Fresh angles on a life as well known as Anne Frank's are hard to find. But by shifting the focus away from the secret annex and onto Anne's father Otto's attempts to find refuge for his family in the United States, in the compelling documentary No Asylum: The Untold Chapter of Anne Frank's Story, Paula Fouce has done just that.
She didn't know that immigration would have become a major issue by the time No Asylum was completed, or that many Jews would be thinking about emigrating because of rising anti-Semitism in their homelands. The world has changed, though, and even before President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days, screenings in the United States were generating discussions leading to “the refugee question”. “And it's a hot potato issue,” she tells me from her home in Las Vegas, “because some people feel let everyone in, and some feel don't let anyone in.”
None of the Frank family evaded deportation to Auschwitz (Anne and Margot were later relocated to Bergen-Belsen, where they died of typhus). Otto was the only survivor, and for years faced accusations of not trying hard enough to save his wife and daughters. We now know that the opposite is true, thanks to the accidental discovery of letters written by Otto, pleading for help in obtaining visas, in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.
They're part of the Otto Frank File, whose contents amazed Fouce when it was shown to her. “I said, 'My goodness, this should be a film.' Because inside, there's 73 documents that trace step by step by step how Otto Frank tried to get their family into the United States, and it's fascinating.”
The letters, which were found among documents that had been moved to the institute from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, over 30 years earlier, are of great significance, says YIVO's Executive Director and CEO, Jonathan Brent, who appears in the documentary as part of a fascinating line-up of contributors that also include Estelle Guzik, the volunteer who stumbled upon the material in 2005; Otto's stepdaughter, and fellow Auschwitz survivor, Eva Schloss; and Anne's cousin, Buddy Elias, who died in 2015.
The documents have redefined our understanding of Otto as a father, Brent tells me by email, because they “strongly and convincingly disprove the argument put forward most forcefully by Bruno Bettelheim [a psychoanalyst and author who'd survived Dachau and Buchenwald] and others that Otto Frank's greatest moral failing, and indeed the moral failing of European Jewish culture generally, was his passivity in the face of the grave, in fact mortal, threat of Nazism.
“These materials will help people move away from the specious and pernicious charge that Jews simply submitted without a fight or merely accepted the fate meted out to them, wishing, as Bettelheim argues, to carry on with their lives as if nothing had changed, when in reality the Jews had nowhere to go and nothing (or very little) to fight with.”
In fact, Otto responded early to the growing threat. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, says Elias in the documentary, and stormtroopers paraded past the Franks' house singing “When the Jewish blood drips off the knife, everything goes better”, he knew that they had to leave. Elias's father helped Otto find work in Amsterdam, and the family relocated to the relative safety of Holland.
Jews who stayed because they thought Hitler would soon be gone, and life would return to normal, had their illusions irrevocably shattered by Kristallnacht in 1938.
As the conditions for Jews in Germany deteriorated, Otto filed an application to emigrate with the American consulate in Rotterdam. However, the papers were destroyed when the building was bombed during the German invasion in 1940. After the surrender of Holland, life changed for Jews, who'd hitherto been accepted as part of Dutch society.
Elias movingly recalls how Anne had imagined them both ice skating together after the war, a favourite activity that was now forbidden to Jews under the new regime, while others describe how they were barred from using all forms of transport, a curfew was imposed, and non-Jewish shops were put off-limits to them.
Determined to get his family out before it was too late, Otto wrote to an old school friend, Nathan Straus Jr., a member of the family who owned Macy's department store and Administrator, US Housing Authority, on April 30th, 1941, asking for help.
“I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see U.S.A. is the only country we could go to,” he informed Straus. “Perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”
Otto battled to save his family. But despite his efforts and those of his brother-in-laws in America, he ultimately came to accept that they were trapped by the Nazi occupation of Holland and its surrounding territories, and took his family into hiding.
As No Asylum makes clear, Otto wasn't unique and is simply one of the most well known (thanks to Anne's diary) of the hundreds-of-thousands of Jews who wrote similar letters to contacts in America, and found their attempts to get visas, says Brent, “being stalled and obstructed in the bureaucracy of the United States.”
Fouce illustrates this wall of red tape with a memo from Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State, in 1940, cynically advising that they could “delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls, to put every obstacle in the way and . . . resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
Politicians were tied by the Immigration Reform Act of 1924, which effectively made mass immigration into the U.S. impossible. Socially, says Brent, there was “near hysteria about Bolshevik infiltration into American society and economic depression. American society was also highly anti-Semitic in the 20s and 30s – a fact American historians often gloss over . . . Few Jews, and fewer non-Jews, dared raise their voices [in support of Jewish refugees].”
The identification of Jews and Bolsheviks was a staple of Nazi propaganda, and “played very well in the rhetoric of American anti-Semites – much as what we see today with the Syrian refugees who are identified with terrorists,” Brent explains, adding: “There are important differences, however, such as the fact that at the time the U.S. and Communist Russia were (until the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939) faced with a common enemy (Nazi Germany) and that under these conditions it was not at all in Stalin's interests to undermine U.S. society or politics.”
Fouce has been surprised to find that audiences at screenings are often divided over the question of whether Roosevelt's administration deliberately tried to keep Jews out, and “discussions get very heated”. The issue is still controversial, Brent confirms. It's also complicated, because “one has to differentiate Roosevelt, the man, from Roosevelt, the President”.
Describing a context pregnant with contemporary resonance, he says: “[Roosevelt] had to govern an economically depressed, very despondent and dangerously divided nation which sensed enemies all around. Jews had been the object of scorn in U.S. popular culture since the beginning of the Great Migration at the turn of the century and popular attitudes are extremely difficult to change, regardless of enlightened beliefs and individuals. However, the behaviour of the U.S. . . . severely damages [its] self-image as the exceptional nation of Christian values.”
The United States wasn't alone in keeping people out. No country threw its doors open to Jews trying too flee the Nazis. “The whole world . . . conspired to enable the destruction of the Jewish people,” says Brent, bitterly
Had more been done, the Holocaust might never happened or might have been less extensively destructive. As for Anne Frank, says Fouce, quoting the Holocaust historian Richard Brightman:
“If she had been helped, and her family had been helped, she would probably be an 87-year-old writer living in Boston today. A great famous writer – she was so talented.”
Hopefully history isn't about to repeat itself with a new group of people.
No Asylum: The Untold Chapter of Anne Frank's Story is available to stream on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Xbox