The story of how Anne Frank’s family hid in an attic before being discovered by the Nazis became well-known through the diary she wrote that was found by her father, Otto, after the war. But less is known about Otto’s prior attempts to find refuge for his family when the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940. The family had fled there from Germany several years earlier and felt safe until the invasion, after which Otto began writing letter after letter hoping some nation would offer asylum.
His failed attempts and their aftermath are chronicled in the new documentary, “No Asylum,” by filmmaker Paula Fouce, now playing at the Laemmle Music Hall. “Anne Frank is probably the most well-known icon of tolerance and respect in the world,” Fouce said. “And, although she died 70 years ago, the words in her message are still very well known. And recently the letters of her father, Otto, came to light, a whole cache of documents that [was] lost for 70 years. And these documents reveal how he struggled to save his family during the Holocaust, to get them visas to many countries, and the world turned its back on the Franks.”
As the film illustrates, country after country erected barriers to Jews and other persecuted groups seeking sanctuary from the Nazis. While conducting her research for the film, Fouce said she uncovered some explanations as to why the U.S. didn’t take in more refugees during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “We found out it was because the United States had just gotten out of the Depression, and people were worried about jobs. It was also because of anti-Semitism, and it was because of the fear of people being German spies.” Even after the war, when the world learned about the atrocities of the death camps, barriers continued.
The filmmaker said her preparation was helped immeasurably when she learned from a friend about the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which houses some 23 million items, including letters, films, recordings, memoirs and other materials. Amidst the collection is the Otto Frank file.
“I got to actually hold the letters of Otto Frank in my hand, and my heart was beating,” Fouce recalled. “It was so moving. You know, they're very fragile, and they're on thin paper. There are some telegrams. There are all sorts of different documents in there. Nathan Strauss, whose family had founded Macy's department store, and his wife, were also trying to help the Franks.
“When the Nazis tried to destroy all the wisdom of the Jewish people by burning the books,” Fouce said, “they kept a sort of collection of one of the best of everything, and they stamped it. And the stamp said that this was intended for the Museum of the Extinct People. And that was going to be built in Prague. So, apparently the U.S. Army found this collection of materials and eventually sent it back to the United States.”
In her film, Fouce includes testimony from surviving members of the Frank family, as well as representatives of YIVO, among other figures, along with archival footage from before, during and after the war. The documentary starkly depicts the results of the world’s indifference to Nazi victims, largely through footage from the concentration camps.
Fouce said she has long been concerned about religious intolerance and persecution, going back to when she was living in India and the Himalayas and working in such countries as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. “I was trapped in a religious riot, and I nearly got killed. It was in New Delhi in 1984, when Indira Ghandi was assassinated. And it was such a horrifying and frightening experience,” she said.
“I'm very interested in all the world's religions,” Fouce added. “I was brought up Catholic, but I studied with teachers of many, many faiths and did films on different faiths, and wrote books. I actually wrote a book called, ‘Not in God's Name: Making Sense of Religious Conflict.’ I have an interview with Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama and many people in that book, and, in fact, I got introduced to the Jewish rabbis in India, and I went to the synagogues there.”
Fouce said the kind of religious hatred Jews experienced during the Holocaust persists. She pointed out that Jews are still being attacked in various parts of the world, as are other groups. “It's something that we just really need to try to grow beyond. Obviously, a lot of us are very peaceful people. But we have to somehow change the mind of those that would be drawn to radical fundamentalism, in whatever religion it may be.”
She added that given the issue of refugees today, her film is particularly timely. “This film just happens to come out when we are having a huge problem in the world with refugees. And we have to look to helping people, and we also have to be aware of safety. There has to be some way to deal with that. When we showed the film at the Museum of Tolerance, that's pretty much what people were saying. I don't think there's an easy answer to anything, but it does draw an interesting parallel.”