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Otto Frank

Anne Frank's father: The life of Otto Frank 

Image: Otto Frank | No Asylum: The untold chapter of Anne Frank's story

On her 13th birthday, Anne Frank unwrapped her presents to discover the gift she’d most desperately wanted; a diary.

‘I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support,’ Anne wrote in her first entry. That diary went on to become an important document of the Holocaust. For two years, young Anne penned the daily struggles her family endured while hiding away in a secret annex of an office in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.

After the war, the sole surviving member of the Frank family, Anne’s father Otto, brought the diary to the world’s attention. Without him, no one would have ever read Anne Frank's diary. Here's Otto’s story.

Early years

Born in 1889 to a family of German liberal Jews, Otto Frank was the second of four children. Raised in the city of Frankfurt, Otto studied in Heidelberg before undertaking several apprenticeships in various banks. He then travelled to the US for a work placement at the famous New York department store Macy’s.

When his father died in 1909, Otto returned to Germany and was drafted into the army during the First World War. During his time as a soldier, Otto was promoted to lieutenant and decorated for bravery.

At the end of the war, Otto started to work in the bank his father had run. In 1925, he married Edith Holländer and the pair settled in Frankfurt and had two daughters, Margot (1926) and Anne (1929).

A new life

The 1929 Great Depression hit Germany exceptionally hard. Millions fell into poverty as unemployment rose exponentially. Ultimately, it was the final nail in the coffin for the German Weimar Republic and with Hitler’s Nazi Party gaining traction throughout the 1920s, the country was changing quickly.

When Hitler gained power in 1933, his antisemitic rhetoric made it increasingly dangerous for the Frank family to remain in Germany. Otto decided it was time to leave and in late 1933, he relocated the family to Amsterdam.

He accepted a job heading the Dutch branch of an expanding German spice company called Opekta. By the end of 1934, the company had grown to the point of requiring new premises, which were found at a location in the heart of Amsterdam called Prinsengracht 263.

In 1938, Otto set up a second company called Pectacon, which was a wholesaler of herbs, salts and spices. As his businesses began to thrive, Otto took on new staff, several of whom were also German emigrants.

War breaks out

Although things had been looking up for the Frank family, the threat of the Nazis once again loomed at the onset of World War Two. In May 1940, that threat became all too real when Germany invaded the Netherlands. By 17th May, the country was officially an occupied territory and with that came a wave of antisemitic measures.

It wasn’t long before Jews were banned from owning their own businesses. Cleverly, Otto transferred official ownership of his companies to two of his employees, thus keeping them out of Nazi hands. However, he secretly continued to run his businesses behind the scenes.

With the situation deteriorating throughout 1941, Otto bore witness to friends being arrested during raids and whisked off to concentration camps. He attempted to relocate the family to America but couldn’t get the paperwork complete before the States shut their borders in December 1941.

Into hiding

With things looking increasingly dire for the Frank family, Otto began setting up a secret hiding place. Located in the attic of his office situated at Prinsengracht 263, the entrance to the secret annex was hidden behind a bookcase.

On 5th July 1942, Otto’s daughter Margot received a call-up to report to a labour camp back in Nazi Germany. Although the secret hideout was not quite ready yet, Otto and Edith knew they’d run out of time. The very next morning, the family smuggled every possession they could carry on themselves and went into hiding in the secret annex in Otto’s office.

Capture and deportation

For the next two years, the Frank family, along with another family and one other man, remained hidden in the secret annex. Food and supplies were smuggled in by friends of the family. It was during this time that Anne wrote in her diary.

Life in the annex was hard, everyone had to remain silent during the day and they couldn't use the toiletry facilities until nighttime. Friction between the occupants was also commonplace, with Otto playing the role of leader and peacemaker between everyone.

Whether by betrayal or sheer bad luck, their hiding spot was eventually discovered by the Nazis on 4th August 1944. Tragically, the Franks were placed on the very last convoy of Jews out of Amsterdam before the city was liberated by the Allies.

Within a few weeks, they found themselves at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Separated upon arrival, it was the last Otto would see of his wife and children as they lost their lives in the coming months.

Residing in the sick barracks when Soviet troops liberated the camp in January 1945, Otto was his family’s sole survivor of the war.

The diary is published

As the war still wasn’t over, it took Otto six months to return to Amsterdam. By July 1945, news had trickled through that his wife and children were dead.

Miep Gies, a Dutch friend of the Franks who’d helped them during their two years in hiding, gave Anne’s diary to Otto after she’d recovered it from the ransacked attic. Reading his daughter's words for the first time was impossibly hard. However, Otto was so moved by her writing that he shared the diary with friends and family. They persuaded him to publish the diary as it shed light on the experiences of those who suffered under Nazi rule. And so, Otto began transcribing the diary into a single manuscript and started the hunt for a publisher.

In June 1947, the first Dutch edition of the diary was published. Since then, the diary has gone on to be translated into over 70 languages and has been the inspiration for a catalogue of film and tv shows.

Later life

In the long run, life in Amsterdam without his family proved too hard for Otto. He relocated to Basel, Switzerland in 1952 and remarried.

He established the Anne Frank Foundation to use the proceeds of the diary for charitable causes, including human rights projects. The foundation also preserved and restored the building at Prinsengracht 263, opening the premises to the public as the Anne Frank House in 1960.

Otto passed away from lung cancer in August 1980, aged 91.