Dorrit Sander: In Memoriam (1920 – 2014)

AS many of you know, my beloved mother, Dorrit, passed away on June 15, 2014. Two years later, she remains an abiding presence in my life. Here is why:

Although my mother and I had always been reasonably close, except for my college years when she basically gave me up for lost (not that one could blame her), it really was not until I returned from my London sojourn (1996 – 2002) and returned to my alma mater, Cornell (which she had hitherto loathed) as artist-in-residence that we really bonded, or should I say rebonded and I went back to being her “Bushi,” as she used to call me when I was a wee, wild-haired tot.

What really sealed the deal for her, and us, I suppose, was transmuting the story of the Frank family into first a radio series for BBC Radio 4, and then into the book, The Frank Family That Survived.

One of the myriad cherished memories of our times together was celebrating the publication of The Frank Family—a story which I had begun researching a quarter of a century before, before putting it aside because I was too young to get a handle on it, before reopening that old Pandora’s box after I moved to London–after the book was finally published by Random House UK in 2004, and making the rounds of the British media with her. You can see the joint interview we gave BBC here. Of course, as always, Dorrit was the star. To paraphrase how John Kennedy described his part in the state visit he and Jackie made to France in 1961, I was the man who accompanied Dorrit Sander to London.

Alas, Dorrit could not fly down to Rio with me for the publication of the Brazilian edition, but she was there in spirit. (What a thrill it was to see A Familia Frank que sobreviveu in the window of Copa Books! And what a kick it was to discover Rio, no less on the back of my mother’s story.)

Nor was Dorrit able to come to Amsterdam for the publication of the Dutch edition in 2007. But of course she didn’t need to. We had already been to Nederland many times before, including and especially our very first visit to The Hague all the way back in 1965, when I was 14, when Dorrit made her first postwar return visit to 14 Pieter van den Zandenstraat and the streetside flat where she, my grandparents Flory and Myrtil and aunt Sybil survived, with the aid of their Dutch friends, and a great deal of luck, and God, perhaps (although He (or She) doesn’t seem to have been very much in the vicinity during the interim), but mostly via the Franks’ own inner strength and fortitude and love for each other.

Unfortunately I was not able to give Dorrit any grandchildren (at least as yet!), as her beloved other son and my brother, Elliot did, however I was fortunate enough to be able to give her a book which memorialized her and her family’s underground Golgotha, as well as made it made it known to tens of thousands of readers in its British, American, Dutch, Brazilian, and Finnish editions.

Dorrit kept a copy of The Frank Family by her bedside, and read it and reread it often. The very last photo I have of her before her stroke, which I snapped one night when I looked in on her, as I did when I was in New York, was of her reading The Frank Family. (And to remember how skeptical she was when I called her in New York back in 2000 to say that Radio 4 was interested in commissioning a radio series based on her story. Ach!, she snorted on the phone, as she was wont when she dismissed things as she used to say when she wanted to dismiss things, “Don’t talk nonsense!”).

Fortunately, in the meantime, my dear friend Michael Franck, the talented Finnish documentarian and his partner Nina, also made a wonderful film based on the book in conjunction with the publication of the Finnish edition, Pelastuneet (Deliverance), in 2010. Another one of my most prized memories of the times we shared together was of watching the film for the first time in Micce’s and Nina’s apartment in Helsinki after Dorrit, at the age of 89—89!—flew to Helsinki to help me celebrate that minor miracle: who would ever have thought that the Finns would be interested in her story?

But they were. And so, it seemed, was everyone else. Particularly when she told it. I was but the honored medium.

Micce’s film, which aired on Finnish national television on the show ‘45 Minutes’, the Finnish equivalent of ‘60 Minutes’ was the centerpiece of the beautiful service we gave her on June 19th in Queens. The film, which showed Dorrit at her vibrant, raconteurish best, was screened in the packed reception room before the 100 or so mourners filed into the chapel to listen to my sister-in-law Lisa, my cousins Vicki Sander, Vicki Hoffman and Roger Widmann, my niece Bria, and my brother movingly—as well as risingly, for Dorrit was good for a lot of laughs, too—eulogize their mother-in-law, aunt, grandmother, and mother, respectively.

At my request, I spoke last.

Here is some of what I had to say.

