The 65 documents typed letters, handwritten notes and a telegram, many browning with age show Otto Frank's determined effort, enlisting family and friends, to contact officials to extract his wife, mother-in-law and daughters from Nazi-occupied Holland. For nine months, they tried to secure visas first to the U.S. and then to Cuba until that window shut. Just three letters of the file were written by Otto Frank, all addressed to university friend Nathan Straus Jr., son of a co-owner of Macy's department store and head of the U.S. Housing Authority. Straus and Frank's brother-in-law, Julius Hollander, regularly corresponded with two private Jewish agencies, the National Refugee Service in New York and the Boston Committee for Refugees. Straus also contacted the State Department on Frank's behalf. Hollander and his brother arranged affidavits from their employers, Jacob Hiatt of E.F. Dodge Paper Box Co. and Harry Levine of the New England Novelty Co., both of Leominster, Mass.
New York University professor David Engel likens the correspondence to a blind chess game. The U.S. immigration rules kept changing; the players waited for letters to slowly arrive by mail
As of June 1940, the U.S. State Department had toughened the visa-application process. Candidates had to show "a good reason" for seeking U.S. admittance, not just a need to exit Europe, says American University historian Richard Breitman. "The State Department frequently reduced the number of immigration visas granted below the annual quota levels... by enforcing strict immigration regulations." Why? National security concerns, fear of foreigners and, some have argued, anti-Semitism.
"The Third Reich managed to kill close to 6 million Jews not just because of the Germans," says Engel, "but also because of many people outside of the Nazi orbit trying to do what they thought was best for their countries, including officials of the United States government."
In the file's first entry, Frank wrote Straus in April 30, 1941: "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." His brothers-in-laws, recent U.S. immigrants, employed as "ordinary workmen around Boston," could pay for only one passage. Frank had already in 1938 filed an application in Rotterdam to emigrate to the U.S., "but all the papers have been destroyed there," he wrote. Yet "everyone who has an effective affidavit from a member of his family and who can pay his passage may leave," he said. Frank figured $5,000 would cover four in his family and sought Straus's help.
Engel wonders why Frank sprang into action in April 1941. After all, the Nazis had occupied the Netherlands since May 1940. Did the situation suddenly turn more desperate for Jews there, or did Otto Frank sense personal danger? Engel suspects the latter, referring to a theory first raised in Carol Ann Lee's 2003 book, The Hidden Life of Otto Frank, which reported that a member of a Dutch pro-Nazi party was blackmailing Frank. After Otto was heard making a remark showing skepticism of prompt German victory, on April 18 the blackmailer requested a payoff. Twelve days later Frank wrote Straus.
Straus's July 1 letter to Otto Frank had bad news: "Unless you can get to a place where there is an American Consul, there does not seem to be any way of arranging for you to come over." By that time, the U.S. consulates in Germany and Nazi-occupied lands were being closed in retaliation for the American shutdown of German consulates in the U.S. (over spying concerns). And Straus noted U.S. consulates in Europe where a visa could be pursued remained only in Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and "Free France."
In September Frank wrote Straus of his dilemma: he couldn't get a U.S. visa within the Netherlands, yet leaving the country was impossible without some kind of visa. So he presented plan B: to try for a Cuban visitor's visa, a costly and complicated process. Another letter hinted at Frank's intention: instead of going to Cuba, he could use a Cuban visa to enter a neutral country, such as Spain or Portugal, to score a U.S. visa.
But by Dec. 11, a National Refugee Service memo reported the cancellation of a just issued Cuban visa for Frank. Germany had declared war on the U.S.
Joseph Nathan Straus, 52, of Princeton, N.J., and a grandson of Nathan Straus Jr., is hardly surprised by the YIVO file's unveiling. Within his family circle, the efforts of his grandparents to help the Franks are widely known, he says. "Despite the efforts of individuals to do the right thing and rescue people in dire circumstances, they were unsuccessful except in isolated cases," he says. What is striking, he adds, is that regardless of the "vigorous efforts of someone as well positioned as my grandfather, he was unsuccessful here."
Teresien da Silva, head of collections at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, notes that the new Frank letters are similar to other documents already contained in its collection which includes, for example, a German letter from Otto Frank on Nov. 24, 1941, to Julius Hollander, about a cable noting a Cuban visa was available. A joint press release by the Anne Frank House and the Anne Frank-Fonds (the Swiss foundation with the copyright to Anne and Otto Frank writings) said: "For some considerable time it has been clear from documents already in the possession of [our two organizations] that Otto H. Frank had tried in vain to obtain U.S.A. and Cuban entry." The two groups plan a comprehensive archive of all Frank family files.