ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Letters from the father of Holocaust victim Anne Frank were released today in New York. The letters were discovered by accident in 2005 by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. YIVO specializes in the study of East European Jews. The documents show that Otto Frank was failing in his desperate attempts to get his family out of Nazi-occupied Holland, despite the help of wealthy American friends.
NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER: Otto Frank wrote to relatives, friends and officials between April and December 1941 trying to arrange for his wife, Edith, and his daughters, Margot and Anne, to emigrate either to the United States or Cuba. The documents were found by chance because of a clerical error. A year and a half ago, a volunteer at YIVO, Estelle Guzik, was indexing some 100,000 Holocaust documents transferred 30 years before from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. She noticed a date of birth missing. Here is Dr. Karl Reins, executive director of YIVO.
Mr. KARL REINS (Executive Director, YIVO): Estelle Guzik reopened the file folder to locate the birth date and then immediately came upon the names of Anne and Margot Frank.
ADLER: The files were then embargoed until certain issues of privacy, copyright and provenance could be determined. Since the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society documents came from many different agencies, it may be impossible to ever know where the Otto Frank file came from.
Otto Frank first applied for immigration in 1938 and then revived those efforts in 1941. In hindsight, that was very late, but several historians today said that in the spring of 1941, Germany had not yet decided to exterminate the Jews, and the Nuremberg Laws discriminating against Jews had not yet taken effect in Holland. David Engel, a professor of Holocaust studies at New York University, said of the Frank family situation.
Professor DAVID ENGEL (New York University): This is not a peculiar story. It is, all too sadly, a very typical one.
ADLER: But Anne Frank's saga, because of her beautiful writing in her diary, has become a doorway into understanding the Holocaust for millions. Both Engel and Richard Breitman, a professor of German history at American University, said the documents show that the decisions that prevented the Frank family from emigrating were not only actions taken by Nazi Germany.
Professor RICHARD BREITMAN (American University): Anne Frank could be a 77-year-old woman living in Boston today, a writer. That is what YIVO's documents suggest. The Frank family probably could have gotten out of the Netherlands, even during much of the year 1941, but the decision to try hard came relatively late. The Nazis made it harder and harder over time and by that time, the American government was making it harder and harder for foreigners to get in.
ADLER: The U.S. restricted immigration in the name of protecting national security. Breitman observed -
Professor BREITMAN: The dangers to the United States and to the world from Nazi Germany in 1941 were very real. The notion that refugees from Nazi Germany, Jews and non-Jews, were part of this threat was imaginary.
ADLER: A suspicion of those who were different, anti-Semitism, a broader fear of foreigners, he said, all played their part. Otto Frank had powerful friends in the United States, including Nathan Straus, the son of an owner of Macy's. Straus agreed to pay thousands of dollars to help secure visas and documents. It was not enough.
Otto Frank received one visa from Cuba, but it was cancelled when Germany declared war on the United States. The Franks went into hiding in 1942 and were discovered and arrested two years later.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
SIEGEL: And you can read some of those newly discovered Otto Frank letters at NPR.org.