Thursday, February 15, 2007


“I would not ask if conditions here would not force me to do all I can in time to be able to avoid worse...perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”
So begins one of the many letters that Otto Frank sent to his friend in America as his time was running out. In light of this letter, it is tragedy exemplified that in the end, it was he who alone survived, and his wife and daughters who died in the recesses of the Nazi concentration camps, wizened, nameless souls stricken with disease and helplessness.

The New York Times has written a piece about an extraordinary and heart-rending set of letters and documents unearthed, that detail Otto Frank's desperate attempts to get to America. He did all he could, and in the end, it was fate which intervened and sealed his life, and more importantly that of his daughters. In the process, fate also consigned his daughter to becoming a symbol of everlasting hope and empathy, a legend for humanity for ages to come.

However, in spite of the special nature of these letters, Otto Frank was one of hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens in Europe who were desperately knocking on the doors of the US, as the State Department tightened the noose of its immigration laws and ended any chance of survival that most of these people had. It is only when we realize that there were a hundred thousand such Otto Franks and Anne Franks in Europe, that we realise the true magnitude of the catalysm that befell humanity during those dark ages.

In another irony, potential immigrants had to prove that they were "of benefit to the United States". In denying Otto Frank and his family a chance to emigrate, the US made sure that Otto Frank's daughter would serve as a "benefit" and reminder to all of the world in the future, albeit a tragic one.

There was nothing wrong in the US and Britain limiting the numbers of refugees, as any country must have some set of rules when it is flooded with such an exodus. But what is more disconcerting is the fact that the US did in fact have a special immigration quota for Jews, and that even though its informal policy was nowhere close to that of Germany, the US had been practicing informal anti-Semitism for a long time. During the early 1900s, Harvard had a policy of explictly discriminating against Jews to some extent through a quota. But then, most of the western world had practiced anti-Semitism through several hundred years in the past. As far as science was concerned for example, Richard Feynman could not get admitted to Columbia because of a Jewish quota, Robert Oppenheimer's Jewishness caused concern in the affluent bay area community, and he could not get his longtime friend and assistant Robert Serber- as brilliant a physicist as any- appointed to the faculty at Berkeley; according to the physics department chairman, "One Jew in the Department was enough". All through the early twentieth century, being Jewish had a manifest disadvantage to it, as far as getting any kind of job was concerned. Compounded with The Depression, Jews had a hard time indeed.

Another mild irony becomes clear from the article; the US feared the breakout of a rash of Nazi-supported spy cells among the immigrants, and that was one of the reasons there was such restriction on immigration. The paradox in the situation is that this was at a time when Russian spies were thronging the country in the hundreds, passing every secret from car manufacturing to chemical plant design to the Soviet Union, not to mention the most sensitive secrets of the atomic bomb.

Nor was the German persecution of Jews an unknown factor in the US. As Joel Bakan in The Corporation notes, IBM and other companies regularly did business with the Germans before the war, supplying them the then-primitive "computers". That some of these machines were used to keep track of listings of Jews in concentration camps was a tacitly known fact. The US did not know the grotesque extent and the exact nature of these camps, but the very fact that influential businessmen in the US could dismiss their existence at least makes it clear that condemning anti-Semitism was not yet a gut-reaction, when it should have been so. Later in the war, the existence of Auschwitz was a known fact, and some military officials suggested bombing the train routes that led to the camp, a move that would have saved thousand of lives. Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors rejected the possibility, as they thought that it would divert much needed air-force resources from other campiagns. Again, FDR was not an anti-Semite, but several facts make it clear that the rescue and liberation of European Jewry was not the most expedient priority in the minds of many.

And so it was that Otto Frank's fate, among others, was sealed. Perhaps the US would not have been able to save Otto Frank even if its immigration policies were lax; the spread of Nazi tyranny was too fast and there were simply too many Jews wanting to leave Europe. But history is a curious phenomenon, and one incident can tell you about the state of the world, for better or worse. That we must learn from it is the only thing that then matters. Anne Frank surely taught us that.

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Blogger Hirak said...

A few months ago, I visited the 'Secret Annexe' in Amsterdam where the Frank family hid before they were betrayed. The place is really very cramped and small. In addition, the letters make the whole story even more poignant. After trying every possible route to escape, the Franks were left with only one option - to back into a tiny corner and hope no one would ever find out.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Horribly sad indeed :(

8:31 AM  
Blogger bharath said...

Noam Chomsky narrated a few incidents of this nature when discussing his experiences at a young age. Anti-semitism was quite wide spread in the academia.

but it is hardly anything compared to segregation that blacks had to live with. and they didn't even come here voluntarily in the first place.

also need to remember that more than million Indians were slaughtered before U.S took shape as a nation.

in the "history of violence" there is always one that trumps others. and in my view holocaust has taken that special position in the world dialog.

5:39 AM  

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