Anne Frank’s family did not hesitate to leave Germany. They didn’t linger in the hope that Adolf Hitler would prove to be less dangerous than they feared. In 1933, when the Third Reich rose to power, Otto Frank whisked his family — wife Edith, daughters Anne and Margot — off to Amsterdam, a place that appeared to provide relative safety.
This act of temporary rescue, as well as Frank’s subsequent attempts to escape to the United States, provides the foundation for “No Asylum,” filmmaker Paula Fouce’s examination of the 20th century’s most well-known refugee family.
In 2005, a cache of uncatalogued letters written by Otto Frank were discovered by a volunteer at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. The letters, spanning a period of several years leading up to the Franks going into hiding, shed new light on the patriarch’s tenacious, desperate and, ultimately, futile attempts to save his children. It’s a story of closed borders in Europe and foot-dragging immigration bureaucracy in safe countries, together spelling ruin for countless displaced victims.
Frank reached out to a variety of American friends and contacts during the family’s final years of freedom. His quietly pleading letters — which are predominantly concerned with securing visas for Anne and Margot — found a sympathetic recipient in Nathan Straus, Jr., whose family owned Macy’s department store. Yet even Straus’ influence could not bring the Frank family to safety.
The United States, not yet involved in World War II and still in the waning days of the Great Depression, turned down many more refugee applications than it accepted. In 1938 alone, 300,000 people applied with the U.S State Department for asylum; only 20,000 were admitted.
The 1940 German invasion of Holland saw its U.S. Consulate destroyed, forcing Frank to begin the lengthy documentation process all over again. And though the U.S. was not alone in turning away Jewish refugees, the film makes pointed use of American anti-immigrant propaganda created at the time. One especially odious illustration depicts the Statue of Liberty with a large, hooked nose. It directly accuses immigrants of being Communists and advises Americans to “Boycott the Jew.”
Fouce’s traditionalist approach to the doc form involves archival footage as a general Holocaust primer for younger audiences, a decision that may be more vital now than ever as living eyewitnesses dwindle in number. She further includes biographical and wartime overviews of the Frank family and Anne’s famous diary — material well-documented in a variety of other projects — as still necessary context.
But the film’s most effective element is its interviews with Anne’s cousin, the late Buddy Elias, and her still-living stepsister, Eva Schloss (a camp survivor who recently compared Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to Hitler).
These moving interview subjects provide firsthand accounts of life before and after the Frank family’s ordeal, and it’s their clear-eyed history lessons that give this 75-minute feature its moral and emotional heft.
Elias, in particular, while visiting Anne and Margot’s headstone, pointedly connects the past and the present. After invoking the Rwandan genocide and the current Middle East refugee crisis, he grasps for an understanding of people and governments whose response to suffering is, “we have the right to live, and not others,” before concluding that “humanity never learns.”
Finally, Fouce, in a parting glance at what has been lost, shifts the film’s mournful attention back to its specific, indelible subject. Her confident speculation: that in a merciful, refugee-welcoming environment, Anne Frank would have certainly lived, would have become a writer, would have published books and would have turned 87 this year.