Skip to main content

Swiss man reintroduces his cousin: Anne Frank

By Moni Basu, CNN
May 27, 2012 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A discovery of 6,000 documents reveals more about the life of Anne Frank
  • The documents were used in a new book about the Frank family
  • Her closest surviving relative is in America to talk about his cousin who died in the Holocaust
  • Buddy Elias recalls a spunky girl who loved to skate

Atlanta (CNN) -- If the curves of Buddy Elias' 86-year-old face look familiar, it's because he is the closest surviving relative of the girl whose diary gave an early glimpse into the Holocaust.

It's not difficult to see that Elias is Anne Frank's first cousin. He has the same soulful eyes and smile in the photographs that accompanied Anne's famous diary, written while hiding from the Nazis.

He was as an expert skater on the ice rink -- even toured with Holiday on Ice after the war. When he was young, Anne spent carefree vacations with Elias's family in Switzerland. She pined for those days after the world turned dark for Jews in Europe.

She called him Bernd, short for Bernhard, Elias' formal name. She adored him.

And she wrote him letters. The entire Frank family was known for their prolific and detailed writing.

Anne Frank\'s diary gave an early glimpse into the Holocaust. She was a first cousin of Buddy Elias.
Anne Frank's diary gave an early glimpse into the Holocaust. She was a first cousin of Buddy Elias.

"Bernd, maybe we can skate as a pair together someday," she wrote in January 1941 from Amsterdam. "But I know I'll have to train very hard to be as good as you are."

In another letter, Anne outlined the steps to their skating routine and drew a picture of the blue, fur-trimmed dress she would wear when she finally skated with Elias.

"She never did get to do that," Elias says.

On his 17th birthday in June, 1942, she asked him how it was going with a girl he had met.

It was an ordinary letter that one keeps like any other. But it turned out to be her last to him and he preserved it like a relic, as proof of his cousin's affection, as something to treasure.

"That was the last sign of life I had with Anne," Elias says.

Sitting in an Atlanta hotel conference room, he points out some of Anne's letters, published recently in "Anne Frank's Family."

Written by German author Mirjam Pressler with the help of Elias' wife, Gerti, the book tells the story of the entire Frank family -- Buddy Elias' mother, Leni, was the sister of Otto Frank, Anne's father.

The Eliases are on a tour of the United States, reading from the book and telling an extraordinary tale of his family, much of which was not known, save Anne's diary, until an amazing discovery a decade ago.

The last sign of life

Herbstgasse 11. That is the house in Basel, Switzerland, that Buddy Elias calls home.

It brims with memories of an educated Jewish family who originally hailed from Frankfurt, Germany, where both Buddy and Anne were born.

Otto Frank landed a job in the Netherlands and Anne's family resettled there. Elias' father was employed by a German firm in Switzerland. Only later would Elias realize how lucky he was to have moved to a nation that remained neutral in World War II.

The Franks, like other Jews in Europe, knew bad things were coming, though no one could have imagined how bad.

In 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands. Anne Frank's family was trapped.

Shortly after Anne penned her letter to Elias about longing to skate with him, the rinks closed. "No Jews allowed," the signs said. It was the same in libraries, schools, cinemas and cafes.

"I have hardly any chance to get a tan because we're not allowed to go to the swimming pool, it's a shame but there's nothing we can do about it," Anne wrote.

Elias could read between the lines in Anne's letters. He could feel life closing in on her.

Then on July 4, 1942, a disturbing letter from Amsterdam arrived at Herbstgasse 11.

"Dear everyone," wrote Otto Frank. "We think of you all the time and know that you're thinking of us, but you can't change anything here and you have to take care that you make it through yourselves. With much love. O."

Anne Frank\'s sister Margot in 1941.
Anne Frank's sister Margot in 1941.

Anne's sister Margot had received notice from the Nazis to report to a "work camp."

"Everyone knew what that was," Elias says.

Otto Frank arranged for his family to hide in the attic of his office building with four other Jews, protected by sympathetic Dutch Christians.

The next part of the story is well known -- the Frank family's suffocating experience of spending 25 months in cramped quarters, always fearing they would be discovered. The world learned the harrowing tale in Anne's own words, written in her now widely-read diary.

It was first published in 1947 in Dutch. Elias waited several more years for a German version before he truly came to understand his childhood playmate.

"My first reaction was like Otto's when he first read the diary: 'I didn't know my child until I read her diary.'

Elias had not seen Anne in so many years; an image of a spunky girl etched in his mind. She loved Elias' puppet shows with Jack-in-the-Box and to play hide-and-seek.

"Anne was always good at hiding," he says, the irony of his words unnoticed.

She made him dress up in their grandmother's black dresses. He pulled it over his shirt and pants, wound a shawl around his waist and stuffed two small pillows down the lace neck insert of the dress.

Anne giggled, he says, a smile coming over his face.

