not have been published, and without him, there would not have been an Anne Frank House. But of course, Otto Frank was much more than Anne's father: you can read his story here.

Otto Frank was the second son of Michael Frank and Alice Betty Stern. The family lived in Germany and were liberal Jews. They valued Jewish traditions and holidays but did not observe all religious laws. 

Father Michael Frank was the proud owner of a business bank in Frankfurt am Main. After high school, Otto briefly studied art history in Heidelberg. He then went on to do traineeships at various banks and at Macy's (New York). 

Otto returned to Germany after his father's sudden death in 1909. He spent some time at a company that produced horseshoes. The First World War initially seemed to pass Otto by, but he enlisted in 1915. He was part of a ‘Lichtmesstrupp', a unit that analysed where enemy artillery fire came from.

When the war ended, Otto had been promoted to lieutenant and was decorated. After his return, he joined the family bank. 

Leaving Germany

At the age of 36, Otto married Edith Holländer. The couple settled in Frankfurt am Main and had two daughters, Margot (1926) and Anne (1929). They had a good life, although they worried about the future. Germany was in crisis. The country had been hit hard by the global economic crisis of 1929 and many people lived in dire poverty. Hitler and his party took advantage of the feelings of dissatisfaction, and their support increased. 

“After the experiences in Nazi Germany, we could live our own life in the Netherlands. We were able to make a fresh start and feel free.”

A new start in Amsterdam

In early 1933, Otto and Edith took the plunge. They decide to leave Nazi Germany because of their business problems and the growing antisemitism of Hitler and his followers. 

In the Netherlands, Otto worked hard to get his company going and build a new life for his family. Meanwhile, the developments in Nazi Germany continued to give cause for concern. From 1937 onwards, Otto looked into options for setting up a business in Great Britain, but the plans never worked out. 

Things looked better financially when Otto started selling spices and herbs in addition to the pectin in 1938. The second company was named Pectacon. Hermann van Pels joined the company and took on part of the work. 

The feeling of freedom came to an abrupt end when the German army invaded the Netherlands in May of 1940.

Emigration is not an option

From 15 May 1940 onwards, the Netherlands was occupied territory. The Nazis kept introducing new anti-Semitic measures. It doesn’t take long for them to rule that Jews were not allowed to have their own companies. With the help of his employees and Jan Gies (Miep's husband), Otto succeeded in keeping his companies out of Nazi hands. 

In the course of 1941, the situation got worse: Jewish men were arrested during raids and taken to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Among them were friends and acquaintances of Otto’s. After a while, reports of their deaths started coming in. 

Otto made every effort to emigrate to the US with the help of a former fellow student in order to escape the persecution of the Jews. But he never managed to get all the necessary documents together, and the option ran out when the US got involved in the war. At that point, all borders were closed.

A hiding place 

In the spring of 1942, Otto decided to set up a hiding place in an empty part of his business premises. If necessary, there would be enough room for his own family and for the family of his employee Hermann van Pels, seven people in all. Otto asked four of his closest employees to take care of him and his family if they would have to go into hiding. All of them agreed.  

The hiding place was not quite ready when Margot received a call-up on 5 July 1942 to report to a labour camp in Nazi Germany. Still, Otto and Edith did not hesitate for a moment: the next morning, they left for Prinsengracht 263 with Margot and Anne. 

The Secret Annex

From 6 July 1942 onwards, Otto was in hiding in the company building on the Prinsengracht . The Van Pels family followed one week later, and in November 1942, they were joined by Fritz Pfeffer, the eighth person in hiding. 

Anne's diary tells us that Otto continued to be concerned with the ins and outs of the company. Whenever business relations from Frankfurt visited, he would lie down in the hiding place with his ear to the floor in order to hear what was being discussed in the office below. 

Whenever he was not busy with the companies, Otto loved to read Charles Dickens, with a dictionary at hand, according to Anne. Anne: “A little Latin, never reads novels but likes serious and dry-as-dust descriptions of people and countries.” 

“We had not foreseen how many problems would arise because of the differences in characters and views.”

Otto, the peacemaker

Otto felt responsible for the atmosphere in the Secret Annex and mediated in the countless larger and smaller arguments. ‘We had thought that living with my partner's family in our hiding place would make life less monotonous, but we had not foreseen how many problems would arise because of the differences in characters and views.’ 

In her diary, Anne wrote: ‘I am dazed by all the abusive exchanges that have hurtled through this virtuous house during the past month. Daddy goes about with his lips tightly pursed, when anyone speaks to him, he looks up startled, as is he is afraid he will have to patch up some tricky relationship again. (...) Quite honestly, I sometimes forget who we are quarreling with and with whom we've made it up.’

Miep Gies remembered Otto in the Secret Annex as ‘the calm one, the children’s teacher, the most logical, the one who balanced everyone out. He was the leader, the one in charge.’

Otto sees his wife and children for the last time

The hiding period came to an abrupt end when, on 4 August 1944, Dutch police officers headed by SS-Hauptscharführer Karl Josef Silberbauer unexpectedly raided the Secret Annex. The hiding place had been discovered. Otto and the other people in hiding were arrested. Otto felt guilty when they also took Johannes Kleiman and Victor Kugler.

