Diana MacLean wrote to Otto Frank as a school girl. She shares her story with us
Walking around the exhibition Anne Frank, Let me be myself, which opened at Auckland Museum in February, is a poignant experience for anyone, but particularly for Diana MacLean. She wrote to Otto Frank in 1962, when she was just 17 years old, and his response had a profound effect on her future.
“I didn’t know much about the war,” says Brisbane-born MacLean, whose own father had served in the armed forces but never talked about it. “I was a keen reader, and Anne Frank’s diary was a real eye-opener. I’d never thought about the impact of the war on Jewish people, I didn’t know anything about Jewish people. As a teenager it was a revelation that this young woman had died as a victim of WWII.”
A self-confessed ‘nerd’ and ‘loner’, MacLean was born with hip problems that meant she spent a lot of time in hospital and couldn’t run around with the other children in the school playground. This made her both introspective, and keen on helping others.
“The life of that little girl really troubled me,” says MacLean. “Here I was alive with all my privileges and she wasn’t because of her religion. It was a lot to comprehend.”
MacLean decided to write to Anne’s father Otto Frank, the only surviving member of the family that hid in a factory annexe for two years, never going outside and having to stay silent during the day for fear of discovery. After their betrayal and arrest, Anne and her sister were sent to Bergen-Belsen where they both died from typhus, rife in the terrible camp conditions. Their mother Edith died at Auschwitz from starvation just days before her 45th birthday.
“I wanted to express my sympathy and let him know how much the diary had impacted on me,” says Maclean. “I was thinking about studying medicine and so the main content of my letter was talking about my hopes for the future and my concerns.”
MacLean didn’t even know where to send the letter, “so I sent it to 263 Prisengracht, where the family had hidden. It was a gamble – I didn’t realise it had been retained and developed as a centre. It was forwarded to Mr Frank who was living in Switzerland.”
No one in MacLean’s family had ever been to university, and on top of that there was the fact that MacLean was a woman, and had a disability. Although she had a strong desire to be a doctor, to change the lives of those afflicted by disease, she wasn’t sure she had the confidence. She admits it was a relief to pour those worries out in the letter to Otto, which in all honesty she wasn’t sure anyone would ever read. But two months later she received an Aerogram from Otto Frank.
“He was very kind. He told me it’s only individuals who change the world. He said to follow your dreams and do what you can. Having that letter from an internationally recognised Holocaust survivor gave me the determination to take medicine at university.”
Otto’s kind words strengthened Maclean’s confidence and resolve, and she successfully completed a medical degree and trained as a doctor. When she was 24 she moved to Invercargill to work in the hospital, and met her husband and fellow medic Norman.
“A few months into my first year of work, I thought Mr Frank might be interested to know what I’d achieved,” says MacLean, who wrote a second letter. “He was very elderly, but he wrote back. He told me he kept all his letters and had re-read my first letter. He said he was very pleased to hear back from me.”
Although MacLean never wrote to Otto Frank again – he died in 1980 – she kept his two letters and treasured them, showing them to her two children and talking to them about the experiences of Anne. When her son was killed in a car crash aged just 21, MacLean says she drew on Otto Frank’s experiences again for strength. He had, after all, experienced such great tragedy in life, and yet was always so willing to do good and help others.
Then, in 2015, MacLean was contacted by a lady called Anne Slade from the Sydney Jewish Museum. She had been looking for five Australian women who had written to Frank, and MacLean’s name was on the list – but she had been hard to track down.
“It turned out that when Mr Frank died, the museum in Amsterdam inherited a filing cabinet full of letters people had written to him after reading Anne’s Diary,” says MacLean. “He had received more than 10,000 letters in his later years, and he kept and replied to every single one.”
The Anne Frank House had tasked supporters globally with tracking this pen pals down, but all Slade had to go on was MacLean’s maiden name and her childhood address in Brisbane.
“An old school friend of mine that I’d lost touch with heard Anne Slade talking about the project on the radio,” says MacLean. “She recognised my name and informed them I was a doctor and I’d moved to New Zealand.”
Slade opened a phone book and began calling hospitals and medical centres in New Zealand, starting from Northland and working her way south, until she reached Invercargill where MacLean was identified by staff and they put Slade in touch.
“It was incredible that she found me, really,” says MacLean. “And I was flattered, but when she asked if she could have the letters from Otto I had to think about it. After all, I’d kept them for over 50 years, and they were very personal to me.”
In the end MacLean reasoned they were too important to not pass on, she felt she had a duty, so she made copies and donated the originals to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Later, in 2016, she visited the museum in Holland.
“I’d like to think Otto Frank would approve of the choices I have made in life," says MacLean. "The more I think about Mr Frank, the more I admire him for being so involved in other people’s lives. That can’t have been easy, but he was a fine example.”