Anne Frank’s Family Tried to Escape to the United States, New Research Shows

They were held back by war, restrictive immigration policies and bureaucratic red tape

Anne Frank
Anne Frank in 1940 Public Domain

In an effort to escape Nazi persecution, Anne Frank and her family famously spent more than two years hiding in a secret annex behind her father’s business. Going into hiding was a last resort for the Franks. As the Associated Press reports, new research by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reveals that the family tried to seek refuge in the United States and Cuba, but were held back by war, restrictive immigration policies and the slow-grinding wheels of bureaucracy.

Researchers studied letters, tax clearances and other documents like character testimonies and affidavits of support, mapping out repeated attempts by Anne’s father, Otto Frank, to get his family out of Europe. Key to their investigation was a 1941 letter that Frank wrote to an American friend, Nathan Straus, explaining that he had filed an immigration application at the American consulate in Rotterdam in 1938—the same year that the Nazis perpetrated Kristallnacht, the targeted campaign of violence against Jews in Germany, annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia.

In 1938, the consulate in Rotterdam was the only one issuing visas in the Netherlands, where the Franks lived. But on May 14, 1940, while the Franks were still on an immigration waiting list, the consulate was hit by German bombs.

“[A]ll the papers have been destroyed there,” Frank wrote to Strauss, according to a report detailing the new research. Frank, however, did not give up hope that his family would one day find safety in the United States.

“I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see USA is the only country we could go to,” he wrote in the letter.

But escaping to America would have been difficult, even if the Franks’ documents had not been destroyed. In 1938, the United States imposed a quota of 27,370 immigration visas for immigrants from Germany and annexed Austria (this quota applied to the Franks because they were German born). In June of 1939, there were 309,782 Germans on the waiting list for a visa, meaning that the Frank family would likely have waited years before securing an interview at the consulate. Even then, there was no guarantee that the Franks’ application would have been approved; during the early years of the war, Americans were wary of accepting political refugees from European countries.

“State Department officials, who were generally obstructionist and now worried about possible spies and saboteurs infiltrating the United States, were under instructions to scrutinize each application even more carefully and reject anyone about whom they had any doubts,” the report explains.

When the Rotterdam consulate reopened, Otto Frank once again began collecting the paperwork required for the family’s visas, according to Nicole Chavez of CNN. In his 1941 letter to Straus, Frank asked his friend for assistance. Researchers discovered that Straus consulted with the National Refugee Service, a Jewish agency, which advised him to submit affidavits of support for the family. Frank’s two brothers-in-law, who were based in Boston, also contributed affidavits of support and the documents were sent to Amsterdam in May of 1941.

But the Franks’ application was never processed. In the summer of 1941, Germany ordered all American consulates to be shuttered in all occupied and Nazi-allied countries, in retaliation for Washington’s decision to close German consulates in the United States. The Rotterdam consulate ceased operating in July. Otto Frank subsequently applied for a visa to Cuba, but his application was cancelled four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The Franks stymied efforts to flee from Europe would have fateful consequences. With nowhere left to turn, the Franks went into hiding in the Amsterdam annex—a period that the young Anne Frank chronicled in her widely read diary. In August of 1944, the Franks and four others hiding with them in the Annex were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Otto Frank was the only one who survived the war.

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