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The Letters of Otto Frank

SCOTT SIMON, host:

It's seems almost a cruel joke of history to learn this week that Ann Frank's family tried to get into the United States in 1941. The young girl, whose vivid, funny and uncommonly wise diary has embodied the crime of the Holocaust for millions of people, might have lived. She might have grown up, written books and had children.

In April 1941, Otto Frank wrote an old friend for help, Nathan Strauss Jr., with whom he'd attended Heidelberg University and whose family owned Macy's department store. Perhaps you remember that we have two girls, Mr. Frank wrote. It is for the sake of the children, mainly. Our own fate is of less importance.

Otto Frank had actually worked at Macy's for a year after their graduation in 1908 and loved New York. But he went back to Europe when his father died in 1909. This week an institute for Jewish research released records from old refugee agencies that document the desperation of Jews trying to leave Europe as Nazi persecution spread. The names of the Frank family are merely the best known among millions.

Mr. Frank first applied to get into the United States in 1938 but didn't pursue it. That might be difficult to understand now, but in 1938 millions of thoughtful people in Europe and America just didn't believe that Adolph Hitler would annihilate the Jews.

They thought his scalding screeds about Jews must be some kind of pose, a joke or a ruse or that the great democratic powers wouldn't let him get away with it. Mr. Frank applied again in 1941, after the fall of Poland, Holland and France, the opening of concentration camps, and the blitz of London. But 300,000 people had applied for the few thousands of slots open to come to America.

Appeasement wasn't yet considered silly here. Respectable people made apologies for Hitler, saying he was merely trying to avenge Germany's humiliation. Many Americans feared being sucked into Europe's war, and to be sure, many respectable people were anti-Semitic. A rule barred anyone with relatives living in Germany from being admitted because the Nazis might blackmail refugees into carrying out acts of sabotage. Maybe that fear seemed reasonable then. I wonder if happened even once.

Nathan Strauss was a prominent man and tried to use contacts in the Roosevelt administration to get a visa for the Franks, but to no avail. Within a few months, Otto Frank took his family into hiding in the upper rear rooms of his factory, where they hid for two years with the Van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer before being discovered and sent to death camps.

Historical analogies are tricky, but this week as we may try to imagine Anne Frank is a 77-year-old grandmother in Florida or New Jersey, we may also wonder about some of those millions trying to get into the United States today. Who are we keeping out and what do we lose by turning them away? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.