Anne Frank’s cousin, Buddy Elias, her last close living relative and the caretaker of her enormous legacy, died last week at 89 in Basel, Switzerland. Elias was Frank’s first cousin—the son of her aunt—and four years older than the Amsterdam teen. Frank and her family would often visit their cousins in Switzerland; their last visit was in 1938 before the family went into hiding in Amsterdam.
Elias proudly and vigilantly guarded Frank’s legacy, serving as president of the Anne Frank Fonds, the organization founded by Otto Frank, since 1996. He strictly monitored the use of Anne’s name and likeness, making sure no one was profiting off the teenage diarist’s story.
He also discovered archival material in his own home in Switzerland that helped fill in details about Frank’s story. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Elias wound up adding to the Franks’ literary legacy himself after his wife, Gerti, while cleaning out the attic of their house in 2001, came across a trove of letters, postcards and photographs — some 6,000 items in all — sent to the Eliases by the Franks, including the young Anne. The house had long been in Mr. Elias’s family, and the material had been carefully put away by his mother, Helene Frank Elias, who was Otto’s sister.”
Elias was not only Frank’s devoted posthumous protector and guardian, he was her last close living relative, the final link to the Frank family and their story. While Frank’s story has become more than enshrined in our collective consciousness, her face unmistakable and her story read by millions, as time goes by it becomes just that: a story. Elias knew the girl behind the story, the living, breathing teenager who has become, for so many of us, a character or a symbol. We are becoming more and more removed from these stories, and the people who lived them.
All of which would seem less tragic if we weren’t in need of such constant reminders not to be terrible people. The most recent case in point: wayward pop star Justin Bieber, who infamously visited the Anne Frank House in 2013 and wrote in the guestbook that he hoped Frank would have been a Belieber, is being sued by his former Los Angeles neighbors, Jeffrey and Suzanne Schwartz. In addition to last year’s much-publicized egging incident, the lawsuit alleges that Bieber’s bodyguards peppered the family with anti-Semitic insults and harassment. Ugh.
Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.