“What can I say about my darling mother, Dorrit?

The first thing that comes to mind, I am sure many if not most of you will agree, was her tremendous heart. If ever there was someone who gave truth to the old chestnut ‘the biggest heart in the world,’ it was Dorrit Sander. I am sure that many of you can recall the heartfelt, handwritten notes she sent or slipped under your door when one of you had suffered a loss. If someone lost a loved one, Dorrit was there. If someone she knew was in pain—whether it be someone from the family or a neighbor or a friendly acquaintance—my caring mother was there, with a call, or a note, or a knock on the door.

One of my first memories of my mother is that of a shopping trip to Jamaica we took when I was four or five. Walking down Jamaica Avenue Dorrit espied a homeless person sitting on the sidewalk. Those were still the days when the ‘homeless’ were referred to as ‘bums,’ and treated and ignored as such.

Not by my mother. Instead Dorrit took a coin out of her purse and gave it to me and asked me to give it to the woebegone man. She understood what it meant to be hungry, a legacy of the three years she spent in hiding and, particularly, the apocalyptic, final honger winter of ’44-’45, when she, and the other Franks nearly starved to death, as did some twenty thousand Dutchmen both under and above ground in the beset, besieged country.

And she understood what it meant to be generous.

It was my mother who taught me the importance of reaching out. And what a long reach she had. For Dorrit, everybody was her cause: someone else’s pain was her pain.

I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say that my mother had the most capacious heart in the world.

The second outstanding attribute that comes to mind when I think about my mother was her preternatural charm. Many people have told me that they thought my mother was one of the most charming people they had ever met—and that included people who had never actually met her, but had only spoken to her on the phone. (No one was better on the phone than Dorrit.)

My mother could charm anyone out of anything. For example, several years ago, on one of the half dozen or so times we met in Europe, we were in Hyde Park, after a day of doing the sights, when Dorrit spotted a public employee blithely making her way across the great London park in a tractor type conveyance when it occurred to my mother to ask the tractor person for a lift. ‘Let’s see if she can give us a ride,’ she perked up.

I couldn’t believe it. ‘Mom,’ I pleaded under my breath. ‘No, no, no.’ But Dorrit forged ahead, confident that she could charm the woman into giving us a hitch to the Victory Services Club, her favored London hostelry, on the other side of Hyde, or close enough.

And sure enough, a few minutes later, there we were, being driven across Hyde Park, while Dorrit regaled the captive operator with her tales of the war, including the year she spent in London working for my great uncle Julius, after the Armistice, after the Franks had emerged from hiding. My mother could charm anyone into doing anything, just about.

The third attribute that comes to mind when I think about my mother was her her high intelligence, and her way with words: her command of her adopted language was spot on. I always loved reading my work to my mother for the very acute way she listened to every word. ‘That doesn’t sound right,’ she would say when she heard an ill-fitting word or phrase, including and particularly when it came to writing up her story.

Witness the following the excerpt from a letter my mother wrote me after she had reviewed the first draft of The Frank Family before I sent it to London, after intense discussions with her sister, Sybil, and Jeanne Houtepen, one of the Dutch friends who aided the Franks when they were in hiding, and with whom Dorrit remained lifelong friends. To wit:

‘Dear Gor,

I had wanted to write you from the plane, but there was too much turbulence and not enough light.

The main bone of contention [about the manuscript] is the hospital where Sybil had her operation,’ she continued, referring to the ‘secret’ operation Sybil had in The Hague in ’43, for which—incredibly–she was transported by the Resistance from No. 14, and back. ‘Sybil claims it was BRONOVO. Jeanne and I know for sure that it was the Rudolph Steiner Clinic. I had an appendectomy at Bronovo in 1946. There were no singing nuns.

‘I would omit Opa Wonnie’s [Myrtil’s] going to dinner with J,’ she continued, referring to a dinner that my courageous-cum-headstrong grandfather, who occasionally left the safety of No.14–partly in order to augment the Franks’ meager supplies, partly because he couldn’t stand being cooped up–had with Jeanne in the well-policed, occupied Dutch city. ‘Nobody would believe he had the nerve to do that…

‘There are quite a few mistakes in the ms. I told you that everyone in Davos liked it—me too. However I did NOT throw myself at a Canadian soldier—more about that next time..’

