I didn’t intend to start my day by crying at my desk (which is also my kitchen table—I’m working from home), but dammit, here we are. A brand new exhibit at a museum in Danville, Iowa contains copies of the only letters Anne Frank and her sister Margot wrote to their American pen pals, two school-age girls named Juanita and Betty Ann Wagner. According to the BCC, the historic snail mail exchange happened thanks to the Wagners’ school teacher, Birdie Matthews, who in 1940 set up the pen-pal program between her students and Anne Frank’s school in Amsterdam.
Juanita and Anne were both 10 years old at the time. In their first (and in Anne’s case, only) letters to each other, the girls shared details about school, where they lived, and their family life. Margot, who was older than Anne, seemed to be more clued in to the geopolitical rumblings at the time and told the Wagner girls about how her family could not travel outside of the country due to visa restrictions, not even to visit family in Switzerland, reports the BBC.
The letters from the Frank sisters to Danville stopped later that year, following a German invasion into the Netherlands later. Of course, we all know the heartbreaking story that follows, how it ends with Anne and Margot separated from their family and dying in a concentration camp in 1945—but before the Franks story became known worldwide, the Wagner girls had no way of knowing that. They often wondered about the Frank sisters:
“I remember that we would talk about Anne and Margot and wonder how they were doing,” said Betty Wagner in the video. Are the bombs dropping there? Did they have enough to eat? We didn’t know, but we always thought about them.”
Eventually, in 1956, the Wagners found out exactly who the Franks were, and just how far-reaching Anne’s story would become, when Betty heard on the radio about how The Diary of Anne Frank had inspired a play. Betty said, “I said, ‘Oh, that’s my Anne Frank’ [...] we spent the evening reading [her diary] and crying too because we just had no idea.”
Brb, I just have something in my eye. The exhibit is open now in Danville and costs $2 for students, according to the museum’s website.