April 3, 2007

The Other Franks

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Two families with the last name of Frank fled Germany for Holland in the face of Adolf Hilter, Nazism and anti-Semitic sentiment and legislation. One family was discovered by the Gestapo; another family survived. Gordon F. Sander’s book The Frank Family That Survived chronicles these survivors’ lives, in particular that of Dorrit Sander nee Frank, Sander’s mother.

To Sander, the stories of the two families are mirror images of each other: both fled Germany for Holland, both went into hiding as “onderduikers,” or those who “dive under” and both had the same composition, a mother, father, and two sisters, among other similarities.

The Franks of whom Sander writes stayed in hiding for a year longer than Anne Frank’s family, through the Hunger Winter, until Holland’s liberation by Canadian forces.

The Frank Family That Survived uses the early life of Dorrit Sander — before she came to New York in April 1947 — as a “platform for telling what happened during World War II,” said Sander.

Dorrit was 12 when her family left Berlin for The Hague, in Holland; at 20, she and her family went into hiding into a small apartment at No. l4 Pieter van den Zandestraat in the same city for 1022 days.

After liberation, Dorrit said her family had to “get their wits about themselves” because “everything in Europe was destroyed.” Then, in 1946, seven months after leaving the apartment in Holland, Dorrit went to England, which she described, in terms of damage done by the war, “as bad as Germany — haven’t you heard of the London Blitz?” In England, Dorrit helped her uncle sell wallpaper designs.

However, the Frank family secured their American visas in April 1947 — New York City was Dorrit’s next stop.

“New York was a revelation,” Dorrit said.

Except for the epilogue and afterword of the book, the narrative of The Frank Family that Survived, ends with the family’s move to New York City – first Dorrit and her sister then their parents.

Sander sat down to write the book as an artist-in-residence at Risley Residential College from 2002 to 2004, but the initial inspiration for the book may have occurred in 1965, when Dorrit brought Sander, at fourteen years old, to the apartment in which she and her family had hid.

“I didn’t understand what she had been through; it took me forty years of thinking and researching and meditating to write this book,” Sander said. “I first tried to write something in 1979, but I didn’t have the maturity and perspective that I have now.”

Sander said that stories about one’s own family are stories about one’s own emotional heritage, and are often “too intense for a young person to write.”

“As Gordon got older we talked more about it,” Dorrit Sander said, in reference to her time in hiding. “It’s always been something difficult to talk about because so many Jews in Holland were killed.”

Given the circumstances of Dorritt’s early life — and those of her husband, Kurt Sander, a naturalized German Jew who had left Germany in 1933 and who had become a Liutenant Colonel in the American forces WWII — talk of the war wasn’t uncommon in the Sander household.

“My story wasn’t something I sprang on him all of a sudden,” she said.

70 percent of all Jews in Holland were lost in the Holocaust — 30,000 survived from an original population of 140,000, according to Sander; this percentage represents the single biggest loss of Jews in any Nazi-occupied country in Western Europe.

“In the Dutch Holocaust, there is a debate over how much the Dutch population helped the Germans,” said Prof. David I. Owen, Near Eastern studies, and director of the Program of Jewish studies. “But many Dutch helped protect the Jews; a thousand Jewish children were saved by Dutch families who took them in.”

“At least I’m here to talk about going into hiding,” Dorrit said. “There was a moment we were almost caught, but I don’t want to give away the suspense, you must read the book to find out.

In 2001 Sander re-visited his mother’s history and wrote a two-part documentary for BBC Radio 4, which Sander describes as the British version of National Public Radio.

From here, Dorrit’s story began to evolve to its current state, The Frank Family the Survived.

The book has sold 20,000 copies in Holland and Britain; Cornell University Press will run 3,000 copies of the book for the initial press run, a number, which according to Sander, is “normal for a University press.” Sander is slated to travel to Rio de Janeiro in June for the Brazilian publication of the book.

“Holocaust memoirs are rather frequently published,” Owen said. “For many years no one spoke about the Holocaust, there are instances of people having survived concentration camps and not speaking about it for 50 years.”

But, according to David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, “each book on World War II and the Holocaust is all the more precious, especially as generations of survivors age.”