Anne Frank is well known to readers and historians. Annelise "Anne" Marie Frank was born on the twelfth of June in 1929 and before she turned 16 she was a victim of Hitler and his regime that aspired to cleanse the world of Jews. She is perhaps the most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust. She and her family were German citizens. But in 1933, when Anne was just 4 the family moved to Amsterdam. That was the same year that the Nazis gained full control over Germany. They had left in time -- but by 1940 Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands and by 1942 the family was forced into hiding. They hid in some concealed rooms in the building where her father, Otto Frank, worked. They lived there, inside the walls, for two more years before they were betrayed and sent to concentration camps. Anne and her sister Margot's transfer to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp became their last -- both died of typhus in March 1945. After the war, Anne's father returned to Amsterdam and found that her diary had been saved. The Diary of Anne Frank has been translated from Dutch into dozens of languages. The diary itself came as a 13th birthday gift (12 June 1942) and she wrote in it until the family's discovery on 1 August 1944.
In 1939, before the invasion of Amsterdam by the Germans, Anne and her sister, Margot, were paired with pen pals in America. The pen pals were two girls in Iowa. Anne only wrote two letters -- and only one is still in existence. Anne corresponded with Juanita Wagner; Margot with Juanita's older sister, Betty. The war quickly interrupted what might have been a firm friendship. As it was Anne's life quickly became one marked by the realities of war and Juanita's remained one of innocence in the relatively safety of Iowa. Juanita and Betty were unaware of their pen pals' fate, and really had not even realized that their pen pals were Jewish, until Betty sent a letter to Margot after the war and received a letter back from Otto explaining the dire fate of his family. That letter was lost over the years and through many moves.
Susan Goldman Rubin has written a book exploring and contrasting the lives of these two would be friends, and budding pen pals. Life in war-torn Amsterdam and Iowa could not have been more different. Searching for Anne Frank: Letters from Amsterdam to Iowa (Harry N. Abrams, 2003) follows the two pairs of sisters from prewar to their lives (and in the case of the Franks, their deaths) during and after the war. The pen pal connection may be slight but the book does give readers a great deal of information about the war years in the Netherlands and Germany, and on the homefront, in Iowa. The letters were sold in 1988, for $165,000 and were to be donated by the winning bidder, to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The letters went on display at the center's new Beit Hashoah - Museum of Tolerance - when it was completed in late 1989.
Anne Frank is not only well-known in Holocaust literature but she represents an industry that perpetuates her story and the knowledge of the atrocities that occurred during World War II.
Sadly Rubin's book, Searching for Anne Frank: Letters from Amsterdam to Iowa, is no longer in print, but that does not lessen the bit of Iowa that touched the life of Anne Frank. More about the Iowa sisters can be found in a Quad City Times article (Anne Frank's Iowa Pen Pal Tells Her Story) published in April 2012 when Susan Goldman Rubin visited the German American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa and the Bettendorf Public Library to talk about the sisters and to promote her picture book, The Anne Frank Case: Simon Wiesenthal’s Search for Truth (Illustrated by Bill Farnsworth; Holiday House, 2010). The Anne Frank Case is only one of the focuses in this book, as Rubin tells much about the life of Simon Wiesenthal who himself is a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter. In 1958 he set out to find the Gestapo officer who had arrested Anne Frank and her family. An article that appeared in the Palimpsest (Winter, 1995) also provides some insight into the Wagner sisters and their teacher Ms. Birdie Mathews that set up the pen pal exchange. Juanita Wagner Hiltgen was living in Redlands, California when she died in 2001. Betty Anne Wagner was living in Burbank, California when she died in August of 2012, at the age of 86. Her "adopted" niece wrote a tribute to Betty in a blog entry at AdnreaV Photography. The entry includes several pictures of Betty in later life as well as an earlier one of her on a tractor in Iowa.
Anne Frank was only brushed for a moment with her connection to Iowa, but like others before her -- Iowa briefly became a part of a life of a historically significant person.