December 7, 2019

Holocaust Survivor Reflects on Childhood Friend Anne Frank in New Book

Laureen and Rudi Nussbaum’s wedding in 1947. Otto Frank, the best man, is pictured far left in the window. Photo courtesy of Laureen Nussbaum

Ninety-two-year-old shoah survivor Laureen Nussbaum is finally sharing her story of survival in “Shedding Our Stars: The Story of Hans Calmeyer and How He Saved Thousands of Families Like Mine.” 

In the book, Nussbaum paints a realistic picture of what life was like in Amsterdam for herself, her friend Anne Frank and their families. The story also focuses on how one young German lawyer helped thousands of Jews escape deportation from the Netherlands during the German occupation.

Born Hannelore Klein in 1927 in Frankfurt, Germany, Nussbaum and her family escaped to Amsterdam when she was 8 years old. They moved into a neighborhood with many refugee families including Anne Frank and her family, who were old friends from Frankfurt. 

Speaking with the Journal by phone, Nussbaum said, “My parents knew the Franks as they had been part of the same liberal synagogue in Frankfurt. But I don’t remember seeing the girls in Frankfurt. Margot (Anne Frank’s older sister) was a year and a half older than me and I was two years older than Anne so I was smack in between, and I did not model myself after a little talkative girl who was two years younger than I was. I modeled myself after her very dignified older sister.”

Over the years, Nussbaum saw more of Margot than of Anne, but in 1941 Anne acted in a play that Nussbaum directed in her parents’ apartment. “Beginning in 1941, we were not allowed to attend any cultural events so the Franks and my parents instituted a little reading circle to read German classics. It took place in different households and Margot, who was part of the book circle, would come to our house regularly. In the fall of 1941, we rehearsed a play, which I had brought from Frankfurt called ‘The Princess With the Nose.’ We did the play in our apartment and Anne was the lead so I would see her several times a week until we had the play under control. Anne was very lively, and she learned her lines very fast so she was very bright, clearly,” Nussbaum recalled.

In January 1942, the Nazis began the systematic roundup and deportation of Amsterdam’s Jews to the German death camps. “In the spring of 1942, it was quite obvious things were turning for the worse,” Nussbaum recalled. “We had to start wearing the yellow star. During that time, the Franks got busy building up their hiding place. And my parents got busy seeing whether they could let on to the fact that my grandmother was not Jewish and maybe conjure up a non-Jewish grandfather to match her, which meant that our family would not be fully Jewish anymore.” 

When Hans Calmeyer, the German official in charge of “dubious cases,” decided in favor of their petition to be considered non-Jews, Nussbaum’s mother and sisters were allowed to shed their yellow stars, and her father, living in a “privileged mixed marriage,” was not deported. As a result, Nussbaum’s family never went into hiding. 

We did a play in our apartment and Anne was the lead. She was very lively, and she learned her lines very fast so she was very bright, clearly.”

  Laureen Nussbaum

After the Franks went into hiding, the families did not see each other. “I did not think about these things. It was too dangerous,” Nussbaum said. “You did not want to know anything you didn’t have to know because there was always the danger that you would be apprehended and maybe tortured.”

Nussbaum, who now lives in Seattle, and her family did reconnect with Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father and the sole survivor of the Frank family, after the war. “We were overjoyed when Otto came back. He was sure that his two girls had survived because he had learned they were in Bergen-Belsen and it did not have gas chambers. My then-fiancé, Rudi, was also searching for his mother,” Nussbaum said. “So Otto and Rudi would go together every day to the railroad station with pictures of their loved ones. Otto eventually found out the fate of the girls in June of 1945, and Rudi that his mother had died after the war after being liberated by the British.”

It wasn’t until after the war that Nussbaum learned of Anne’s talent. “What surprised me was that Anne was such an excellent writer. The moment I read her diary, I knew it was exceptional,” she said.

In 1947, Nussbaum and Rudi married. Otto Frank was their best man. The Nussbaums moved to the United States with their three children in 1957, eventually settling in Portland, Ore. Rudi joined the faculty of Portland State University and Nussbaum went on to earn her doctorate in German language and literature from the University of Washington.

As the years went by, Nussbaum came to realize that not many people knew the story of Calmeyer and how he had saved at least 3,700 Jews. “There were several books in German and Dutch on Hans but there was nothing in English except for a four-page citation from Yad Vashem after they had made him a righteous among the nations. So I felt compelled to write about this outstanding man,” Nussbaum said. “The man never bragged about his anti-Nazi stance. He just kept it to himself and was very interested in helping Germany after the war. He is not your typical hero.” Calmeyer died in 1972 at the age of 69.

It was in 2013, while Nussbaum was researching the book, that close friends suggested that she should weave her own memoir with the biography of Calmeyer: “Writer Ursula Le Guin, a colleague of mine, Tony Wolk and my co-author Karen Kirtley, all felt that my own story would add to the human interest of the book,” she said.

For Nussbaum, one of the key points she wants readers to take away from the book is that “people have to take responsibility. You cannot be like the Germans who said, ‘Well, we were only following orders.’ And Hans Calmeyer is an example. He was right under the eyes of the German Reichskommissar and he still found little ways to help people in life-and-death situations. We have to resist. We have to look out for opportunities even if it is against our government and the ruling convictions.”

For now, Nussbaum is living life to the fullest. “I am busy as a beaver,” she said. “I have already given five book launches and have three more upcoming ones. I have been asked to write an essay again so I am very happy that people still want my input.  I am way too busy for a person of 92.”