A conversation with Anne Frank’s cousin

Generations of readers, theater patrons and movie goers have been touched and moved by “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but perhaps no one was more astonished by the adolescent girl’s deep inner life – while in hiding from the Nazis – than Anne’s father.

“I didn’t know my daughter until I read her diary,” Otto Frank told Buddy Elias.

Anne and Buddy were first cousins – her father and his mother were siblings – and at 86, Buddy is Anne’s closest surviving relative.

“We were wild kids, running around and playing hide-and-seek,” Buddy reminisced during a phone call to his home in Basel, Switzerland.

Buddy and his wife, Gerti (formally Bernhard and Gertrude), will be in Los Angeles on May 23 for a Writers Bloc conversation with author and Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch.

Much of their discussion will center on the book “Anne Frank’s Family,” based on the discovery of a cache of some 6,000 letters, postcards and photos exchanged between the Frank and Elias families before, during and after World War II.

The book was written by noted German author Mirjam Pressler, and the original German title translates as “Treasures From the Attic.”

Both the Frank and Elias families came from the German city of Frankfurt, but their fates diverged by pure chance.

Buddy’s father was sent by his firm to work in Basel in 1929, and the family was safely sheltered in neutral Switzerland during the Holocaust.

Anne’s father was also transferred to a new job as Hitler came to power in 1933. He and his family moved to Amsterdam, capital of a peaceful and seemingly safe Netherlands, which however was overrun and occupied by German armies seven years later.

During the prewar 1930s, the two families frequently got together for vacations in Switzerland or Holland, and corresponded on a weekly basis. The last time the two cousins saw each other was in 1938, when Buddy was 13 and Anne was 9.

Anne envied Buddy’s ice skating prowess, and in January 1941 she wrote to him that she hoped one day to be good enough to become his skating partner.

However, since the Nazi occupiers forbade Jews from attending public entertainment places, such as ice skating rinks, Anne added that they would “need to have a little patience until the war is over.”

This letter, part of a treasure trove of thousands of letters and memorabilia, was discovered in the Basel home of Helen Elias, Buddy’s mother and Anne’s aunt, after the elderly woman’s death a decade ago.

While checking over the house, Gerti decided to climb up to the spacious attic where she discovered, amid the old furniture, boxes strewn about in 14 different locations.

The find did not surprise Gerti’s husband: “My mother and grandmother never threw anything away,” Buddy recalled, although he wondered why he had never been told about the attic boxes.

Most of the handwritten letters in the boxes were in old-fashioned German script, and Gerti spent the next two and a half years deciphering, sorting and classifying the mountain of material.

The earliest letters from Anne consisted of typical children’s reports about friends and school. “Up to that point, there was nothing deep in her writing,” Buddy noted.

In July 1942, Anne’s older, studious sister, Margot, was ordered to report to a labor camp, and the Frank family went into hiding in a secret annex adjoining the father’s offices.

For the next two years, there were no direct communications from the Frank family, although the Eliases received a few cryptic, unsigned cards from Dutch gentiles who were aiding the Franks, reporting that “the girls are fine,” or “the family is in good health.”

The long silence was broken in May 1945, in a telegram from Otto Frank. He had been liberated by Soviet troops in Auschwitz, although his wife, Edith, had perished, and he was starting the search for his two daughters.

In subsequent letters, Frank wrote that the Red Cross in Amsterdam had confirmed that Anne and Margot had died in Bergen-Belsen. He added an account by one of their fellow inmates that the sisters fell victim to the typhus epidemic sweeping the camp.

After the war, Buddy turned his athletic skills into a career by becoming a comedy ice skater, appearing worldwide in “Holiday on Ice” and other shows for 14 years. He then turned to more conventional plays and to television, performing in German, English and French.

While on stage in a small German town in the early 1960s, appropriately in Anton Chekhov’s “A Marriage Proposal,” he fell in love and married a fellow cast member, the Austrian-born Gerti.

Elias serves as president of the Anne Frank Fund, which receives about $500,000 a year from sales of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and royalties from stage performances and movie screenings based on the book. The fund primarily supports projects to promote peace and children’s health.

Kirsch, who will lead the Writers Bloc discussion, is the author of 12 books, many based on biblical history, including the best seller “The Harlot at the Side of the Road.”

The event will be held May 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Goethe Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., with free parking at the building. Tickets are $20.

For tickets, e-mail reservations@writersblocpresents.com.