Saturday, November 14, 1998
A lifetime later, Anne Frank's friend recalls
By Ken Garfield
Knight Ridder Newspapers
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- To everyone else, she symbolizes the death
To Barbara Ledermann Rodbell, she is a friend from a lifetime
ago, a brown-haired girl with a mischievous smile and a million
When she recalls her childhood companion, Rodbell doesn't think
first about the diary or the meaning of a life that outlives the
Holocaust. She thinks instead about the day in Amsterdam 60 years
ago, when they rolled on the floor in laughter over a book that
had some kissing in it.
The world remembers Anne Frank as a child of history.
Rodbell remembers her as a child.
If not for my insisting on coming to her Chapel Hill home to
hear the stories, Barbara Ledermann Rodbell would just as soon
avoid the pain that comes with bringing up the Holocaust. Hitler
murdered not just her friends the Franks, but her parents, sister,
grandmother and aunt.
Rodbell does her part as a survivor to keep the lessons alive,
speaking to students about their responsibility to stand up for
themselves. But she doesn't wallow in the murder of 6 million
Jews and 5 million others. And she doesn't look for attention
for having grown up with two of the most famous casualties --
Anne and older sister Margot, whose 25 months hiding in an attic
are immortalized in Anne's diary.
At age 72, what's the point of living in the painful past?
But then I arrived at Rodbell's home on a wooded lot three
miles from downtown Chapel Hill. We drank coffee. I asked the
first question and the stories poured out.
There were no tears, and only a few anguished "Ah's"
as she pulled out old photos and death certificates. There are
only sweet moments from a good childhood that ended badly -- memories
that deserve to be shared.
Rodbell was born in Berlin in 1925. Her father, Franz Ledermann,
was a successful lawyer. Her mother, Ilse, loved to dance and
play classical music on the piano. Her sister, Susanne, three
years younger, loved to tag along with the older kids. Susanne
was the same age as Anne.
But then Hitler rose to power and began tightening the noose
around the necks of Jews. It grew clear to many that the persecution
wouldn't stop with the loss of their livelihood and rights.
The Ledermanns picked up and moved to a small apartment in
Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1933. Barbara Ledermann started the
third grade that September and met Margot Frank, a German girl
from Frankfurt whose family story was similar to hers. The two
became fast friends -- Margot was nicknamed Snow White, Barbara
was Rose Red.
"All I remember is this really beautiful girl with these
brown velvet eyes," said Rodbell, who is described herself
in a new biography of Anne Frank as a blond-haired, blue-eyed
Margot's little sister, Anne, was part of the neighborhood
crowd that gathered in the plaza outside the Franks' apartment.
Each day after school, they'd run outside to play hide-and-seek,
pickup sticks and tiddledywinks. Sundays, they'd crowd into the
Ledermanns' apartment for chamber music, cookies and tea.
"Anne was three, four years younger than I, but she was
very precocious," Rodbell said. "She was very curious
and quirky and funny and interested in absolutely everything.
And full of questions.
"I remember her spirit."
As the girls got older, their interests changed. Barbara's
sister, Susanne, loved playing with dolls, but it couldn't hold
Anne's attention. "Anne got tired of it," Rodbell said.
"She wanted to talk about boys."
Rodbell was involved in modern dance classes. That's how she
and Anne wound up talking about the arts -- plus boys and whatever
else came to their minds.
Rodbell doesn't remember the name of the book with the kissing,
or even the year that it sent them into fits of girlish laughter.
But she remembers the laughter.
Rodbell can't pinpoint the last time she saw Anne. It was five
days or so before the Franks went into hiding in 1942, two years
after Germany had invaded The Netherlands. Hitler was stepping
up persecution. Many of the Jews in Amsterdam were making plans
It was a time of pandemonium, uncertainty and secrecy.
Rodbell remembers going to visit the girls at their apartment,
and being told by a tenant, Mr. Goldschmidt, that the Franks had
left for Switzerland. It seemed logical, since they had family
"I believed him," Rodbell said. "I came home
and told my parents. They said, 'Oh, that's wonderful. I hope
they make it across the border.' I was happy for them."
