Where the heck is Danville? That's what Anne Frank was thinking when
she realized her new pen pal was from a small town in Iowa.
Her letter to Juanita mentions finding Burlington on the map but she couldn't find Danville. Little did she know she was so close! Soon you
can read this amazing children's book to find out how the girls
connected when they were oceans apart.
One spring day in 1940 the seventh- and eight-grade teacher at the Danville Community School in Des Moines County offered her students the chance to correspond with pen pals overseas. A student named Juanita Wagner drew the name of a ten year-old girl in the Netherlands-Anne Frank.
The name "Anne Frank" is familiar to us today because of the famous diary the young Jewish girl kept while in hiding from the Nazis. First published in 1947, it's the story of a teenage girl facing horrible circumstances. Her diary describes the usual adolescent fears about growing up, falling in love and being misunderstood by her parents. Yet she also writes as a Jew hiding from the Nazis. Readers of the diary all over the world have come to see her as a heroine of the war because, in spite of all she suffered, she still felt that people were inherently "good at heart."
The brief connection between Amsterdam and Danville was the work of Birdie Mathews to bring those worlds together. By 1940, Mathews was a veteran teacher. She had been teaching since age eighteen having begun her career at nearby Plank Road rural school, where she taught grades Kindergarten through eighth until she was past forty. About 1921, she moved to the Danville Community School, having spent over two decades at a country school, where she had taught a wide range of curriculum and varying ages and levels of students. No doubt this had made her a seasoned teacher overcoming the professional isolation that plagued particularly rural and small town teachers.
In this period of time, teachers had few opportunities to interact with colleagues outside of their buildings. Even help from the Iowa State Department of Education seemed distant and limited. In an effort to bring new teaching practices and ideas to rural teachers, the University of Iowa and other colleges brought traveling workshops, called Tri-County Institutes, to regional locations. The institutes met for a half- or whole-day session of speakers and workshops. The institutes minimized the isolation of rural teachers and furthered their professional growth.
"Miss Birdie," as her students called her, acquired more teaching resources through travel. She was even a bit of a local celebrity when she sent home lengthy letters to the Danville Enterprise sharing her 1914 trip to Europe. Her letters became front-page news, and her travel experiences became classroom lesson plans. Her students often spent afternoons gathering around Mathews to hear her adventures. Opening their eyes to the world beyond, she frequently sent postcards to her students from her travels overseas and across the country, and it is believed that on one of these trips she acquired the names of potential pen pals for her students.
Because pen-pal writing as a class room practice was still fairly rare at this time, only creative teachers such as Birdie Mathews would have set up situations in which their students could learn firsthand about the world. Some Danville students wrote to other children in the United States, but many, including Juanita Wagner, chose to write to overseas pen pals. In her introductory letter in the spring of 1940, Juanita, age ten, wrote about Iowa, her mother (a teacher), sister Betty Ann, and life on their farm and nearby Danville. She sealed the letter and sent it to Anne Frank's address in Amsterdam.
In a few weeks Juanita received not one, but two overseas letters. Anne had written back to Juanita, and Anne's sister Margot, age fourteen had written a letter to Betty Ann, Juanita's fourteen-year old sister. "It was such a special joy as a child to have the experience of receiving a letter from a pen pal overseas" Betty Ann Wagner later recalled. "In those days we had no TV, little radio, and maybe a newspaper once or twice a week. Living on a farm with so little communication could be very dull except for all the good books from the library.
The Frank sister's letters from Amsterdam were dated April 27th and the 29th and were written in ink on light blue stationary. Anne and Margot had enclosed their school pictures. The letters were in English, but experts believe that the Frank sisters probably first composed their letters in Dutch and then copied them over in English after their father, Otto Frank, translated them.
In her letter Anne told of her family, her Montessori school, and Amsterdam. She must have pulled out a map of the United States because she wrote. "On the map I looked again and found the name Burlington." Enclosing a postcard of Amsterdam, she mentioned her hobby of "picture-card collecting: I have already about 800."
After the war was over, Betty Ann Wagner was teaching in a country school in eastern Illinois. Still curious about the Dutch pen pals, she wrote again to Anne's address in Amsterdam. A few months later she received a long, handwritten letter from Otto Frank. He told about the family hiding, of Anne's experiences in the "secret annex" and how Anne had died in a concentration camp. This was the first time Wagner learned that Anne had been Jewish: "When I received the letter I shed tears" Wagner recalled, " and the next day took it with me to school and read Otto Frank's letter to my students. I wanted them to realize how fortunate they were to be in America during World War II."
A BOOK by ME salutes Juanita and Betty Wagner of Danville, Iowa
and their pen pals Anne and Margot Frank. Also, we thank our young authors of this important story.