After a few days in prison, Otto and the others were put on a train to the Westerbork transit camp. They ended up in the prison barracks, and the men and women were separated. Otto had to work during the day - the kind of work is not known - but in the evening he could be with Edith, Margot, and Anne.

After only a few weeks in Westerbork, Otto and the others were put on train travelling to the east. This was the last train ever to leave Westerbork for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. The prisoners were packed tightly in cattle wagons, without enough food and with only a small barrel for a toilet.

After three days on the train, they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The men and women were separated on the platform. It was the last time Otto would ever see his wife and children. 

Weighing 52 kilos

After the separation on the Auschwitz-Birkenau platform, the men from the Secret Annex stayed together. At first, Otto was put to work outside the camp in the 'Kommando Kiesgrube’, a gravel mine. The gravel was used for construction projects. Then, he was transferred to the 'Kommando Strassenbau', building roads outside the camp. When the frost made working outdoors impossible, Otto ended up with less exhausting work: peeling potatoes. 

Otto felt greatly supported by Peter van Pels, who would sometimes be able to get some extra food through his job in the camp’s post office. He was also helped by other friends in the camp. When at one point, Otto lost hope after he had been beaten, his fellow inmates, with the help of a Dutch doctor, made sure that he was admitted to the sick barracks. 

When the Soviet troops came closer, the camp command cleared Auschwitz. Those able to walk, had to come along. Otto stayed behind in the sick barracks. He was too weak to travel, weighed only 52 kilogrammes and was in no condition to join. 

Otto’s main worry: have Margot and Anne survived? 

Otto expected the prisoners remaining behind to be shot, but that did not happen. On 27 January 1945, Soviet troops entered the camp. Otto felt that it was a miracle that he had survived. ‘I was lucky and had good friends,’ he wrote to his mother on 18 March. 

As soon as Otto had his strength back, he wanted nothing more than to return to the Netherlands. As the fighting was still going on in large parts of Europe, he had to make a long detour. In Odessa (then in the Soviet Union, today in Ukraine) he got on board of the 'Monowai', a ship that was heading towards Marseille (France), with hundreds of other survivors.

During the long journey, Rosa de Winter - who had been imprisoned together with Edith in Auschwitz - told him that his wife had died in Auschwitz. From that moment on, all his hopes were pinned on Anne and Margot. Would they still be alive? On 3 June 1945, ten months after his arrest, Otto was back in Amsterdam. To his great relief, the helpers of the Secret Annex had all survived the war. Otto moved in with helpers Jan and Miep Gies.

“I had had no idea of the depth of her thoughts and feelings. I had to acknowledge that I had not known what went on in her mind.”

Otto receives Anne’s diary

Otto’s hope that Anne and Margot might have survived the concentration camps ended in July 1945, when he met with the Brilleslijper sisters, who had been imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen with Anne and Margot. They told him about their miserable last months and about their deaths due to illness and exhaustion. 

When Miep learned the sad news, she handed Anne's diaries over to Otto. At first, he could not summon the courage to read them, but once he started, he was gripped by her writing.

Otto copied passages from the diaries and asked family and friends to read them. Some of them pushed him to have her diaries published, but that was easier said than done: so soon after the war, people wanted to look forward rather than back.

Eventually, Otto found a publisher and Anne’s diary was published two years after the war: ‘Anne would have been so proud if she had lived to see it,’ Otto wrote about that first Dutch edition. Translations into French, German and English were soon to follow. 

Living in Amsterdam hurts too much

In spite of the loyalty of his friends and the success of the diary in the Netherlands, Otto felt he would forever associate Amsterdam with his pain and loss. In 1952, he moved to Basel  (Switzerland). One year later, Otto remarried to Fritzi Geiringer in Amsterdam. Fritzi already had a daughter, Eva, who was born in 1929, just like Anne. 

Otto remained closely involved with the Anne Frank House, which was founded to preserve Prinsengracht 263 and its annex. Of course, he was present at the opening of the Anne Frank House on 3 May 1960. He spoke only briefly, as his emotions overpowered him. 

In the following years, Otto was the initiator of international youth conferences held in Amsterdam. During these conferences - at which he was present - young people discussed topics such as 'Is there still room for religion in the modern world' (1966), 'Youth protest' (1967) and 'Youth and human rights' (1968).

Fighting for reconciliation and human rights

Countless readers of Anne's diary contacted Otto. Some of them kept corresponding with him over the years, others became real friends of Otto and Fritzi. About the letters, Otto wrote: ‘I often end my letters by writing: “I hope that Anne's book will impact the rest of your life so that insofar as it is possible in your own circumstances, you will work for unity and peace.”’

Otto died on 19 August 1980. Shortly before his death, he said in an interview: ‘I am almost ninety now and my strength is slowly fading. But the mission that Anne passed on, keeps giving me new strength - to fight for reconciliation and for human rights across the world.’

References
  1. Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation [NIOD], The Diary of Anne Frank: the revised critical edition (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2003), A-version, 16 May 1944.
  2. Frank, Otto, "Erinnerungen an Anne" (typescript, 1968).
  3. NIOD, The Diary of Anne Frank, B-version, 17 October 1944.
  4. Gies, Miep & Gold, Alison Leslie, Anne Frank remembered (London etc.: Bantam Press, 1987), p. 88.
  5. "Anne Franks Vater: Ich will Versöhnung". In: Welt am Sonntag, 4 February 1979.