Postkarte an Alice Frank in Basel 4. 7.1942. Repro ©Anne Frank Fonds,.Basel. Ausstellung 'Anne Frank und die Schweiz', Landesmuseum Zürich. Foto/Photo: TES.

A Last Farewell by Otto Frank

The section’ Latest News’ contains the last sign of life and the last news of the Frank family to the outside world. Otto Frank (1889-1980) wrote on 4 July 1942 to his mother Alice Frank-Stern (1865-1953) and his sister Helene Frank (1893-1986) in Basel: Seid doch in keinem Fall beunruhigt, wenn Ihr wenig von uns hört”.  On 6. In July 1942, the family went into hiding. The message is eighty years old but still topical.

The Frank Family

The married couple Otto and Edith Frank-Elias (1903-1945) and their two children, Margot Betti (1926-1945) and Anne(lies) Marie Frank (1929-1945), lived in Amsterdam since 1933. Two of Otto’s brothers, Robert (1886-1953) and Herbert (1891-1987) and his sister Helene (Leni, 1893-1986), had lived in Basel since 1929. They had founded the Opekta pectine company in Switzerland.

Otto grew up in Frankfurt am Main (Germany). In 1914, there was no indication that 19 years later, he would have to leave his homeland. He and his brothers Robert and Herbert had bravely defended their Heimat in the First World War (1914-1918).

After a relatively prosperous economic period in the Weimar Republic from 1925 to 1929, the Wall Street Crash ended the bank of Michael Frank (1851-1909), Otto’s father. The crash also began the Nazi party’s rise to power. After 31 January 1933, Otto foresaw what was to come. Otto chose Amsterdam to open a branch of the Opekta (Obstpektin aus dem Apfel) company. A fatal choice, but nobody could have predicted that in 1933.

The Netherlands and Switzerland

Margot and Anne quickly integrated and spoke Dutch without an accent. They spent the winter and summer holidays in Sils-Maria (Upper Engadine, Canton Graubünden) or Adelsboden, Canton Bern).

From 1938 Otto tried in vain to get a visa for Cuba or America. His many requests were not granted. On 15 May 1940, the Netherlands capitulated, and the persecution of the Jews began.

Margot received the call for transport in early July 1942. Otto realised that it was time to go into hiding. Everyone knew about their intensive contact with Switzerland. Otto pretended to the outside world that he was fleeing to Switzerland. The other people in hiding were Hermann van Pels (1898-1944), his wife Auguste van Pels (1900-1945), their son Peter van Pels (1926-1945) and Fritz Pfeffer (1889-1944).

The Annex (Het Achterhuis)

Only a small group of helpers, employees of his company and their relatives, knew the real destination: the secret room in his company’s building at the Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam. These heroes were: Miep Gies (1909-2010) and Jan Gies (1905-1993), Victor Kugler (1900-1981), Johannes Kleiman (1896-1953), Johan Voskuijl (1892-1945) and his daughter Bep Voskuijl (1919-1983).

Anne was given a diary in 1942 and started writing. A radio broadcast by Radio Orange on the BBC in 1944 inspired her to change her editorial style. She re-edited her story as a literary testimony. Since then, two versions of the diary have existed.  The second version was intended for the outside world. Anne wrote her last contribution on 1 August 1944, after many hopeful days following D-Day.

The Diary

Only Otto survived the war. Miep Gies gave him the diary on his return to Amsterdam. It was not until months after the war that he received the news that his two daughters and wife had not survived. He emigrated to Basel soon afterwards.

After much deliberation, reading and rereading, he published the diary in the Netherlands in 1950. At the time, few people in the Netherlands were interested in the sad fate of Anne and the Jews in general. People wanted to forget and look forward.

The German edition appeared in 1952. However, the breakthrough came with the American edition and its adaptation for a play in 1955 and a film in 1959. Although the diary appeared in a freely adapted script in the theatre and cinema, Anne and her diary became world-famous.

In 1963 Otto founded the Anne Frank Fonds (www.anne-frank.ch) in Basel. Others have continued this NGO from 1980 to the present day. Anne often visited Switzerland in the 1930s, visiting her uncles and aunts in Basel and for winter and summer holidays. Would Anne have been happy with the seat of the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel? We will never know, but the treatment of Jewish refugees is not a glorious chapter in the country’s history.

Neutrality

The Swiss authorities did not recognise Jews as political refugees, and around 25 000 men, women and children were sent back to the border to certain death. That approximately the same number were allowed to stay does not alter this fact. It is a black page in the history of the country of the Red Cross and humanitarian aid. In 1871, the country received one day around 80 000 French soldiers and welcomed almost 70 000 Ukrainian refugees in 2022.

There were extenuating circumstances, however. The aggressive and ruthless dictators could invade at any moment, and there was a lot of poverty and unemployment in Switzerland. All democracies had closed their borders to Jews on the eve of the Second World War. The European anti-Semitic mentality was omnipresent, and less information and foreign experience were available.

Moreover, there were many brave (police) officials, citizens, men, women and children who did allow Jewish refugees to pass through and shelter them. Public opinion did not agree with the restrictive policy, but there was press censorship because of the state of emergency and little came out into the open. Fear of dictators was and is a bad advisor—a topical lesson with regard to the present-day neutrality discussion.

Conclusion

Switzerland also has its war past. Since 1990 this has been the subject of much debate and publications. It is easy to make judgements with today’s knowledge.

However, the politicians did not want to, and could not, annoy the surrounding ruthless dictatorships too much. After the rapid capitulation of France in 1940, there was no military necessity for Germany to invade the country, but Swiss politicians and generals could never be certain.

The stakes were high. The policy of making compromises and giving in on the one hand but building up a strong defence (the reduite in the Alps), on the other hand, seemed reasonable enough in these dangerous days for Switzerland as a nation. The outcome of a German invasion was sure, but the costs had to be as high as possible so that the aggressor preferred the benefits of a neutral country.

The discussion is still ongoing. However, Switzerland, its politicians and citizens did not distinguish themselves from other neutral countries, such as Sweden, or governments, citizens and industries in the occupied countries.

The current exhibition in the National Museum (Landesmuseum) in Zurich has the theme ‘Anne Frank und die Schweiz‘, Anne Frank and Switzerland (9 June to 6 November 2022).