But when he read her diary, he came to know a different person -- one who apparently grew into a young woman who had deep humanitarian concerns. Why was there enough money for arms, but not for the poor, she asked. Why do people talk about the strength of men but not the force of women?

"Every girl needs a girlfriend to talk to," he says. "That book was her friend."

Treasures in the attic

Ten years ago, Gerti decided it was time to clean house. She climbed into the hot attic at Herbstgasse 11 and began sifting through a jungle of things. Furniture, suitcases, metal trunks. She opened a closet and discovered a box filled with papers. They were letters kept in neat stacks and tied with silk ribbons.

They were written in an old German script that the Nazis banned in 1941 because it was erroneously thought to be Jewish.

Anne Frank\'s extended family at the wedding of Buddy Elias (front row, fourth from right) and Gerti (with flowers).
Anne Frank's extended family at the wedding of Buddy Elias (front row, fourth from right) and Gerti (with flowers).

Her curiosity piqued, Gerti Elias scoured the attic and found 14 boxes of letters, postcards, photos, papers. In all, it was a cache of 6,000 documents that told the story of a family torn apart.

Some revealed what was not in Anne's diary; of what happened after her family was discovered by the Nazis in July 1944 and carted to concentration camps.

Otto Frank sent a telegram to Basel on May 27, 1945.

"Arrived in Marseilles. Good health. Leaving for Paris. Kisses," it said in French using a plural form of the verb, to leave.

Elias says he thought everyone in Anne's family had survived. For the first time in weeks, everyone at home was happy.

A subsequent letter from Otto Frank felt like a bomb had exploded in the house.

"All my hopes are for the children. I cling to the firm belief that they are still alive and that we will be together again soon," he wrote. "It's a miracle I survived. I don't want to write about it for now. Sadly, the strain was too much for Edith. She died of malnutrition in the hospital, on January 6, 1945."

Elias realized then that Anne's entire family had been taken to the death camp at Auschwitz, a word he had not dared to say aloud. The family knew more than 1 million people perished there, most from the deadly Zyklon B gas. They knew Otto was one of only 7,000 who survived.

Other letters detailed the horrors the Franks suffered.

Elias was 20 then. He wanted to write to his uncle but felt every word would ring hollow. His mother convinced him otherwise.

Buddy Elias, left, and his brother Stephan in 1934.
Buddy Elias, left, and his brother Stephan in 1934.

"After all these years of horrible uncertainty about your fate, the certainty has turned out to be just as horrible," he wrote. "All of our hopes are focused on Margot and Anne's return. We mustn't give up hope until their safe return, or until there is certain news that they are not alive, but we don't even want to think about that."

Then, suddenly one day, postcards that Otto Frank had written from Auschwitz began arriving at Herbstgasse 11. He did not know yet that his wife was dead. His words haunted Elias' family.

When he finally learned the awful truth, Otto Frank wrote: "If she could have held out only two more weeks."

Elias' mother, Leni, repeated the words aloud. It was true for so many people.

It was a terrible time of waiting, Elias recalls. To see who would come back; who would not.

For the Frank family, the news was all bad. On July 18, 1945, Otto Frank saw his daughter's names on a Red Cross list: Margot Betti Frank and Annelies Marie Frank. Both were followed by crosses.

He found a woman who had been with Anne and Margot at Bergen-Belsen, where they had been taken from Auschwitz. She described them as freezing baby birds. She recalled how they celebrated their last Hannukah with roasted potato peels and Yiddish songs.

The girls discussed what they would do when they got home. "Anne's idea was: 'Then we'll have a party, a celebratory meal at Dikker & Thys,' one of Amsterdam's most expensive restaurants."

The woman said Margot and Anne fell extremely ill with fever.

"A few days later, their bunk was empty and the girls' thin bodies were wrapped in blankets and taken to a mass grave," the woman said,

British soldiers liberated the camp only weeks later. They found 60,000 emaciated prisoners.

Otto Frank's mother wrote to her son, saying she was with him in his unspeakable sorrow.

"I don't want to & can't write about any details today.... Maybe some day later, I'll be able to ask everything I want to know..."

'It's not a sad book'

Elias says everyone in his family loved to write. Poems. Letters. Anything.

"That's where Anne got it from. She inherited it," Gerti Elias says.

A letter Margot wrote to her grandmother, Alice, in 1936.
A letter Margot wrote to her grandmother, Alice, in 1936.

It's the exchanges with Anne's family that are most poignant but the book that was published provides insight into the lives of others linked by blood.

How Otto Frank's father died at such a young age and the irony of how he and his brothers fought for the Fatherland in World War I.

Some of the letters from the attic were revelations for Elias when he finally read through everything. He hadn't known what a counselor Otto Frank had been to his mother, Leni. How he gave her advice on how to behave with men.

"It's not a sad book," Elias says.

In America, he hopes to convey the richness of his family's lives before the Nazis rose to power. In his voice, he hopes his audiences will again hear Anne, as she was as a free-spirited girl, before she was silenced.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT