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April 1, 2009

The Rev. John Neiman — Honoring Anne Frank’s Memory

http://www.jewishjournal.com/remember_this/article/the_rev_john_neiman_honoring_anne_franks_memory_20090401

top: 1942 yellow star, labeled “Jood”; bottom: “Life” magazine was the first to print the story of Anne Frank — the image and writing on the cover is from Anne Frank’s diary and says, “This is the photo I want to use when I go to Hollywood”; Rev. John Neiman. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

top: 1942 yellow star, labeled “Jood”; bottom: “Life” magazine was the first to print the story of Anne Frank — the image and writing on the cover is from Anne Frank’s diary and says, “This is the photo I want to use when I go to Hollywood”; Rev. John Neiman. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

As a fifth-grade student, the Rev. John Neiman couldn’t fully grasp the significance of Anne Frank and her diary. It took a second reading and repeated trips to the library a few years later for him to form a bond with the text that would change the course of his life.

“I didn’t understand everything in it at first, but I was very intrigued and moved by it,” said Neiman, associate pastor at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Community in Camarillo. “Anne always resonated with me. I was so impressed with her courage and her optimism and her faith.”

As a history major at Hardin-Simmons University in 1974, Neiman wrote a letter to Anne’s father, Otto Frank. He wanted to tell him how much the diary had inspired him and thank the Auschwitz survivor for publishing it. Frank wrote back, and the two struck up a correspondence that turned into friendship — Neiman went to visit Frank at his home in Birsfelden, Switzerland in 1976.

“I wasn’t expecting to ever meet him or to have a correspondence,” Neiman recalled. “We became very close friends.”

Neiman saw Frank again in 1979 and 1980, just before Frank died. On the last trip, Neiman also befriended Miep Gies, Frank’s secretary, who helped hide the family in the back house of Frank’s office. Gies was the one who first found Anne’s diary among her scattered possessions on the floor of their hiding place after the family was arrested.

“I started collecting photos that I had taken, documents I had gotten in Holland, things I had cut out of magazines and some of my letters from Mr. Frank,” Neiman said. “I tried to follow Anne’s journey from the beginning to the end.”

Neiman keeps his now vast collection of Holocaust and Frank family memorabilia in two scrapbooks, carefully preserved between sheets of plastic. There are photos Neiman took of Gies in the restored apartment where the Franks hid. A list of 93 transports from the Netherlands to the death camps and photos taken by a British soldier during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 — where Anne Frank died of typhus a few weeks earlier. A photocopied page from Anne’s diary where she listed the pseudonyms she would use to protect her family’s privacy in the novel she planned to write about her life. A copy of a receipt issued to a Dutch informer who turned in a handful of Jews to the Gestapo for 37.50 guilders.

One of the most valuable pieces in Neiman’s collection is an authentic 1942 yellow star, labeled “Jood,” which Neiman obtained from the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam on his trip in 1980. The fabric is still a vibrant, throbbing yellow, and frayed threads still line the edges of the piece where it had been stitched onto someone’s clothing.

For three decades, Neiman has visited schools across the country to present his collection and speak about the Holocaust. His first speech was to a seventh-grade class at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. Since then, he has also spoken at dozens of Catholic schools and local synagogues, including Adat Ari El, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Temple Isaiah.

“To have all of these things, to go back and look at them, it keeps me very connected with Anne,” said Neiman, who still takes out his scrapbooks and meanders through their pages every so often, even though he knows everything in them by heart. “I meant this to be a tribute to the Frank family, and also to the helpers, as a way to honor them for risking their lives to try to save their friends.”

Neiman credits Otto Frank with bolstering his decision to become a priest during his second visit in 1979. “He said, ‘It’s wonderful that you remember my family. But if you really want to honor Anne’s memory and all the people who died in the Holocaust, you need to do what Anne wanted to do: live your life doing good for other people,’” Neiman recalled.

The young historian entered the seminary the week after Otto Frank died, in August 1980. When Neiman was ordained as a priest in 1986, Miep Gies and her husband, Jan Gies, came to his ordination.

The themes that recur throughout the Frank family’s story — compassion, faith, bravery — transcend the boundaries between religions, he said.

“My relationship with God has been strengthened by Anne’s example and her faith, not only her belief in God, but her belief in the goodness of people despite everything she was going through.”

Neiman wants to see his collection made available to the public to preserve the Frank family’s memory and to educate students — of all religious backgrounds — about the Holocaust. “I think this has great value as far as helping to preserve the story and the facts,” he said, “and to perpetuate it for future generations.”

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