By George Stevens Jr.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Anne Frank would have celebrated her 80th birthday this month. The diary she wrote as a teenager in a cramped Amsterdam attic lives in the hearts of readers across the world. Her story has been a continuing inspiration to many and made her one of the most enduring voices of World War II.
I became connected to her story 50 years ago, when my father asked me to be associate producer of "The Diary of Anne Frank," the first American motion picture to deal with the Holocaust. He and I flew to Munich in May 1957 to begin our research. This was my father's first time in Europe since his service as a lieutenant colonel in charge of a combat motion picture unit photographing the war in Europe. It was a rare opportunity for a son to relive his father's war.
We rented a car in Munich and drove to the small town of Dachau, where we viewed the remnants of the concentration camp that Hitler established in the 1930s. That camp operated until it was liberated in April 1945 by U.S. Army units that included my father's. What those troops found at Dachau, and what my father filmed, were scenes of unimaginable horror. That film became a permanent record of what had happened there, making it difficult in later years to deny Hitler's ravages with any credibility. I snapped a photograph of my father in a tan raincoat standing in the doorway of a building with the word "Brausbad" -- "shower bath" in German -- written on its pediment. The expression on his face made clear the memories that this grim facility evoked.
We went on to Normandy on the French coast. We walked the D-Day beaches and drove through the hedgerow country where the Americans broke a fierce German resistance. He said then that he realized that at the time of the Battle of the Bulge, he was within a few hundred kilometers of Anne Frank.
Next we went to Amsterdam to meet Anne Frank's father. Otto Frank was a tall, dignified man in his late 60s who welcomed us warmly to his modest office. He was an officer in the German army during World War I but left Germany with his family after Hitler came to power. He and his wife raised their two daughters, Anne and Margot, in Amsterdam, where he managed a small but thriving spice factory. In July 1942, as persecution of Jews in the Netherlands intensified, Otto Frank decided to take his family into hiding in the top-floor attic of the spice factory, a setting that Anne referred to as the Secret Annex.
The Franks lived there with another family until they were discovered by the Gestapo in 1944 and transported to concentration camps. Anne Frank and her sister died of typhus at Bergen Belsen in March 1945, a few weeks before British troops liberated the camp. Otto Frank and his wife, Edith, were sent to Auschwitz, where he came close to death but survived. Edith died at Auschwitz.
We spoke for a few minutes before Mr. Frank pulled open a filing-cabinet drawer and removed an object carefully wrapped in cloth. After placing it on the table, he unfolded the cloth and there before us was a small book with a red-and-white plaid cover. This was the diary his daughter had written in her own distinctive hand and illustrated with photos and newspaper clippings while the family was hiding in the Secret Annex.
Mr. Frank was composed. He said he wanted to do everything possible to help my father make a film that was true to the experience -- and he invited us to go with him to the spice factory at 263 Prinsengracht. The three of us entered the four-story building at the center of a block of rowhouses overlooking a canal. The building was empty and had been out of use for some time. We climbed the stairway until we were in the fourth-floor rooms where the families had hidden. Otto Frank described the day the Gestapo broke through the bookcase door that concealed the entrance. It was determined later that Gestapo Oberscharfuhrer Karl Silberbauer was the man in charge. He snatched Mr. Frank's briefcase and emptied the contents on the floor. He gathered up the silverware and a Hanukkah menorah and left behind papers and other contents as they herded the two families down the stairs.
Anne's diary remained on the floor.
On that day the normally efficient German war machine failed. Silberbauer left behind evidence -- a document that would one day make Anne Frank's voice and spirit an important part of world literature, a voice for humanity and tolerance. Her memory became an enduring presence that would grow in importance as the once-powerful voice of Adolf Hitler faded into ignominy.
George Stevens Jr., a filmmaker, author and playwright, received the Distinguished Advocate Award this month from the Anne Frank Foundation.