Years ago when I visited Amsterdam, I saw the Secret Annex where the Frank family hid from the Nazis for two long years. It was while in hiding that she wrote her now famous diary. This writing provided insight into the lives of the Frank family from a totally different perspective. I was amazed when I learned about the Anne Frank Connection Museum in Danville, Iowa! Who can believe that this World War II history reaches the Midwest? We saw this amazing museum on our way to Pella, Iowa a town that makes you feel like you are in Amsterdam.
What is the Anne Frank Connection Museum?
The Anne Frank Connection Museum is half library, half museum. The museum profiles the story of pen pals between two sisters in rural Iowa and amazingly, the Frank sisters, Anne and Margo!
The story begins with Miss Birdie Mathews. This Danville Community School seventh- and eighth-grade teacher was also a world traveler. Wanting to share her desire to learn about the world beyond Iowa with her students, she set up an international pen-pal program. In January 1940, she got a list of student names from the 6th Montessori School in Amsterdam. In the classroom, the students chose names for the pen pal exchange. Ten-year-old Juanita Wagner, a farm girl, chose the name of Anne Frank. Betty Wagner, her older sister also started writing Anne’s older sister Margo.
The museum profiles the timeline from the 1920s up through 1945. It shows what was happening in the US, and primarily Danville, Iowa on one timeline. The other shows what was happening with the Frank family at the same time. At the close of the timeline, you walk through a door in the form of a bookcase. This is similar to the one that hid the Frank family all those years ago. It is uncanny to see this again and feel how the Frank family must have felt. After the Annex, the timeline continues after the war.
The Letters at the Anne Frank Connection Museum
The Frank family had moved once already. They had left Germany in 1933 and moved to Holland where Otto Frank hoped they would be safe. The girls only exchanged two letters before the Nazi’s marched in. Only one letter still exists.
Margot had referred to the danger in her letter, “We often listen to the radio, as times are very exciting, having a frontier with Germany and being a small country we never feel safe.”
In July 1942, Margot had received call-up papers that stated she must report to a German work camp. That was the call to action. The Franks went into hiding along with four other people in the Secret Annex. It was located in the back of a building where Anne’s father established a branch of the family business Opekta. They sold pectin. Co-workers supplied them with food and necessities. A bookcase kept the attic entrance hidden from view.
Anne started writing in the diary she got for her 13th birthday. One entry said when she grew up she wanted to be a journalist and publish a book called “The Secret Annex”. Little did she know her wish would come true.
It wasn’t until the Diary of Anne Frank was published that Betty Wagner, thought again of her friend. She had kept the letters all those long years. Realizing that this diary was as she says in a video at the museum, “My Anne”. The video is the best way to start the museum tour Betty shares how the letters were placed in the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Copies are now in the Anne Frank Danville Connection. Betty tells her story of keeping the letters, learning the fate of Anne Frank, and writing Otto Frank and hearing what happened to his family all those years ago.
The Museum is so complete
You learn that the group was discovered during a raid on August 4, 1944. They were taken to various concentration camps. The timeline is so complete, it tells the story of what happened to all eight people that hid together. Only Anne’s father Otto survived. Anne and Margot would succumb to typhus at Bergen-Belsen in 1945; only a short time before the camp was freed. It is heartbreaking to see how close Anne came to surviving.
The Rest of the Story
At the museum we also learned that Otto Frank later remarried. He married Elfriede Geiringer a Holocaust survivor. Elfriede had lost her husband and son, but her daughter Eva (Schloss) had survived. Eva had lived in the same apartment building as Anne and knew her. After her death she became her step-sister. She now carries on stories of the Holocaust. Jane Hesler of the Anne Frank Connection shared that they have prints of a few of the paintings that Eva’s father and brother painted while they were hidden away before they were caught and sent to death camps.
This history is a sad one, but an amazing story of young girls reaching across the ocean to share their lives.