From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Letters to Anne Frank’s Father

To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it.

Mother Teresa

I sat on my suitcase as the Swiss train carried me to a meeting I’d dreamed of for two decades. At the end of the journey waited Anne Frank’s father, Otto, with whom I had corresponded since I was fourteen.

I wanted this encounter with the man I’d come to think of as a second father to be all emotion, embraces, tears. But I realized Otto would probably just shake my hand formally, and we would have a very civilized time together, and that would be that. I was prepared.

The dream of this day had begun to take shape when I was twelve, growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley. I had auditioned for the starring role in the 1959 movie The Diary of Anne Frank. I didn’t get the part, but I found a whole new world in Anne Frank’s diary.

Despite the monumental differences in our situations, I identified strongly with this eloquent girl my own age. Her predicament burned in my thoughts: how she hid from the Nazis in a tiny annex above her father’s Amsterdam office building, bursting with frustrated life, “like a canary in a cage.” How she remained hidden for two years with her parents, Otto and Edith, her older sister, the Van Daan family and a dentist. How they were caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp, where she died. How she still believed, after all she’d been through, that “people are really good at heart.”

Two years after first reading her diary, I wrote Otto Frank in Birsfelden, Switzerland, where he and his second wife, Fritzi, eventually settled. Would he answer me? Did he speak English? Could I even talk to him of Anne, or would it be too painful?

Then came a letter. I must have read it a hundred times.

August 21, 1959

I received your kind letter and thank you for it.

Anne’s ardent wish was to work for mankind, and therefore an Anne Frank Foundation has been incorporated in Amsterdam to work in her spirit. You are right that I receive many letters from young people all over the world, but you will understand that it is not possible for me to carry on correspondence, though, as you see, I am answering everyone.

Wishing you all the best, I am with kindest regards.


Otto Frank

I replied that he didn’t have to answer me. I would simply write to him whether he answered or not. After that, whenever an attack of “I-can’t-take-this-any-longer” hit me, I’d put it all into a lengthy letter. And he always answered.

At fifteen I wrote to him about my wish to be an actress. He replied:

Continue to study dancing, continue to work on literature and drama, but let it be your hobby. . . . To have acting and dancing as a job is very difficult.

In college, where I changed majors as fast as I changed socks, Otto Frank was there for me. From dance to drama to English, my dear distant “guidance counselor” was much more tolerant than those at U.C.L.A.

He was there, too, when I contemplated marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish. He advised me to get books about Judaism for my fiancé to read. We did this.

When we married, Otto wrote:

Do not mind the disapproval of others. The main thing is that your personalities are well matched and you have respect for each other’s conviction.

Though I was joyous in my marriage, that was the difficult year of 1968. After Robert Kennedy was killed, I wrote:

Bobby Kennedy is dead. Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead. John F. Kennedy is dead. Medgar Evers is dead. All shot by madmen. How can I bring a child into this world?

He wrote back:

Never give up! I once read, “If the end of the world were imminent, I still would plant a tree today.” Life goes on, and perhaps your child will bring the world one step further.

In honor of my birthday that year, Mr. Frank sent me a note:

Two trees in Israel in the name of Mrs. Cara Wilson for her birthday. Planted by Mr. O. Frank, Birsfelden.

Otto Frank’s vision of hope gave my husband and me the courage to become parents. We had two sons, Ethan and Jesse. My trip to Switzerland was the first time I had been away from them.

The train was slowing. The conductor announced the stop and the doors flew open.

I looked into the crowd and saw a man with a straight back and Lincolnesque face. Snow-white hair surrounded a balding head. A tall, elderly man, still strong and handsome.

It was really him. Otto Frank.

“Cara! At last!” he said warmly. I was actually hugging him. A real bear hug. Thank God. No formal handshakes or polite hellos. Suddenly a little shy, he put his arm in mine. Fritzi linked my other arm, and we walked off.

When I stepped into the Franks’ house, I felt that I was home. Otto took me into their little study. A pile of fresh mail lay stacked on his desk. He showed me wall-to-wall notebooks bursting with letters.

Then Otto brought out another notebook. “These are your letters, Cara. I saved them all.” I couldn’t believe it. I was facing myself through twenty years of letters. I saw my twelve-year-old’s scrawl evolve into an adult’s script and then change to typewritten pages. Masses of exclamation points and underlinings, outpourings of feeling.

Then Otto said, “You are not the only one to write all these years.”

Smiling, he told me about some of the others. There was Sumi from Japan, who had lost her father. She read Anne’s diary and was moved to write to Otto. She told him that she would like to become his “letter daughter”—and signed all her letters “Your daughter, Sumi.” Otto advised her through the years.

Then there was John Neiman, who, as a college student, reread Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and wrote to Mr. Frank. Otto told him, “If you want to honor Anne’s memory and the people that died, do what Anne wanted so very much—do good for other people.”

For John, that meant becoming a priest. Today Father John, a Catholic priest in Redondo Beach, California, continues to reach out to Holocaust survivors.

And there was Vassa. Some time ago Otto had received a letter from Athens. He went to the Greek embassy, where he was referred to a local teacher who translated the letter from Greek.

The young writer told Otto about her horrifying background— how her father, who had been in the underground movement against the Nazis, had been murdered in front of her. Vassa lost interest in everything—in life itself.

Then she saw the play, The Diary of Anne Frank. She wrote to Otto, pouring out her heart. He responded that though Anne was deprived of seeing her goals achieved, Vassa had a whole lifetime of promise before her. The correspondence continued, and with Otto’s encouragement, Vassa overcame her depression.

Realizing the girl no longer needed his advice, Otto wrote to her explaining the strain it was to have her letters translated. He was getting too old. He had to stop writing her.

For over a year Otto didn’t hear from Vassa. Then a letter came, bearing her familiar signature. The letter was in French—a language Otto could read. During those months, Vassa had studied French so she could write to her dear mentor.

Throughout my visit I listened carefully to what Otto said, sensing it would be important to remember everything about this time. As if reading my mind, he told me quietly, “It was good that you came now. I’m an old man, you know.”

We continued to correspond for two more years. Then one day I received a letter from Fritzi that began:

Dearest Cara,

Now my darling Otto has left me and all his friends . . .

I could only marvel at how many lives this gentle man had affected—and feel fortunate that mine had been one of them. We are from different races and religions, but in one way we are the same. After all, were we not sent by Anne to keep her father company?

Cara Wilson

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