That was Dorrit, too. Many people have wondered where I acquired my ken for language, or my fealty to the facts. Of course, I inherited these things from my mother…

–Along with a heavy dollop of her romanticism.

One of my favorite photos of the Sanders is a snapshot which my father took of the three of us—me, Lee (or Clipper, as we called him), and Dorrit, around 1972, after I had emerged from my Sturm und Drang period at Cornell, and we were a family again, at Jones Beach, one sublime late summer’s day, enjoying the moment before heading back to Jamaica.

It’s a wonderful memento of a happy time, one of the photos I have in my wallet . But the thing I love most about it was what Dorrit wrote on the back. The words are faded now, but if you look hard, you can still make them out: ‘Jones Beach. After everyone had gone, except us and the sea gulls.’

That was Dorrit, at her most wistful.

She always had the knack for the right phrase at the right time—including, on occasion, the title of an old song, if it was apropos. Which brings me to another fond memory, the evening we went to dinner with my darling friend Rose, the great actress, to celebrate her luminous performance in the wonderful Alan Ayckbourn play Bedroom Farce. It was quite a rumbustious dinner, as after-theatre dinners tend to be, in stage-mad London. The festivities carried on past midnight. One would have thought that my mother, who was already 80, would have wilted long before then. (And while I am it, hats off to my dear friend Rose for flying over at a moment’s notice to help me get through that horrible week. Thank you Rose!)

But, no, there my mother was, carrying on and laughing and telling stories to the delight and amazement of her mesmerized fellow merrymakers, as if it were eight in the evening and not one in the morning. Quite astounding. At one point, in between tales, I asked Dorrit when was the last time she had been up so late, no less in such an exuberant setting, on the town. “Long ago and far away,” she said, after the title of the 1944 hit Gene Kelley tune. “Long ago and far away.” And then she returned to the present.

That was Dorrit, too, hopelessly romantic. Just like me, I suppose…

There is so much else I could tell you about my amazing mother, especially now that the floodgates of memory are open. I could tell you about the trip we took to Davos in ’01 and the way she laughed—what a wonderful, yelping laugh she had when I announced in mock-German Schnell Mrs. Sander, Schnell! Schnell!! and the long stroll down the Promenade to the Kurpark, with the mountains in the distance, and she asked me whether I remembered what I was like when I was three—I didn’t, but of course she did, I mean she remembered what she was like, exactly (oh yes, did I tell you that she also had a fantastic memory?); and the way she used to cook these fantastic meals for our family and then for unclear reasons make us rush through them as if we had a collective gun at our heads; and the way she cocked her head to the side and crinkled her eye brows when she didn’t quite believe something; or that horrible, science fiction-like ultraviolet tanning machine she used to sit in front in the kitchen in the 50s and when I first encountered her and it made me run away in fright and get Kurt’s attention because I thought my mother was a secret agent from Mars (a plausible enough notion at the time); and the way she called me “Gor,” her name for me—particularly the reliably startled-delighted way she called my name when I opened the door to 616 after returning from one of my sorties to The North and she was ensconced in her tv chair. Gor! Gor! How was your trip!?

My mother was not a saint. She had her faults and quirks. Our relationship was not perfect, even after I “made good” and published The Frank Family and returned to Cornell, and banished the earlier less happy memories of my wild and crazy days there. We had our dust-ups, although usually they were about nothing much at all.

But she was the best gift I ever had, and fortunately I realized that long before she passed, and I made sure that she knew that, and I knew how much she loved me, and I made certain that she knew that, and vice versa, many times over. We were cool.

And I was prepared.

…But, of course, I wasn’t.

How could I be? Nothing can really prepare you for losing your mother, especially a one of a kind mother like Dorrit.

Unsurprisingly I was not in the best shape in the weeks and months immediately following the funeral (and what a lovely funeral it was). As usual, of late, I spent the summer in Finland. Fortunately, I had a book to research, and I did; even began to write it. My mother would have insisted: after all, it was she who was the chief sponsor of my Finnish career, of which she was extremely proud (especially after she actually came to Helsinki, as a good number of my friends have done now, and saw “my Finland” and met my wonderful Finnish mishpocha.)

So I had work. That was good. And it was a beautiful summer, the best summer in fifty years Finns said; sunny every day for forty days (more or less). That was good.

