I could tell instantly that he was related to Anne. His face resembled hers so much that it felt almost as though I was meeting her in person.
"Anne Frank's Family" had just been published, based on 14 boxes of letters, postcards, photos and documents that Gerti accidentally discovered in the attic of their house in Basel.
Elias told me that it wasn't just Anne who loved to write; everyone in the family did.
The 6,000 recovered documents told a story of a family torn apart by war and anti-Semitism. That day in Atlanta, I listened to Elias tell me about loved ones he lost. He told me he was lucky that his family had remained in neutral Switzerland when World War II broke out.
I thought back to our conversation Thursday when I learned the news of Elias' death. He died peacefully at his home in Basel, Switzerland, at 90, said an announcement posted on the website of Anne Frank Fonds, the foundation that Elias headed.
Like millions of people who read "The Diary of Anne Frank," I was deeply influenced by her words and in awe of her family's courage.
Anne received her diary on her 13th birthday and wrote in it for the two years that her family hid from the Nazis in the secret annex of an Amsterdam apartment. I was only in seventh grade when my father bought me the book in 1975.
After the family was discovered, they were sent to Auschwitz
. Later, Anne and her sister Margot were taken to Bergen-Belsen, where they both died in March 1945. Her father, Otto Frank, was the sole survivor of the family, one of only 7,000 people who made it out alive from Auschwitz.
In the course of my two hours with Elias, I learned new things about the young, Jewish girl whose journal is arguably the most famous in the world.
She called him Bernd, short for Bernhard, Elias' formal name. In his youth, Elias was an actor and a skater with Holiday on Ice. He was her first cousin and 4 years older. They adored one another.
"Bernd, maybe we can skate as a pair together someday," Anne wrote in January 1941 from Amsterdam. "But I know I'll have to train very hard to be as good as you are."
In another letter, Anne outlined the steps to their skating routine and drew a picture of the blue, fur-trimmed dress she would wear when she finally skated with Elias.
"She never did get to do that," Elias said.
On his 17th birthday in 1942, she asked him how it was going with a girl he had met.
It was an ordinary letter that one keeps like any other. But it turned out to be her last to him, and he preserved it like a relic, as proof of his cousin's affection, as something to treasure.
"That was the last sign of life I had with Anne," Elias told me.
After the war, Otto Frank searched frantically for his family and eventually learned their cruel fate. He published Anne's diary in 1947
and helped transform it for the stage and film
. He created the foundation in her name in 1963.
The first edition of the diary was in Dutch. Elias told me he had to wait several years for a German language edition before he could read it.
That was when he came to truly understand his childhood playmate.
By the time he read her words, he had not seen Anne in many years. In his mind, he treasured the image of a spunky girl who loved the Jack-in-the-Box puppet shows Elias staged and played hide-and-seek.
"Anne," he said, "was always good at hiding."
I wondered whether he caught the irony of his own words.
Otto Frank kept alive his daughter's legacy until he died in 1980 and passed on that role to Elias. He was devoted to the task until the day he died.
In 2012, he helped create the Frank Family Centre in Frankfurt, where archives of his extended family will be made accessible to the public, according to the Anne Frank foundation.
Elias was my closest personal encounter with a girl who opened my eyes to the cruelty of this world. Anne Frank never gave up on humanity, despite everything she endured. It was her goodness that amazes every reader of her diary.
In Elias, I saw that same goodness.