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Letters Written by Anne Frank’s Father, Otto, Will Be Digitized to Mark Diarist’s 90th Birthday

The notes stem from a 1970s pen pal correspondence between Otto and a young artist named Ryan Cooper

Otto Frank pictured holding a copy of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (Calle Hesslefors/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

A trove of letters and mementos sent from Anne Frank’s father, Otto, to a young Californian artist over a decade-long correspondence will be digitized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in honor of the 90th anniversary of the diarist’s June 12, 1929, birth.

As Philip Marcelo reports for the Associated Press, Ryan Cooper, then in his twenties, first reached out to Otto—the sole survivor of the Secret Annex’s eight inhabitants—during the 1970s. Over the following years, the pair exchanged dozens of letters, even meeting in person on several occasions. Their friendship endured until Otto’s death in 1980 at the age of 91.

“[Otto] was a lot like Anne in that he was an optimist,” Cooper, now 73, tells Marcelo. “He always believed the world would be right in the end, and he based that hope on the young people.”

In a letter dating to January 9, 1972, Otto referenced his daughter’s desire to “work for mankind” if she survived the war.

He continued, “I can see from your letter that you are an intelligent person and that you have self criticism and so I can only hope that Anne will inspire you to find a positive outlook on life.”

Cooper says the duo’s missives began by discussing Anne, whose wartime writings Otto published posthumously in 1947. (The diary, now translated into around 70 different languages, became renowned for its incisive musings on life in hiding, the Holocaust, faith and the challenges of adolescence.) But the letters soon shifted to talk of Cooper’s personal life, with Otto acting as a source of support for his younger friend.

The artist and antiques dealer cites his unusual friendship with the Holocaust survivor as an influence to this day, noting on his website that although Otto has “long since … passed this earthly world, he still guides my steps.” When he’s not painting maritime seascapes and landscapes in the Cape Cod and Nantucket region, Cooper spends much of his time speaking at schools about both Anne and his pen pal.

Edna Friedberg, a historian at the museum, tells Marcelo that letters written by Cooper and Otto reveal the toll the latter’s work took on both his physical and mental health. In March 1979—just over a year before Otto’s death—his second wife, Elfriede “Fritzi” Frank, wrote an addendum alluding to her husband’s poor health: “You can surely imagine that all this is very emotional for him and takes a lot of his strength. But you cannot prevent him [from] doing what he thinks is his duty.”

In total, Cooper’s collected correspondence, encompassing more than 80 letters written by Otto, Miep Gies (one of the helpers who aided the individuals living in the Secret Annex, she hid Anne’s writings until the end of the war) and others linked with the Frank family, will be digitized and made available to the public in the near future. “Modest” family keepsakes, including Otto’s coin purse and a photograph of Anne, also make up the trove of donated artifacts.

Anne, who would have turned 90 today, was a prolific letter-writer herself. A newly released volume titled Anne Frank: The Collected Works features “everything [she] ever wrote,” from epistles to diary entries, short stories and essays. Letters addressed from Anne to her paternal grandmother, Alice Frank-Stern, are published in full for the first time; they paint a portrait of a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, concerned with quotidian complaints such as the “very unpleasant” experience of having braces while at the same time becoming increasingly conscious of the dangers faced by Europe’s Jewish population.

In one note, the burgeoning diarist tells her grandmother, then living in Basel, Switzerland, that she wishes she could start ice skating again but must have a “little more patience, until the war is over.”

Anne adds, “When I can skate really well Papa has promised me a trip to Switzerland, to see all of you.”

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