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Saturday, November 14, 1998

A lifetime later, Anne Frank's friend recalls her spirit

By Ken Garfield

Knight Ridder Newspapers

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- To everyone else, she symbolizes the death of innocence.

To Barbara Ledermann Rodbell, she is a friend from a lifetime ago, a brown-haired girl with a mischievous smile and a million questions.

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 rebel.

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 to escape.

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 in Basel.

"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 on paper.

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 for food.

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 back.

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 from use.

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.

She knows.


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