The little brown sign on Highway 34 is easy to miss, just like the significance of two little sisters in Danville, Iowa, in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, who were pen-pals with Anne Frank and her sister, Margot. Follow the sign to downtown Danville and an attractive little library and museum awaits the inquisitive traveler. For a small fee of $4 (cash, no credit cards), one may tour the very professionally displayed exhibit of how two little Iowa girls kept up a letter-writing campaign with the historically famous Anne and Margot Frank. The Franks were a Jewish family hiding from German soldiers in a “secret annex” in a three story building in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
How did the letter-writing correspondence begin? Remember back in the old days before internet, and email, and smart phones, and television, when people actually hand wrote letters and sent them via the post office by what we laughingly now call “snail mail?” A Danville school teacher in the late 1930’s, Birdie Mathews, while traveling in Europe, stopped at a Montessori school in Amsterdam and asked for names and addresses of students who might be interested in corresponding with Danville, Iowa students. Betty and Juanita Wagner of Danville were the later-to-be-recognized “lucky” recipients of the address for Anne and Margot Frank. Anne Frank, as you know, after her death in a German prison camp, would become famous for her journal writing in a hit Broadway play and book, “Anne Frank’s Diary.”
A video at the Danville Museum has Betty Wagner, now an elderly lady, telling the story. “The teacher asked us if we wanted to write to someone overseas. I can remember how excited we were. It would be a great thing to do. What would we write? We wrote that we lived on a farm. We had cows and chickens and pigs. It was just friendly talk. We didn’t have television and sometimes we didn’t even have a radio. All we had was a little weekly newspaper that wasn’t very worldly. So, to write to somebody overseas was a great experience. My sister wrote to Anne and I wrote to Margot. Eventually we got a letter back. They were postcards and had the girls’ pictures….They were written in English. We were pretty sure that they didn’t know English. But we were thrilled anyway. We sat down and answered them right away.” (It was later learned that Otto Frank, the girls’ father, was translating the letters from Dutch into English and vice versa.)
“The Germans moved into Holland a few weeks after that correspondence came in 1939. We feared that we might not ever hear from them again. We never knew what was happening. Bombs were dropping. We didn’t know if they had enough to eat. But we always thought about them. We never forgot. They were very important to us….When the war ended…I wrote letters to Ann and Margot at the address we had. I didn’t even know if they would get the letters or if they were still there. I had no idea. It took about three-or-four months and I got a letter back from their father, handwritten, five pages, telling about what had happened to them during the war. How they had hidden in the attic and how hard it was on Anne. I cried. We all cried.”
Years later, these letters, in the possession of Betty and Juanita Wagner, were verified as authentic. The story appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Betty Wagner was a guest on the CBS Morning Show. The letters were auctioned, with many people bidding, including Whoopi Goldberg.
The letters were purchased by an unknown benefactor and returned to Danville so that the world, and Danville will never forget man’s inhumanity to man, the Holocaust victims, or two little girls who enjoyed hand writing letters to unknown friends overseas.