Dear Danville

Letters connect Anne Frank to Eastern Iowa town

This is an undated file photo of Anne Frank, the young Jewish diarist who with her family hid from the Nazis in Amsterda
This is an undated file photo of Anne Frank, the young Jewish diarist who with her family hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam, Netherlands, during World War II. (APPhoto/files)

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DANVILLE – Anne Frank’s words have reached millions.

A young girl when she was forced to go into hiding during World War II, Anne Frank documented two years of life living in secret. Her diary has been held up as an innocent’s illustration of war. Her words have been translated into multiple languages, and made into movies and plays.

But it was a letter Anne wrote in 1940, two years before she went into hiding, that touched a young girl in Danville.

Juanita Wagner was paired with Anne in a pen pal exchange orchestrated by the Wagner’s teacher, Birdie Mathews. Juanita’s older sister, Betty, was matched with Anne’s older sister, Margot Frank. Eager to learn of life outside their small town, the Wagner sisters wrote letters to the Frank sisters soon after receiving their names.

They received a response in the form of two letters, dated April 17 and April 29, 1940. Both Anne and Margot wrote chatty notes, and included their school pictures. Juanita and Betty wrote back, but they never heard from Anne or Margot again.

Less than a month after the Frank sisters wrote their letters, German soldiers invaded Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Frank family went into hiding in July 1942. It wasn’t until after the war ended that Juanita and Betty learned what happened to their pen pals. It was even longer before the pair discovered how much their letters – one penned by Anne, the other by Margot – meant to the world.

Today, the letters are at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Calif., but copies are available for viewing at the Danville Museum, which showcases the relationship between small-town Iowa and the Frank family.

Those who live in Danville know this story, but few people outside the community are aware of it. Hallie Darnall and Haley Villont live less than 15 minutes from Danville, but didn’t learn of the story until their eighth grade teacher, Katie Salisbury, told them about it.

“We had no idea,” says Darnall, now a sophomore at Burlington High School. “This is a huge part of history, to have this connection to Anne Frank.”

The two students penned a children’s book detailing the story from Juanita Wagner’s point-of-view. “Oceans Apart: The Story of Anne Frank and a Small Town Iowa Girl” is designed to highlight Iowa’s role in Anne Frank’s life, while also providing information about the Holocaust. The book is geared to elementary-age readers.

“It’s sad there was only one letter,” says Villont, also a sophomore at Burlington High School. “Just think of all we could have learned about the Frank family.”

To that end, the young authors have agreed to let their book be sold as a fundraiser for the Danville Museum. Museum organizers hope the book’s profits will contribute to ongoing fundraising efforts to expand the museum.

The museum, which opened in 2007, was originally built as a fire station in 1921. Juanita Wagner died before the museum opened. Betty Wagner died on Aug. 15, 2012, but a DVD video features her telling the story of the letters.

“We’ve literally had people from all over the world visit,” says Janet Hesler, a local historian. “People see the sign -- that we purchased -- on the highway and come in.”

The building’s lack of a bathroom and non-handicapped accessibility means it can’t be included in state tourism brochures. Expanding the museum would allow for these additions, and provide space for more exhibits and expanded hours.

About $450,000 is needed for the expansion to include everything on everybody’s wish list. More than $90,000 has been raised to date, with an online fundraising effort at netting more than $1,000.

“We hope by 2014, everything will be finished and we’ll be in our new museum,” Hesler says.

Until then, publicizing the museum takes top priority. The eighth grade class at Danville Junior High recently launched a postcard project with this in mind.

“We’re trying to collect 1.5 million postcards to represent the number of children who died in the Holocaust,” says Grace Palmatier, 13.

The class chose postcards because Anne Frank collected them. She even included one in her letter to Juanita Wagner.

The eighth graders have produced hundreds of postcards with their class photo, which they’ve mailed to Jewish individuals, schools and organizations world-wide with hand-written notes detailing the project. Each postcard asks for one in return. A personal message isn’t necessary, but the students hope some people will include one.

“It’s a lot more personal than sending an e-mail and hoping for a response,” says Rylee Molter, 13.

All of the postcards received will eventually be displayed in the museum.

“Our main idea has been tolerance and acceptance,” says Hannah Hare, 13. “We need to have people bring it into their lives so that something like the Holocaust never happens again.”

More information:

You can help Danville students with their goal of collecting 1.5 million postcards. Postcards should be mailed to:

Danville Schools

419 S. Main StreetDanville, Iowa 52623

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