Face put on Anne Frank's lost love

February 25, 2008 1:47:48 PM PST
On Jan. 6, 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary that her image of him was so vivid she didn't need a photograph to remember him. Indeed, more than 60 years later, no photograph had been found of Anne Frank's childhood sweetheart, leaving hundreds of readers around the world curious for a glimpse. But now, 81-year-old Earnst Michaelis has identified his dearest childhood friend, Peter Schiff, as the "Petel" or "Peter" from the diary ? the mysterious boy who stole Anne Frank's heart.

Despite "Anne Frank's Diary" becoming one of the world's most-read journals, selling an estimated 35 million copies, what Peter Schiff might have looked like was an enduring mystery. He met Anne Frank at school in Amsterdam in 1940, and they were inseparable for one summer. In her diary, Anne Frank affectionately called him "Petel," and she was ''crazy about his smile." He offered her a necklace and she fell in love with him, a love that filled her with hope during the harsh days of World War II when she and her family hid from the police to avoid capture, deportation or worse.

During her time in hiding, Anne Frank wrote "Where can I find help? I simply have to go on living and praying to God that, if we ever get out of here, Peter's path will cross mine." Not until Michaelis unveiled the old photograph of his school friend, however, did the boy have a face.

"We were close friends as children," Michaelis told ABC News. "I was amazed that we frequently wanted to do the same things." Ernst and Peter became pals growing up in Berlin and were classmates at the Holdheim School until war prompted their families to flee Berlin, and the 12-year-olds had to part ways. "When we separated in 1939, we exchanged photographs," Michaelis told us. Peter gave him a passport-size photograph and a note that read, "In friendly remembrance of your friend Lutz Peter Schiff." "We didn't realize at the time that was something that girls do and not boys," Michaelis told us.

That testament of affection was most fortunate for Anne Frank's admirers. The note and photograph, which Michaelis has donated to the Anne Frank House, are being published on the house's Web site today along with more information on Peter Schiff. "She writes about him several times and says she does not need a photograph to remember his face," Anne-Marie Bekker, an official of the Anne Frank House, told ABC News. "For the readers, it is nice to finally put a face to the story."

The two boys never saw each other again. Michaelis was sent to England on the Kindertransport, a train that drove Jewish children West to live with families away from persecution. He still lives there today. Peter fled to Amsterdam with his family, where he met Anne Frank.

Little is known of Schiff's whereabouts after he and Anne lost touch. "When I came back Peter was no longer at his old address; he'd moved and was living with a much older boy, who apparently told him I was just a child, because Peter stopped seeing me," Anne Frank writes in 1944. "I loved him so much that I didn't want to face the truth. I kept clinging to him until the day I finally realized that if I continued to chase after him, people would say I was mad about boys."

The Frank family's hiding place was discovered and they were arrested on Aug. 4, 1944, and deported to Auschwitz a month later. Only Anne's father, Otto, survived and lived to publish her diary. According to officials at the Anne Frank House, the record books show that Peter Schiff died May 31, 1945 in Auschwitz, four months after the liberation of the camp, and a few months after Anne Frank's own death, of typhus, in Bergen-Belsen. They were respectively 18 and 16 at the time.

After the war, Ernst Michaelis looked for his friend, with little hope. "I put him on a list of people I tried to trace, but I never heard back," he told ABC News. "I was pretty well certain that he got killed in the Holocaust."

With his own ghosts to deal with - his entire family had perished in the war - Michaelis did not pursue it further. "If he'd survived," Michaelis adds, "he would have been a completely different person."

Michaelis had read Anne Frank's Diary, and suspected Anne's "Petel" to be his childhood friend, but had never followed it up. It was only after his wife passed away last summer that Michaelis picked up a book she had been reading during her long illness. It was Anne Frank's Diary. "I realized there were no pictures of Peter," Michaelis says. He then got in touch with the Anne Frank Trust in London, which where very interested in meeting him.

On Jan. 18 of this year, Michaelis took his children and grandchildren with him on a trip to Amsterdam. Together, they delivered the photograph, a gift given to him by his school friend 69 years ago.

"Normally childhood friendships are not for publication," he told us. "But in this case, I think it is permissible."

Michaelis hopes a picture of his friend, whom he describes as "warm-hearted," will appear in future editions of the book. "Of course, if she had known her feelings would be published she would have been extremely embarrassed," he says about the young writer. "But the feelings must have been true, else she wouldn't have written about him that way."