Still, it was the darkest summer of my life. July and August were a sunny blur. There were quite a few days when I had difficulty getting out of bed, many nights when I spent walking around the courtyard of my hotel, in tears, adrift. The pilot light of my life had gone out.

Then at the end of August I contrived to get an assignment to research a travel article about The Hague (the draft of which you can see elsewhere on this page, along with my photos). Of course, I love The Hague, but the real motive for the trip was to commune with my mother, and to say kaddish for her there, in the city where she lived for twelve years, and nearly died, and was reborn again.

So there I was one night, after dark, standing in front of the flat at 14 Pieter van den Zandestraat, where Dorrit and the Franks had spent those thousand odd days, waiting and peering through those curtains–no hidden closet for them–and trying not to go berserk (as some onderduikers did), and hoping against hope that the Germans would not find them, or that their neighbors would not betray them (as occurred to their less fortunate namesake family), and making the most of the little food—if you call it food—that they had.

Of course, I had been to Pieter van den Zandestraat many times before, but never at night, nor after dark. It was quite remarkable. Standing there, on that little Dutch cul-de-sac, in the dark, it could just as well have been August, 1944, or August 1943, Or August 1942. It was easy to imagine my mother and her family huddled there on the other side of those flimsy curtains, waiting and wondering, when their ordeal would end, if it would end, how it would end, as it so nearly did that heart-stopping day in November, 1944 when the Germans went house to house and somehow missed or overlooked No. 14. Or the harrowing day in March, 1945 when a RAF bombing raid of The Hague went wrong and obliterated a good part of the center of the city. Or this close call. Or that one…

Too, I could imagine the blinking disbelief with which Dorrit, Sybil, Til and Flory finally reemerged, after that continuum of terror into the bright light of freedom, again.

That sort of put things into perspective.

As Dorrit said in Micce’s beautiful, wrenching, inspiring film, at the point where my mother spoke of The Liberation. “I can not begin to tell you how we felt when we were finally liberated. After five long years of occupation. Whenever I am depressed”—as she often was—“that’s all I have to think about: we made it.”

I thought about that, too, when I was standing there, that electric, Twilight Zone-like night on Pieter van den Zandestraat, and the sunny day afterwards, when I visualized the Franks’ final deliverance.

That made me feel better.


I felt very close to my mother in The Hague—on not just on Pieter van der Zandestraat, but at the other spots she and I loved there—the long, verdant Lange Voorhourt, the Hague’s embassy rown, where we used to stroll when we had our haagenaar reunions, the restaurant on the promenade at Scheveningen, where the Franks first resided after fleeing Germany in ’33 where Dorrit regaled the open-mouthed Dutch waitress with her story in flawless Dutch—how much she loved using her Dutch, the gezellig Park Hotel, on Molenstraat, where she used to stay during her biannual return visits back to den Haag and she would sing the Dutch national anthem for me, which she still knew by heart, as we sat in the hotel’s beatific garden.

I felt better after that. My ship righted itself after that.

“You keep me going,” my mother would say to me during her final years, when I looked in on her at night, before she went to sleep and we had our little bedtime chat, before she turned off the lights (if she did: she did like those late nights).

That was an exaggeration, of course.

We all kept Dorrit going, including and especially the resilient memory of her beloved husband and my late father, Kurt, the great love of her life, the photo of whom, posing triumphantly on the balcony of Hitler’s headquarters, after Captain (later Colonel) Sander had gotten his final vengeance on the Nazis as an interrogation officer with the U.S. 83rd “Thunderbolt” Division, watched over her, and who was always close in spirit. (As was to a somewhat lesser but still very real and poignant extent, the memory of her first love, Edgar Reich, who was murdered at Auschwitz, and whom Dorrit never forgot either: the most difficult discovery I made while cleaning her apartment was a studio photo of Edgar that he sent his sweetheart from the internment camp at Westerbork in the summer of ’42, just before he and his family were shipped out, and the Franks were about to ‘dive under,’ looking very dapper, with the inscription, Ever in love, Edgar. No, Dorrit never forgot Edgar. How could she?)

Did I keep my mother going? I did my part.

I can vouch for this: she certainly kept me going.

And shall forevermore.