In November 2015, debate raged on social media networks regarding the escalating plight of Syrian refugees; during that time, a circulating rumor claimed Anne Frank was denied entry to the United States before her death in the Holocaust.
While most Americans were familiar with Anne Frank (and many read her diary in school), the claim labeling her a prospective refugee seemed novel. Its appearance during an ongoing debate about Syrian refugees similarly prompted some skepticism among those who hadn't before heard it, as Frank's ordeal and death are a story with which so many are familiar.
On 14 February 2007 The New York Times published an article titled "Letters reveal desperate plight of Anne Frank's family," reporting that documents newly uncovered by an accident of circumstance revealed the Frank family's failed attempts at entry to the U.S.:
After lying undisturbed in a New Jersey warehouse for nearly 30 years, documents revealing the desperate efforts of Anne Frank's family to escape to the United States and Cuba from Nazi-occupied Holland in 1941 have been discovered thanks to a clerical error.
"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," Anne's father, Otto, wrote to his college friend, Nathan Straus Jr., the head of the federal Housing Authority, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt's and the son of a Macy's co-owner, asking him to put up a $5,000 bond. "It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance," Otto Frank wrote.
Page by page, the papers illustrate the tortuous process for gaining entry to the United States in those days. Even with powerful connections and money, European Jews could not overcome the State Department's restrictions against refugees, said two Holocaust scholars who examined the documents.
As the war in Europe intensified, so too did Otto Frank's efforts to transport his family to safety. He ultimately settled on an attempt to enter through Cuba, a plan which never reached fruition:
By June 1941, no one with close relatives still in Germany was allowed into the United States because of suspicions that the Nazis could use them to blackmail refugees into clandestine cooperation. That development ended the possibility of getting the Frank girls out through a children's rescue agency.
Because of the uncertainty, Otto Frank decided to try for a single visa for himself. It was granted and forwarded to him on Dec. 1. No one knows if it arrived. Ten days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States and Havana canceled the visa.
Reuters covered the discovery on 14 February 2007, including commentary from Holocaust scholars who lamented the family's failed attempt at passage:
If her father had sought help sooner, "Anne Frank could be a 77-year-old woman living in Boston today, a writer. That is what the YIVO's documents suggest," said Richard Breitman, a professor at American University.
However, Otto Frank decided to try to escape just as the Nazis were making it more difficult to leave and the United States was making it more difficult to enter, Breitman said.
Cuba issued Otto Frank a visa on December 1, 1941, according to the documents, but it was canceled 10 days later when Germany declared war on the United States.
A 2007 TIME article provided further details of Otto Frank's increasingly desperate efforts:
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.
An April 2015 article titled "Op-Ed: Getting Anne Frank All Wrong" published to Arutz Sheva addressed the plight of Anne Frank and other Jewish refugee children who perished:
Otto Frank, Anne's father, dutifully filled out the small mountain of required application forms and obtained supporting affidavits from the family's relatives in Massachusetts.
But that was not enough for those who zealously guarded America's gates against refugees. In fact, in 1941, the Roosevelt administration even added a new restriction: no refugee with close relatives in Europe could come to the U.S., on the grounds that the Nazis might hold their relatives hostage in order to force the refugee to undertake espionage for Hitler.
That's right: Anne Frank, Nazi spy.
Anne’s mother, Edith, wrote to a friend in 1939: "I believe that all Germany's Jews are looking around the world, but can find nowhere to go."
On 4 September 2015, Anne Frank's step-sister Eva Schloss drew direct parallels between the Syrian refugee crisis and the Jewish refugee crisis of World War II:
"You must not be selfish and you must share whatever you have and help in a desperate situation. They need help from you.
"These people have had the courage to do a very difficult thing- to take your family and your whole life to another country requires bravery and strength. This is history repeating itself.
"These Syrians are valuable, educated people. These are doctors and nurses who are only too willing to help our society and they will become leaders in the community if you let them."
The claim that Anne Frank "was a refugee" confused some readers, as they hadn't heard it prior to the Syrian refugee crisis. But the extent to which Otto Frank tried (and failed) to save his family from death during World War II was only first reported in 2007, and thus didn't appear in many history lessons before that. Ultimately Frank perished (likely of typhus) at Bergen-Belsen in 1945, shortly after the deaths of her mother and sister Margot.
Originally published: 19 November 2015