Anne Frank’s Iowan penpal

Anne Frank
Image via Wikipedia

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. I found out about a little known event in the Second World War that connected war-torn Nazi Europe to a mid-western state, Iowa.

The finding of the story was pure accident.One of the happy accidents that come from searching for one thing on the net and then suddenly coming across something else that gets you to sidetrack and investigate a different subject altogether. I had recently read about Montessori education and how it had helped to develop the growing minds  of many famous people like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, George Clooney the actor and of the young Frank sisters Anne and Margot.

I decided to do a Google search on Ann Frank and her Montessori education and one of the links was as follows:

Anne Frank and her Iowa Penpal

The name “Anne Frank” resonates for us today because of the diary of the young  Inher letter Anne told of her family, her Montessori school, and Amsterdam.
The central character in this story is Birdie Matthews, a career teacher from Iowa who spent many years teaching in a small rural school before finishing her career in Des Moines. The start of the article says it all:
“As World War II loomed over Europe, an innovative Iowa educator was bringing the situation home to her students. One spring day in 1940 the seventh and eight-grade teacher at the Danville Community School in Des Moines County offered her students the chance to correspond with pen pals overseas. One of her students, Juanita Wagner, drew the name of a ten year-old girl in the Netherlands—Anne Frank.”
The article goes on to explain that Ann and her sister Margot wrote just one letter to each to Juanita and Betty Ann Wagner. Here is a transcript (from the article of Ann’s letter):

Amsterdam 29 April Monday

Dear Juanita,

I did receive your letter and want to answer you as quick as possible. Margot and myself are the only children in our house. Our grandma is living with us. My father has an office and my mother is busy at home. I have not far from school and I am sitting in the fifth class. We have no hour classes we may do what we prefer, of course we must get to a certain goal. Your mother will certainly know this system. It is called Montessori. We have little work at home.

On the map I looked again and found the name Burlington. I did ask a girl friend of mine if she would like to communicate with one of your friends. She wants to do it with a girl about my age not with a boy.

I shall write her address underneath. Did you yourself write the letter I received from you, or did your mother write it? I include a post-card from Amsterdam and shall continue to do that collecting picture-cards I have already about 800. A child I used to be at school with went to New York and she did writh [sic] a letter to our class some time ago. In case you and Betty get a photo do send a copy as I am curious to know how you look. My birthday is the 12th of June. Kindly let me know yours. Perhaps one of your friends wil [sic] write first to my girl friend, for she also cannot write English but her father or mother will translate the letter.

Hoping to hear from you I remain your Dutch friend Annelies Marie Frank.

P.S. Please write me the address of a girl. [Anne ends with the name and Amsterdam address of her own friend, Susanne Ledermann.] (Anne’s original spelling kept).

The ability of this young girl to explain herself and her passions, as seen in her famous diary, can be sen in a snapshot here. Unfortunately the conditions that the Frank family found themselves  restricted Anne and Margot’s ability to continue to correspond with their “penpals” in Iowa.

Their communication though was a means whereby Miss Birdie Matthews was able to open up the world to her pupils. In 1956 Betty Ann Wagner was driving in California where she had moved to from Iowa and heard about a new play called “The Diary of Anne Frank”. She remembered the pen pal of the same name that her sister had written to in the War. She had carefully kept her letter from  Margot and Junanita’s letter from Anne.

To quote the article again:

“Although Otto Frank’s letter had been misplaced during one of the Wagner family’s frequent moves, Betty Ann had carefully kept Anne and Margot’s letters safe. In the late 1980’s the letter became part of the collections of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where they are now on display.”

On Holocaust Memorial Day I think that this was a very fortunate chance discovery of a little known connection brought about by the outward looking attitude of a little known teacher.

For those interested in reading more about the story there was a book published in 2004 called “Searching For Anne Frank: Letters From Amsterdam to Iowa”  by Susan Goldman Rubin.