Last January, my teenage son Alexander and I arranged for Swiss actor Buddy Elias, a first cousin of Anne Frank and head of the Anne Frank Fonds (foundation) in Basel, to speak to a group of international schools here in Geneva.
Buddy had been a close friend of my mother’s since growing up in Switzerland before World War II. I had known him since childhood, treasuring both his love of jokes but also his somber retelling of what had happened to his relatives, the Otto Frank family, under the Nazis.
At 89, Buddy and his wife, Gerti, a striking Jewish refugee actress from Austria, still kept a hectic schedule, travelling the world in support of youth and social change projects funded by the Fonds. But he was eager to come, and planned for a mid-February visit. Shortly after, he called to say that he had been ordered to slow down for health reasons. Earlier this week, we received the sad news that Buddy had passed on.
It was a tragic blow. Fortunately, my family and I had visited Buddy and Gerti last November in Basel. But as a father, I wanted my son and his fellow high school students to hear Buddy and Anne’s message firsthand. For Buddy, it was particularly crucial amid so many ongoing conflicts, whether in Syria, Gaza, Afghanistan, or Ukraine, with the indiscriminate killing of civilians, including children. And it had deep resonance at a time when so many were questioning Jews’ security in Europe.
Before our visit in November, I had last seen Buddy in West Berlin, well before the Wall came down, where he was acting in a TV series and on stage. At the time, the city had a relatively small but expanding Jewish population of 5,000-6,000, a fraction of the 160,000 Jews who lived there before the Nazis.
I was there to do a documentary about the divided city. I asked him why he, as a Jew, had decided to return to Germany. He smiled. “Because whether I like it or not, my culture is German. Obviously, we never want the same things to happen again. Ever. But there is a new generation of young people, and they are not to blame for the Nazis. They are the future.”
Despite Buddy’s renown as an actor, he was better known worldwide for his association with Anne Frank. Born in 1925, Buddy moved with his family in 1931 to Switzerland from Frankfurt, where the Franks also lived. The Franks fled to Amsterdam in 1933, when Anne’s father, Otto – the only one to survive the concentration camps – decided that the Netherlands was a safe option.
Until the German invasion, the Franks regularly visited the Eliases over the summer and winter holidays. Buddy spent much of his time growing up with Anne and her older sister Margot, often writing and playing Punch and Judy shows. “Anne and I were very fond of each other and talked a lot,” he said. He saw them for the last time in 1938, but continued to correspond with Anne. Both girls died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in early 1945.
Otto Frank set up the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel in 1963. On Otto’s death in 1980, Buddy took over as president.
For him, the whole point of the Anne Frank legacy was to contribute to a better understanding among religions, and to serve the cause of peace. “Anne Frank has become a world symbol for combating all forms of racism and intolerance. That is what Anne wrote about in her diary.” In many ways, he went on, Anne Frank belongs to no one – not the Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, nor Hindus. Nor the Swiss, Israelis, Dutch, or anyone else.
“The time will come when we will be people again and not just Jews,” he said, citing his favorite line from the diary.
According to Buddy, Anne’s diary is being narrated in countless different forms today, even by those who have never heard of her.
“Everyone has something to say or contribute that help make a positive difference in the world,” Buddy told my son. Another favorite line from her diary, Buddy pointed out, was “how wonderful nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
A former special correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, Edward Girardet is an author, journalist and media specialist in humanitarian, conflict and post-conflict issues based in Geneva, Switzerland.