'We loved Margot and Anne as if they were our own'

Who was Anne Frank’s gay Uncle Walter?

After being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Walter Hollander fled Germany. Once settled in Massachusetts, he attempted to help the Frank family flee Europe

Reporter at The Times of Israel

During an outing in 1922, Walter Hollander (third from left) with friends (public domain)
During an outing in 1922, Walter Hollander (third from left) with friends (public domain)

BOSTON — Last week, Anne Frank devotees were astonished by the discovery of “hidden” texts uncovered in her original diary. In addition to recording four dirty jokes, the 13 year old penned a rambling description of sexual relations that implied her maternal Uncle Walter was gay.

“All men, if they are normal, go with women, women like that accost them on the street and then they go together,” wrote Anne in the fall of 1942, while in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. “In Paris they have big houses for that. Papa has been there. Uncle Walter is not normal. Girls sell this.”

At the time that Anne wrote those words, her Uncle Walter Hollander was living in Leominster, Massachusetts, along with his brother Julius. The men were lifelong bachelors.

The two uncles fled Nazi Germany after being arrested during the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938. From the US, they attempted to help the Frank family flee Europe by obtaining affidavits, saving money, and lobbying government agencies. Unfortunately, the Frank family’s tragic fate is well known.

Walter Hollander was born into a prominent Jewish family in Aachen, Germany, in 1897. Along with his younger sister Edith — the mother of Anne Frank — Walter was very close to older brother Julius, who performed in the synagogue youth choir. Photographs exist of the Hollander siblings at play with each other well into adulthood, including one of Edith and Walter in the water with her arms wrapped around him.

Walter Hollander and his sister Edith Hollander-Frank, in spotlight, before World War II (public domain)

Walter’s homosexuality was not a secret within the Hollander family, according to author Melissa Muller. Several family members mentioned the subject during interviews for Muller’s 1998 biography of Anne Frank, she told The Times of Israel.

In addition to Walter, the diarist had a gay relative on her father’s side of the family: Otto Frank’s first cousin, Jean-Michel Frank, a celebrated furniture designer. Openly gay, the Paris-born Jean-Michel struggled with depression and drug addiction, ultimately taking his own life at age 46.

“Anne was well aware of her relative Jean-Michel Frank who lived out his preferences, where from all I know Walter did not,” said Muller.

A kosher upbringing

The Hollander family did not practice Orthodox Judaism, but the household kept kosher. Financial security came from the family business of scrap metal and industrial supplies. Brothers Julius and Walter assumed their father would make them co-owners of the business, but this did not come about. Instead, the brothers devoted their energies to Jewish charities and sports clubs, while Edith was introduced to her future husband, Otto Frank.

When Anne Frank was born in June of 1929, the brothers visited Frankfurt to meet their new niece. According to Frank family biographer Carol Ann Lee, Julius successfully dealt with the “depression that always threatened to engulf him” during this happy visit.

Four years later, when the Frank family decided to flee Hitler’s Germany for the Netherlands, the Hollander brothers drove little Margot Frank — Anne’s older sister — from Germany to Amsterdam. There, Otto Frank was starting a spice business and preparing a home for his family in the River Quarter.

As the Frank family settled into Dutch life, the persecution of Jews in Germany intensified. Because they were from a well-to-do family, Walter and Julius Hollander were arrested during the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938. Julius had been injured while serving in the German army during World War I, so he was released from custody. Walter, however, was imprisoned in the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin.

The former Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin, November 2012 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

To obtain Walter’s release from Sachsenhausen, Julius had to prove the brothers were in possession of funds to leave Germany. After Walter was transferred to a Dutch refugee camp, where conditions were vastly better, Julius was able to leave Germany for America. He fled Europe from Rotterdam, arrived in New York, and settled in Massachusetts. There, he hoped to find work and prepare for his younger brother’s release.

After Walter was released from the Dutch refugee camp, he was able to join Julius in Massachusetts. By the end of 1940, the brothers had settled in Leominster, an industrial hub 40 miles west of Boston. There, Walter found work with the Dodge Paper Box Company, making $20 a week.

Thanks to a friendship that Walter formed with his boss, Jacob Hiatt of Worcester, the latter was willing to supply an immigration affidavit for the Frank family to flee Europe. The brothers had enough savings to help bring over their mother, Rosa Hollander, but not enough for the Frank family. Unfortunately, just as the affidavit and funds were gathered for the family in 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, effectively closing that escape route.

The first round-up of Jews by the Nazis in Amsterdam, near the Portuguese Synagogue, in 1941 (public domain)

With postal service halted between the US and Europe, Edith Frank was able to keep in touch with her brothers via Otto Frank’s mother, who lived in neutral Switzerland. Through that channel, Otto Frank wrote to the Hollander brothers in Massachusetts about the family’s plight in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. In the spring of 1942, he intimated the family was preparing to go underground.

“Everything is difficult for us these days, but we have to take things as they come,” wrote Otto Frank. “I regret that we’re unable to correspond with [my mother] and her family but there’s nothing we can do. I’m sure she will understand.”

‘Walter’s desperate loneliness’

After World War II ended, Walter and Julius Hollander waited anxiously for news of their sister Edith Frank and her family. During the summer of 1945, they learned of Edith’s death at Auschwitz in an airmail letter sent to them by Alice Stern Frank, Otto Frank’s mother in Switzerland.

“Walter and I will do everything for you,” wrote Julius Hollander to Otto Frank in Amsterdam, shortly after learning of Edith’s death. “In case you want to come to the USA we have money saved for you three. Send me a cable when you have found the children.”

For his entire life, Julius struggled with depression. A turning point came that summer, when the brothers received news that not only had their sister perished, but also their beloved nieces, Margot and Anne. According to those who knew the brothers, this was a loss from which they never recovered.

“We loved Margot and Anne as if they were our own children,” wrote the brothers to Otto Frank. “Our life is empty now. Edith and the girls were all we had.”

Julius Hollander (left) and Walter Hollander (right) with an unidentified man (public domain)

In 1952, Frank visited the brothers during a trip to the US. In a letter, he described Julius as “a wreck about the past, very depressed and nervous.” Walter, reported Frank, appeared “much better.”

Throughout the 1950s, Frank attempted to coax the brothers into visiting him in Europe. He believed they were “withering away in [a] backwater” and urged them to focus on self-care by traveling. Despite Frank’s pleas and the brothers’ financial ability to do so, they never returned to Europe.

In 1967, Julius was killed when a hotel elevator he was in plummeted from the 10th floor. Four years prior to his sudden death, he and Walter had moved from Massachusetts to New York City.

From across the world in Basel, Otto Frank worried about his only surviving brother-in-law, Walter, the man dubbed “not normal” by Anne in a diary passage she later covered up.

A video shows the text underneath two taped off pages from Anne Frank’s diary during a press conference at The Anne Frank Foundation’s office in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

“Walter’s desperate loneliness is a source of great pain for me,” wrote Otto Frank to a relative after the death of Julius. “The two brothers turned their backs on everybody and everything and became recluses. Now Walter is more alone than ever.”

One year after Julius’s accidental death, Walter Hollander died of complications from diabetes. The brothers had spent their entire lives together, from a privileged youth in Germany to starting over from scratch in America. In their will, substantial funds were left for Jewish refugee organizations in the US and Israel, and for the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel.

By all accounts, Walter and Julius Hollander never got over losing their sister and nieces in the Holocaust. The brothers remained haunted by having been unable to help, and by memories of the girls for whom they felt a fatherly affection.

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