As with so many young people, I had read Anne Frank’s diary while a junior high school student at the Schiller Gymnasium in Cologne, Germany, where my family had lived for two years during the mid-1960s. Anne was somewhat of an imaginary friend, someone I felt I knew, because her writing was so matter-of-fact and intimate. I felt that I was with her during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, except that I had the advantage of living more than two decades later. I also benefited from hindsight. I knew what was going to happen, notably that she would be arrested and deported to the death camps, but that, in the end, the Germans would be defeated.
This is what Buddy Elias, Anne Frank’s cousin and a close friend of my mother’s since growing up in Switzerland before World War II, reminded me whenever he came to visit. Until the war broke out, both my mother, a Swiss figure skating champion, and Buddy had been skating partners as part of ice shows in Alpine resorts such as Davos and Wengen. When he came to stay with us in Cologne, Buddy was a well-known actor on the Swiss and German theatre stages, as well in film and television. “You would have found Anne a lot of fun,” he once told my brother and me. “She was always goofing around, playing tricks on everyone.”
I also felt that as a post-war teenager in Germany, I could empathize with Anne. The war fascinated me and I had read a lot of books. World War II was still very close, much like another anniversary today on 12 June, 2019, notably 20 years since NATO forces first entered Kosovo in 1999, to end Serbia’s own repressive occupation against its minority Albanians. I remember Kosovo just as vividly as I did the shadows of World War II as a teenager, because, as an adult journalist, I had entered the country from neighbouring Macedonia three days later.
The Nazi period was often a discussion at school
While in Cologne, barely 20 years after the Nazi surrender, the vestiges of conflict remained. There were the empty lots and shrapnel-marked buildings in downtown Cologne where rubble from the Allied bombing still lay. Or the rusting Allied and German military vehicles that one could still find in the surrounding forests.
Plus it was a subject that my teachers often discussed, sometimes out of civic duty, sometimes out of bitterness, such as my Latin master, Herr Kitschen, who, as a young boy, had his stamp collection stolen by two American GI’s when they entered the city. But unlike France today, where open discussion about war-time collaboration still remains a largely taboo subject, World War II was very much part of the school curriculum, warts and all.
So, Anne Frank’s diary helped put a lot of this into perspective. From a young person’s point of view. This is important, particularly for the new generations of today. Whether American or European, or from anywhere else in the world for that matter, none of us are any different. Even with the nightmare of totalitarianism, Anne still struggled with the day-to-day life of an ordinary teenager.
Buddy Elias: helping young people understand the importance of peace
So in January, 2015, my own teenage son Alexander and I arranged with Buddy, then living in Basel at the age of 89, to come and speak to a group of international schools in Geneva. I had often told our kids about Buddy, whom I had known since childhood. He was a comedian and could never stop telling jokes. My brother and I often demanded that he recount ones that he had to tell us again and again over the years. But he also sometimes sat down and somberly explained what had happened to his relatives, the Otto Frank family, under the Nazis. All this left a lasting impression.
This is what I wanted my son to hear. I considered it important that he and his fellow high school students listen to Buddy’s – and Anne’s – message first-hand. For Buddy, this was particularly crucial amid so many ongoing conflicts, whether in Syria, Gaza, Libya, Afghanistan, or Ukraine, with the indiscriminate killing of civilians, including children. And it bore deep resonance when so many were questioning the security of Jews in Europe, but also what was happening in the Middle East with regard to the plight of Palestinians. At one point, he said, “this is what Israelis have to remember. No one is different.”
Several months earlier, my family and I had driven up to Basel, a two-and-half hour car drive from Geneva, to see Buddy and his wife, Gerti, a tall and striking actress, a former Jewish refugee from Austria, for lunch at their home. Both still kept a hectic schedule travelling the world for the Anne Frank Fonds in support of youth and social change projects funded by the foundation. Buddy talked non-stop about their work and the importance of involving young people. For him, the whole point of the Anne Frank legacy was to contribute toward a better understanding among religions, and to serve the cause of peace. “It is up to young people to help bring about this change,” he said.
“Anne Frank has become a world symbol for combatting all forms of racism and intolerance. That is what Anne wrote in her diary,” he told Alexander. In many ways, he continued, Anne Frank belongs to no one – neither the Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus…Nor the Swiss, Israelis, Dutch or anyone else. “The time will come when we will be people again and not just Jews,” he said, citing his favourite line from the diary.
Seeing both Buddy and Gerti in Basel was particularly gratifying for me. The last time I had met them was in West Berlin, well before the 1989 fall of the Wall, where Buddy was working, notably on a TV series as well as on stage. At the time, West Berlin still only had a relatively small, but steadily expanding Jewish population of 5,000-6,000 souls, a fraction of the 160,000 Jews who had lived there before the Nazis.
I had come to do a PBS documentary about the divided city. And I wanted to do something different. Not the usual Wall story but something which explained why Berlin is such an exceptional place. I asked him why he, a Jew, had decided to return to Germany. So many German Jews who had survived the war, such as former refugees now living in the United States or Canada, absolutely refused to step foot on German soil. Those who wished to speak German would go to Switzerland for their holidays.
Buddy smiled. “Because whether I like it or not, my culture is German. Obviously, we never want the same things to happen again. Ever. But there is a new generation of young people in Germany, and they are not to blame for the Nazis. They are the future.” Today, more than 30,000 Jews, primarily from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, now live in Berlin, according to German government figures. Many, too, it appears, are reluctant to continue onto Israel, primarily because of jobs but also, for young people, to avoid military service. Very few Jews of German origin, however, have ‘come back’.
Despite Buddy’s renown as a German actor, he was better known worldwide for his association with Anne Frank and the Fonds. He was often on the BBC talking about Anne Frank whenever there was an anniversary or an issue that related to her life.
Born in 1925, Buddy and the Elias family moved in 1931 to Switzerland from Frankfurt, where the Otto Frank family also lived. The Franks fled to Amsterdam in 1933, having decided at the time that the Netherlands were a safe option. Until the German invasion, Buddy recounted, the Franks had regularly visited the Elias’s over the summer and winter holidays, staying at the family house in Basel. Buddy remembers spending much of his time growing up with Anne and her older sister Margot, often writing and then performing Punch and Judy shows for the families. “Anne and I were very fond of each other and talked a lot,” Buddy recalled.
Buddy saw the Franks for the last time in 1938. They were supposed to come again in 1939. However, with growing anti-semitic aggression in Germany following Kristallnacht, the November, 1938 pogrom by SA forces and Nazi gangs, the Franks decided that it was too risky to travel, even through Belgium and France. Then, on 10 May, 1940, the Germans attacked the Netherlands, putting an end to all hope of them ever making it back to Switzerland. Nevertheless, Buddy continued to correspond with Anne until it became impossible to send letters.
After the war, Otto Frank, sole survivor of the Frank family, came to Switzerland, eventually establishing the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel in 1963. On Otto’s death in 1980, Buddy took over as president.
“How wonderful nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” (Anne Frank’s diary)
Anne’s diary, which has been translated into over 70 languages with 30 million copies sold, is considered one the world’s great bestsellers. Royalties and other revenue related to the sales are directed to the Fonds, which does not accept funding from other sources. According to Buddy, Anne’s diary has been narrated in countless different forms, even by those who have never heard of her. “Everyone has something to say or contribute that can help make a positive difference in the world,” Buddy told my son.
So when Alexander and I began preparing for Buddy’s visit to Geneva to speak to an assembly of students from the International School of Geneva in mid-February, 2015, we were more than excited. Buddy, too, was eager to come with Gerti. Shortly before the event, however, Gerti rang to say that he would have to postpone for a few weeks as his doctor had ordered him to slow down for health reasons.
On 17 March, Gerti telephoned again. Buddy, she told me softly, had died the day before. She had wanted to ring personally to let us know as his planned visit had been so important to him. He had not wanted to let us down. But he didn’t. Alexander and I both remembered another favourite line of Buddy’s from her diary that should rank in the mind of every young person concerned about the future. “How wonderful nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author. He wrote this as part of ‘Youth Writes’, Global Geneva’s Young Journalists and Writers Initiative.