The Hidden Life of Frank Otto
From the horror of the Holocaust there has arisen an incredible cannon of informative, evocative and always powerful literature. From THE TIN DRUM to SOPHIE'S CHOICE to NIGHT, the list is as long as it is impressive. But one author's name is mentioned most often and most indelibly in connection with Holocaust literature, a girl who didn't even survive through her concentration camp experience.
That girl, of course, is Anne Frank. Somehow her father did survive and, upon returning to Amsterdam, discovered the diary his youngest daughter kept during the Frank family's two years in hiding from the Nazis. Thusly, Anne's words were published and soon became the world's most widely read account of the Holocaust. The experience of a young person's climb to maturity, told in the extreme context of quietly battling for her life, universalized the situation in a way nothing else has before or since.
There have been several Anne Frank biographies published, as well as books about the Frank family's Dutch "helpers," who hid them in the secret annex. But little has been written, at least in book form, about Anne's beloved father, Otto, the man who published the diary. Carol Ann Lee's THE HIDDEN LIFE OF OTTO FRANK tackles this topic, four years after her literary debut ROSES FROM THE EARTH: The Biography of Anne Frank.
Don't let the somewhat salacious title fool you. There's no Mr. Frank mistress hidden amongst the Jews in the attic, or any particularly outrageous diary passages that have never been seen before. In her extremely knowledgeable and competent, if never particularly florid, writing style, Lee presents a straightforward portrait of a man who tried to harness his pain for the greater good. Otto is a sympathetic character. He's not saint material, but he appears to have been the good and just man that Anne portrays him to be in her adoring writings. Lee traces his life, from his German roots to his family's immigration to Holland to his second, more loving marriage. Her many sources include excerpts from Otto's pre-, post- and wartime letters; the ones dating from just after his Auschwitz internment become particularly interesting and heartbreaking. Readers already know that his daughters will not return. But it takes Otto a painfully long time to discover this.
The book's only truly new revelation is the accusation of a new Frank family betrayer. Past theories have abounded, including the new warehouseman, burglars looking for extra money, or suspicious neighbors. According to Lee's theory (and this is not giving anything away, as she voices it in the introduction), ne'er do well Tonny Ahlers did it. Ahlers, an early Nazi informant, actually saved the Franks from the Germans once. He turned over an incriminating letter that accused Otto of anti-German sentiments in 1941. Otto paid off Ahlers twice for giving Otto the letter instead of sending it along to his superiors. Lee believes there was a larger blackmail scheme ongoing and that Ahlers eventually turned in the Franks (and the four others living with them) because he needed the money.
This theory certainly tracks as well as any others that have been introduced with regard to the Frank betrayer. But it is also the only part of this book that seems forced. Lee tries very hard to link Otto and Ahlers together, when there is minimal evidence that they crossed paths beyond once or twice. Though two of Ahlers' immediate relations confirm that their brother/father turned the Franks in, this is not conclusive. Lee struggles to make Ahlers a focal point when he seems more like an interesting sidelight. Since this is the only truly new revelation, it seems understandable. But the sections still read a bit stilted.
Our international interest in Anne Frank shows no signs of ebbing. When this book was published in the Netherlands last year, it drew national attention. And it is an engrossing, well-researched, if at times slightly dry, read. As always, it seems an impossible shame that Anne is not here to see the many legacies she left.
Reviewed by Toni Fitzgerald on January 22, 2011