By Jennifer Loewenstein
Sixty-seven years after the end of World War II, a team of researchers and cameramen from the Anne Frank House in Holland showed up at the Capitol Lakes retirement center in Madison, Wisconsin to interview my father-in-law, Fritz Loewenstein. Fritz is the only known person still living who had been boyhood friends with Anne Frank’s “secret annex” companion, Peter van Pels (known in the Diary as Peter van Damm).
The oral historical account Fritz gave lasted over two hours, the interviewers – including Teresien da Silva, head of collections at the Anne Frank House in the Netherlands – asked probing and thorough questions about every aspect of his life before his family fled Germany, especially insofar as it intersected with Peter van Pels’. For Fritz this meant recalling many unwanted ghosts of his own past and what it was like for him as a Jewish schoolboy growing up under the darkening cloud of Nazism in 1930s Germany. There is no question that Anne Frank’s life and death, and all who played a part in it, still capture the imagination of millions long after her senseless and systematic killing. Fritz’s account of his childhood friendship with Peter will be featured prominently in new documentary footage on Anne Frank that will become available at the Anne Frank House later this year. Over a million people visit the Anne Frank House annually to see for themselves the place where Anne lived with her family and the van Pelses in hiding for more than three years.
Fritz Loewenstein’s father was a doctor in Osnabrueck in the 1920s and 1930s. Germany had been their family’s home for generations and they had lived successfully there for decades, cultured and upstanding German patriots. The Loewensteins hoped very much to weather the worst of the National Socialist rule, but as time passed it grew clearer to Fritz’s father and mother that they would have to get their family out. Fritz recalls his own, personal anti-Hitler campaign: washing the swastikas off the door of his father’s clinic each morning. That was in the spring of 1937 as it grew increasingly difficult for Jews to leave Germany. The Loewenstein family, at least that part of it, was fortunate: they were able to get out with some of their belongings and immigrate to the United States, the first choice of many Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazi regime. They ended up in Binghamton, New York, where my husband, David Loewenstein, grew up.