Surviving Swiss cousin remembers Anne Frank
Seventy years after the death of Anne Frank in a concentration camp, Sofia Domino interviewed Swiss resident Buddy Elias, the last surviving direct relative of the teen celebrated for giving a voice to Holocaust victims through her famous diary.
The teen kept the diary from 1942 to 1944 while her family went into hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, where they had fled earlier from Germany.
Buddy Elias is the stage name of Bernhard Elias, an actor and entertainer who has appeared on the stage and in more than 80 films and TV programs. The resident of Basel tells Domino how his main passion now is remembering his cousin, her diary that was published after her death in more than 70 languages, and the importance of never forgetting the victims of the holocaust and their “terrible destiny”.
Here is an edited version of the exclusive interview provided for The Local.
Can you tell us something about yourself?
I am 89 years old now, but my health is good, except hearing problems. I have two children and five grandchildren, and they all live in Germany.
I do Yoga every morning and sometimes I still work as an actor, but the most important thing in my life is to work in the ideals of my cousin, Anne Frank.
Together with my wife, Gerti, we give lectures and talks about Anne and the Holocaust. We mostly visit schools and read out of our family history book. (“Anne Frank’s Family” by Gerti Elias and German writer Mirjam Pressler, which has been translated into eight languages.)
What did you like to do when you were a child?
I loved ice skating and I became a professional comedian and jazz dancer on ice. I have performed for 14 years and I traveled a lot. I also performed in Milan, Turin and Rome.
What was it like growing up during the war and what scared you the most?
During the war I lived in Basel, Switzerland, with my family and my grandmothers, as well as an uncle who left France escaping from the Nazis. My hometown Basel is only minutes away from Germany and France, so we were afraid of a German invasion daily.
You have said before that you had a lot in common with Anne Frank, tell us something you’ll never forget about her.
Yes, Anne loved to dress up and to imagine she was an actress. We also played games like other children. She was clever at “hide and seek”, always finding places where I could not find her.
Especially when we were on vacation in the mountains before they went into hiding. We were very fond of each other.
In 1929, your father became a representative of a German company in Basel, and in 1931, you and your mother joined him. The Franks then fled to Amsterdam but until the creation of the Wehrmacht (the Nazis’ unified army) they used to travel regularly to Switzerland. After that, Anne kept in touch with you writing letters. What did she talk about in her letters?
She wrote us very often and she sent us letters telling us all about her life, about school, her friends, her activities et cetera.
How did you learn that Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne went into hiding?
When Margot received the notice to report the next day for transport to a “work camp in Germany”, they wrote a last postcard to us, saying we would have to understand that they could not correspond with us anymore. We then realized that they went into hiding. But we had no idea where they were hiding . . . Then for two years we had no contact at all.
Anne Frank is the voice of all the victims of the Holocaust because many people, thanks to her diary, learned what the Holocaust was, learned about discrimination and because of that they are more interested in humanitarian issues. What are your favourite quotes from the diary?
That is difficult to say. One is: “Once we will be human beings again and not just Jews.”
An another one is: “How wonderful that nobody need wait a single moment, before starting to improve the world.”
In her diary, Anne wrote about you. How did you feel the first time you read it?
I was moved to tears when the diary was published in German . . . and to read what she wrote about me.
The Franks lived in the “Secret Annex” for over two years before they were betrayed and sent to Nazi concentration camps. Otto was the only one to survive. Edith died of starvation in Auschwitz while Anne and Margot died in Bergen – Belsen during a typhus epidemic. How did you feel when, later, you discovered what happened to them?
You can imagine. I was heartbroken.
Since 1996 you have been the president of the Anne Frank Fonds, in Basel. Can you tell us more about it?
Sure. The Anne Frank Fonds was founded by Otto Frank, and I became its president after his passing. All income from book sales and from anything else concerning Anne Frank is used for a wide range of charitable and educational projects, especially for children in need.
Editor's note: On the day this article was published, Buddy Elias died at his home in Basel, at the age of 89.
The Anne Frank Fonds is a foundation under Swiss law domiciled in Basel and established in January 24, 1963. The purpose of the foundation is to promote charitable works and to play a social and cultural role in the spirit of Anne Frank.
Sofia Domino founded Bridge to Anne Frank/ Un ponte per Anne Frank in October 2014. The Italian organization aims to continue Anne Frank’s legacy and to “use her story and messages to analyze the consequences caused by discrimination, prejudice and injustice and to encourage others to improve our world”.
For more information, click here or check out the organization's Facebook page.