Before the Second World War and the Holocaust, Otto Frank had little interest in his Jewish heritage. He was neither proud nor ashamed of being born a Jew; it was a matter of indifference to him. During the Great War, when he was serving in the German army, he made a rare comment in a letter home: "I often get the feeling that mothers, brothers and sisters are the only trustworthy people. At least, that's how it is in Jewish families like ours." His otherwise nonchalant attitude was typical of the German Liberal Jewish bourgeoisie, particularly in Frankfurt where he grew up. He declared that, at the time, "assimilation was very, very strong. Many turned to baptism just to get higher positions. My grandmother never went to synagogue, except once, to be married. And in all her life she never set foot in a synagogue again."
Otto Heinrich Frank, born on May 12, 1889, and his brothers, Robert (1886) and Herbert (1891), and sister, Helene (1893), studied several languages during their childhood and youth, but Hebrew was not one of them. Like most assimilated German Jews of the time, the Frank family opposed Zionism, feeling that Germany was their homeland. Alice Stern, Otto's mother, could trace her ancestors back through the city archives to the sixteenth century. However, Michael Frank, Otto's father, was not native to Frankfurt; he had moved there from rural Landau in 1879 at the age, of twenty-eight. Michael and Alice were married in 1885, by which time Michael was already pursuing a career in banking. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Michael became a stockbroker and invested in two health farms and a company producing cough and cold lozenges. In 1901, he set up his own bank specializing in foreign currency exchange. The considerable success of this business enabled the family to move into their own home: a new, semidetached house at 4 Mertonstrasse in Frankfurt's Westend. The house, with its three front-facing balconies, center tower, and landscaped garden, had a separate entrance for the Franks' staff.
Exquisitely dressed, young Otto and his siblings visited a riding school on a regular basis until they were proficient on horseback, called upon neighbors at the correct hour in the afternoon, had private music lessons, and accompanied their parents on outings to the opera, where they had their own box. Edith Oppenheimer, a much younger relative of Otto's who lived in the same area of Frankfurt, recalls, "Otto used to tell me about the wonderful family parties that were held often, some costume balls. There were special parties for children." Michael and Alice Frank were not remote parents by any means; despite the emphasis on manners and comportment, judging from the surviving letters of Otto and his older brother Robert the house on Mertonstrasse rang regularly with laughter, stories, poetry, and singing.
After attending a private prep School, Otto was sent to the Lessing Gymnasium not far from home. He entered into the spirit of the school's credo: tolerance. His nature ("aware and curious, warm and friendly") made him popular, and his classmates paid no attention to the fact that he was the only Jewish pupil in their form. In his old age, however, Otto received a book about the Lessing Gymnasium written by a former classmate. Otto's response to this man was icy:
I can imagine how much work you had, doing research into the lives of all the graduates. I was unpleasantly struck by your apparently knowing nothing about the concentration camps and gas chambers, because there is no mention of my Jewish comrades dying in the gas chambers. Since I am the only member of my family who survived Auschwitz, as you may know from my daughter Anne's diary, you should understand my feelings.
In Otto's youth, however, religion played no part in his life. He recalled, "We were very, very liberal. I was not barmitzvahed." His relative Edith Oppenheimer explains, "The formal exercise of the Jewish religion was not important to Otto. It was not an issue in middle-class Germany before the Great War. Otto was very outgoing, and a lot of fun. Everyone in the family thought he had a great future." Otto enjoyed his school days and wrote regularly for the Lessing Gymnasium newspaper. During the holidays, however, he became restless: "I could not bear staying at home very long after school." In Frankfurt, life was too organized, and the "parties every week, balls, festivities, beautiful girls, waltzing, dinners ... etc.," had begun to bore him. When his parents sent him to Spain for the 1907 Easter break, the trip sparked an interest in foreign travel. In June 1908, Otto received his Abitur (graduation certificate) and enrolled in an economics course at Heidelberg University. He then left for a long vacation in England.
University education in Germany in the early years of the twentieth century did not come cheaply. Most young scholars were Gymnasium graduates, like Otto Frank, or wealthy students from abroad, like Charles Webster Straus, who arrived in Heidelberg to complete a year's foreign study as part of his course at Princeton University in the United States. Charles, or "Charlie" as Otto was soon calling him, was born in the same month and year as Otto. In a 1957 letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, Straus recalled:
At Heidelberg University, through members of my mother's family living in Mannheim who knew the Frank family intimately, I met Otto ... Over the following months, Otto and I became close friends. He had matriculated at the same time as I had at Heidelberg and we not only attended many courses together, but he spent many evenings with my parents and me at our hotel as I spent many evenings, and indeed, many weekends with his family who owned a country place near Frankfurt. Otto was not only my closest friend during the three semesters we both studied at the university but he was the one that my parents liked best.
Excerpted from The Hidden Life of Otto Frank © Copyright 2004 by Carol Ann Lee. Reprinted with permission by Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.