A New Biography Seeks to Understand the Man Who Hid Anne Frank
By Cnaan Liphshiz, www.Haaretz.com
The man who hid Anne Frank would probably have had reservations about a revealing new biography of his life that is scheduled to hit the stands on Sunday, some 17 years after his death. A private, humble, religious man, Victor Kugler might have objected to being exposed as an illegitimate child.
But Rick Kardonne, compiling editor of the first English-language book on Kugler’s life, The Man Who Hid Anne Frank (Gefen Publishing House, 2008), told Anglo File during a visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday that he thought the revelation about Kugler’s familial situation was central to understanding what made this devout Lutheran inclined to take such enormous risks.
In 1942-44, Kugler helped conceal eight Jews, including Anne Frank, in a sealed annex in an Amsterdam office. Kugler, a Sudeten German who moved to Holland in 1920, was the office’s deputy manager, working under Otto Frank – Anne’s father.
In the world-famous diary published after her death, 13-year-old Anne Frank referred to Kugler as “Mr. Kraler.” He was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and sent to forced labor in eastern Holland. He escaped weeks before the Allies liberated The Netherlands. In 1955, he relocated to Canada, where he died at the age of 81. All the people he risked his life to save died in the Holocaust except for Otto Frank.
“Victor grew up in the Sudetenland, an extremely conservative region where children who were born out of wedlock often suffered social ostracism,” Kardonne explained. “This was probably the reason for his later sympathy to Jews, who were the prime object of hostility in the very region where it would have been expressed towards him.”
In the book, Kardonne wrote that this could well explain many important aspects of Kugler’s adult personality, such as his reluctance to reveal his early life to anybody and his extreme humility and reticence.
Kardonne, a seasoned Canadian journalist, took over the biography from a Jewish resident of Toronto named Eda Shapiro, who had interviewed Kugler, but then died in 1992, before she could write a book about him. In Shapiro’s notes, Kardonne made an important find: a letter from a woman from Minnesota who, in researching Kugler’s past, had come across evidence that he was born out of wedlock.
“Victor Kugler’s birth certificate only lists his mother’s name – Emilia Kugler – because Victor was born out of wedlock,” the letter said. Research on Kugler’s early life confirmed these assertions.
Was this the reason for Kugler’s warm feelings toward Anne Frank, who spent her early teens in fear of the society in which she had been raised? Kardonne thinks that it is possible, but there is no way of knowing for certain.
“Even in those early minutes of our acquaintance, I was struck by her large, dark brown eyes; those probing, searching, questioning eyes,” Kugler told Eda Shapiro of his first encounter with Anne, when she was four years old – long before the family went into hiding.
Another, later, memory pertains to Anne’s school years: “One punishment she received was to write an essay entitled ‘Chatterbox.’ Obviously this punishment didn’t work, for it was soon followed by a second assignment, entitled ‘Incurable Chatterbox.’ Most of the time, Anne was cheerful, friendly, and brimming over with fun and laughter.”
To prevent the authorities from confiscating Otto Frank’s business – which sold a jelling agent used in jam-making – Kugler assumed nominal ownership for the duration of the war. When Frank returned from the concentration camps, Kugler gave him the business and stayed on as an employee.
Eventually, the financial woes of post-war Europe drove Kugler and his Dutch wife to move to Toronto, where he worked as an insurance salesman. But Kugler’s connection with the Jewish community did not end there.
In his extensive research, Kardonne found that Kugler made many Jewish friends in Toronto. “His post-war connection with Jews was probably both because of his personal sympathy and because by that time, the story of his bravery was beginning to come out,” Kardonne said.
In 1973, Kugler was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous among the Nations. He also received other honorary titles and awards for his heroism, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a documentary on his life.
Commenting on the book, Dutch Ambassador to Israel Michiel den Hond told Anglo File: “It is harsh reality that in some years, there will be no survivors left who can give evidence about the war and the atrocities of the Holocaust.” Therefore, he said, “it is all the more important that books like this continue to be written and given the necessary attention and respect, as priceless tools for passing on the memory of this history, which has affected so many people, to future generations.”
Kardonne quoted Eda Shapiro in the book as having said: “I realized that this book … is not only about one of the people who hid Anne Frank. It is also about a Righteous Gentile. Indeed, in my opinion, this book records part of the chronicle of a whole nation of Righteous Gentiles – the Dutch people.”