As the world now knows, the Franks didn't flee to Switzerland.
On July 6, 1942, they went into hiding in a secret annex behind
Otto Frank's office, where they planned to remain until the Allies
could end the war.
What was expected to be just a few months turned into two years.
Anne passed the days reading, studying and pasting pictures of
her favorite celebrities (like Greta Garbo) on the wall of her
tiny bedroom. She also spent hours putting her innermost thoughts
Her red and green-checkered diary was rich with a young girl's
anger, inquisitiveness and, above all, hope. "In spite of
everything," she wrote in the signature entry, "I still
believe that people are really good at heart."
The optimism outlived her.
The eight people in the annex at 263 Prinsengracht were betrayed
and captured on Aug. 4, 1944, perhaps turned in by a cleaning
woman who knew of the hiding place. Anne and Margot died of starvation
and typhus at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, a few weeks before
British troops arrived to liberate the camp.
Anne was 15, Margot 18.
Rodbell's story had the same heartbreak.
She remembers the German voice on the loudspeakers that rumbled
through Amsterdam in 1942, ordering Jews to prepare themselves
for transfer to the Nazis' Westerbork collection camp in the cold
northeastern corner of the Netherlands. Barbara escaped by leaving
home months earlier with her parents' support, eventually acquiring
a false ID.
"All the Jews just came down the stairs and climbed on
the trucks," Rodbell said. "It's very tempting to follow
suit if everybody does what they are told.
"The big thing was, 'the Americans will come, the Americans
will come, the Americans will come.' "
The Americans eventually came, but it was far too late for
her parents, her 15-year-old sister, Susanne, and so many others.
The morning they were shipped by rail out of Westerbork to
their final destination, Ilse Ledermann managed to write a few
lines to her daughter: "My darling, we are about to depart
on our first long journey in a long time. My little Barbara, we
will see each other again."
The Ledermanns were killed on Nov. 19, 1943, the day they arrived
at the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
"I hope they were together," Rodbell says now.
Barbara Ledermann Rodbell lived out the war with a group of
young people, helping the underground resistance. Her name in
hiding was Barbara Waarts. Her blond hair and blue eyes made her
look Aryan. She remembers spending a lot of time in line, waiting
After the war, she left Amsterdam in November 1947 and resettled
with family friends on Long Island, N.Y. She relocated to Baltimore,
where she met a brilliant student named Martin Rodbell. They were
married in 1950. Like many young couples after the war, she worked
several jobs to help put him through graduate school.
It's a good thing she did. Her husband, a biochemist, shared
the 1994 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for introducing
the concept of information processing in biological material.
The Rodbells, who have four grown children, moved to Chapel Hill
in 1985 so Martin Rodbell could work with the National Institute
of Environmental Health Sciences.
Through the early years of her journey to freedom in America,
Rodbell kept a small hope tucked away in the back of her mind:
Perhaps her parents and sister survived, and one day they'll come
Rodbell's connection to the Franks was never severed.
She met up with Otto Frank in Amsterdam in 1945. He, too, still
hoped his family had survived the death camps, as he had survived.
"I remember him coming up the stairs," Rodbell said.
"He sat down and cried. He cried so hard. He looked at me
and thought 'Margot.'
"He wasn't sure they had died. He was hoping."
Frank learned of his daughters' death on July 18 or 19, 1945.
When Anne's diary was published in 1947, Otto Frank brought
Rodbell a copy of the first edition in Dutch, entitled "The
House Behind." It sits in her bookcase, worn and tattered
She visited Otto Frank several times in Basel, Switzerland,
in the late 1960s, and kept up with him until he died in 1980
at age 91.
A few years ago, Rodbell went back home to Amsterdam. She visited
the secret annex at 263 Prinsengracht, walking slowly through
each room, pausing at the tiny bedroom where Anne wrote so hopefully
in her diary about the life that waited after the war.
Thousands of tourists come to the hiding place to imagine what
this girl Anne Frank must have been like before she was swept
up in the horror that took her life and left her diary to history.
Barbara Ledermann Rodbell doesn't have to imagine what Anne
Frank was like.
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