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If the current debate over resettling Syrian refugees sounds familiar, it’s perhaps because we’ve heard it before. During World War II, countless Jews fleeing Nazi persecution were denied U.S. visas due to concerns about upsetting a Depression-battered economy, fear of Nazi spies and anti-Semitism. Among those seeking asylum was Otto Frank, father to Anne Frank, whose attempts to save his family are documented in a cache of letters uncovered in 2005 at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.
Those letters anchor the new documentary No Asylum: The Untold Chapter of Anne Frank’s Story, screening Dec. 13 at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance before a limited theatrical release in the spring. Following the screening will be a discussion with Anne’s stepsister, Eva Schloss, and Dr. Steven Smith, director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and UNESCO’s Chair on Genocide Education.
Between 1942 and his arrest in 1944, Otto Frank relentlessly pursued visas via an old college friend, Nathan Straus Jr., son of a Macy’s department store co-owner and head of the U.S. Housing Authority. Working with Frank’s brother-in-law, Julius Hollander, they petitioned the National Refugee Service in New York and the Boston Committee for Refugees as well as the State Department in D.C., but a list of required documents that was impossible to satisfy kept Frank and millions like him from securing asylum.
“We realized it was really hate, not just from the Germans but the whole world, because it could have been avoided,” Schloss tells The Hollywood Reporter, expressing an opinion many arrived at after the war. “If 4 or 5 million people would have gotten visas from different countries, America, Canada, Australia, smaller countries, everybody could have taken in 50,000 — America could easily have taken in a couple of million and the holocaust would never have happened.”
Schloss was 15 years old and living with her family in Amsterdam, when she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz and later Birkenau, where they survived typhus and were rescued by Russian troops in 1945. After learning that her father and brother were dead, she and her mother returned to Amsterdam, where they found Otto Frank, who was waiting to hear from his family. The death of his wife and daughters nearly had destroyed him, but then he learned that Anne had left something behind.
“After he got the diary, he always said a little bit of my little girl is always with me,” recalls Schloss, whose mother, Elfriede Geiringer, eventually married Otto. “It literally gave him a purpose in life. It became his aim in life to send the message around the world, a message for hope and tolerance.”
Eva Schloss had met Anne Frank in 1940 after her family fled Austria to Brussels and eventually Amsterdam. Anne had been living there since she was a child and knew her way around, but Schloss was shy and didn’t speak Dutch at first. “She was very outgoing, very sure of herself. She was a showman, wanted to show off with her clothes and her stories,” recalls Schloss of her childhood friend. “She was interested in having an audience. And at 12, 13, she was definitely already interested in the boys. She was a real girl, very interested in her clothes and her hairstyle. Although she was one month younger than me, I felt she acted much older than me.”
Readers of the diary, including No Asylum director Paula Fouce, have noted how sophisticated some of Anne’s ideas are. Still the filmmaker was reluctant to take on a chapter in history that has been so thoroughly examined over the years. But when parallels began to emerge regarding conditions for refugees then and now, she found it too compelling to resist.
“I was very surprised when I heard about how extreme the measures were to block the refugees at that time,” Fouce says of restrictions that grew tighter as awareness of the Holocaust began to spread. “I thought this was an important film to make because of what’s going on in the world now. You would think by now people would be beyond it.”
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, roughly 2,200 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. after undergoing a dense interagency screening process, interview and medical evaluation. It’s a procedure that takes most refugees 18 to 24 months to complete, and Syrians are held to stricter standards. Still, the process has been deemed insufficient by conservative lawmakers who advocate a temporary suspension of the process, with Donald Trump calling for an outright ban on all Muslim immigrants.
“It’s atrocious because it’s partly the fault of America, but England as well, bombing Iraq and the region,” says Schloss of U.S. policy on refugees. “Can you imagine how desperate those people are to get out? It’s not just one little boy on the beach. It’s hundreds of them. In the camps there are educated people with money who have homes and have jobs and suddenly they are treated like dirt.”
Schloss became misanthropic following her ordeal in the camps, but experienced a transformation when she wrote her memoir, Eva’s Story, in 1988 and began lecturing on the holocaust. “One of the things Anne says is she still believes in the goodness of mankind,” says Schloss, of an assessment many Holocaust survivors took exception to, herself included. “A lot of people ask: Would she have written that if she had survived and witnessed the terrible things that had been going on in the death camps. I doubt it. She had four people that provided her with everything that was necessary. So she experienced only goodness. She hadn’t experienced the evil yet.”
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