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Anne Frank Remembered

Unsung hero

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Jan Augustus Gies

He was a real Dutchman, very tall, lean, with billowing white hair. We used to joke that Miep had never seen him without a jacket and tie. He smoked small cigars, was a man of few words, who had a sharp, dry sense of humor. He collected stamps. I last saw him in Amsterdam in late January, 1993 as I was leaving for the airport to fly back to Santa Monica (where I then lived) after a week’s stay in Holland. He was 87 years old, had been ill and had spent much of the week bed in the bedroom he and Miep had shared for more than fifty years.

The last cup of coffee drunk, gifts of Edam cheese and Verkade chocolates squeezed into my suitcase, I was ready to leave and I knocked on the bedroom door to bid Jan goodbye. He invited me inside where the drapes were drawn. I sat beside him at the edge of the bed. He looked very, very worn out. The old duvet with its white linen cover was pulled up to his neck. He withdrew his large, dry, bony hands with their neat nail, from underneath it, and took my two hands in his. We were eye to eye. I told him I was off now and he squeezed my hands. We spoke quietly for a bit, then I kissed him on both cheeks, told him to please get better and said goodbye. He whispered “Farewell.”

My heart stopped. At the end of our many visits, Jan had always said  “À bientôt.” [see you soon] when we parted. This time he’d said, “Farewell!” Because Jan was so reliable in all things (though I hoped it wasn’t so), I guessed this would be the last time we would see each other, that he was at the end and knew it.

He, Miep and I  had shared a deep and rich adventure during the past eight or so years, meeting, working together on what became the book Anne Frank Remembered. We’d held onto our hats and each other when the book unexpectedly became an international best seller, coming out the other end, tried and true, trusted friends. Besides publication of various editions in various languages, promotion tours and other Holocaust-related events, we visited each other several times a year — me to Amsterdam, they to Los Angeles.

When I phoned from the airport a few hours later, he’d drawn his lasts breath an hour before. Miep asked if I would come back into Amsterdam. Of course I would. By the time I’d cancelled my flight, hurried back into town to their apartment on Woestduinstraat, his body had been removed.

Jan’s birthday is today, 18 August. He would be 111 years old, as he was born in 1905. Though less well known than Miep who has become an icon, like Miep, Jan had contributed greatly and at great risk in helping with the protection and hiding of Anne Frank, her family and the others during those twenty-five dangerous months. Because those in hiding longed for visitors, Jan would climb the steep steps behind the bookcase up to the hiding place every lunch hour, bringing news, library books, friendly conversation, cigarettes for Peter’s father when he could. Anne writes about these visits, one particularly memorable visit that included a sleep-over. Anne writes of her admiration for Jan as he (and Miep) were young, chic, sexy, newly married and she had attended their wedding.

As it happened during those dark years, Jan was also a member of the Dutch Underground. Because of his (dangerous) connections he was able to obtain illegal ration coupons for the people in hiding which meant that desperately needed food for eight extra mouths could be acquired. In our book we touch on a few incidents relating to his underground work, but – generally – when I would ply him for more details, he would light a new cigar, shake his head, and look out the window, remaining silent about details of these activities. As much as I love prying information and stories out of the fading past, I also love leaving secrets alone.

In 2009 our original publisher Simon & Schuster planned a celebratory re-issue of Anne Frank Remembered in honor of Miep’s approaching 100th birthday. Because so much had happened in the Anne Frank world in the almost twenty-five years since its original publication, Miep and I crafted a new epilogue titled:

ON THE OCCASION OF MY CENTENARY

It  begins:

When those last words in the original epilogue to Anne Frank Remembered were written, my husband Jan (whom Anne called “Henk” in the diary) and I were considered old – my husband in his eighties, me in my late seventies. I could not have known that I would be lucky enough to live to my one hundredth year. Nor could I have imagined the strangeness I would feel at having outlived almost everyone who shared the terrible times with me including Jan who died on January 26th, 1993.

His hat still hangs alongside mine on our hat rack near the front door. His watch is still stretched out on top of the television set. There is an oil painting of him on one wall of my apartment and a painting of Anne on another. There is a framed photo of Otto Frank near the end of his life along with other photos of family and friends, awards I’ve received, mementoes, on various surfaces around the apartment.

The pieces of antique furniture given me by Otto Frank that had belonged to Edith remain. They include the large grandfather clock made in Frankfurt long ago that fills an entire wall. Near to the time Jan died, this clock stopped working. So far, no one has been able to repair it.

I am surrounded by memories but live entirely on my own, although my son, Paul, and his wife, Lucie, see to my well-being.

A little further on, about Jan’s secret life during the war, is written:

I knew almost nothing about my husband’s underground work other than the small bits and pieces that unfolded during the war. I knew he was able to get illegal ration cards for the people in hiding, which meant we were able to obtain food for them. When Paul or I tried to speak to him about his life in the war, Jan always said “I’ll tell you later, not now.”

But later never came. Jan died without revealing the full story of his underground life.

Because of research done by my son, his friend Gerlof Langerijs, and others since Jan’s death, I know now that he was a very active member of one of the underground groups made up of civil servants. These helpers sliced up the map of Amsterdam. Each of them would visit people in their slice as part of their work. They delivered goods, medical supplies, ration coupons, and whatever else they could. This was very dangerous work, and Jan was almost caught several times when he visited addresses that were betrayed to the Germans.

There was a violent part of his organization but if Jan ever carried weapons, I don’t know about it. Jan arranged hiding addresses all over town and also outside of Amsterdam. He must have saved scores of people, mainly Jews, but also men who did not want to have to work in Germany – Arbeitseinsatz – and other people who were sought by the Nazis.

He kept silent about this work, as did his fellow underground workers. On the day of his funeral, several men of his group were present. They shook my hand but kept to themselves and remained silent about their wartime activities.

My son regrets that we didn’t keep the pressure on Jan to tell. I am of the same opinion.

I understand Miep and her son Paul’s regret. But, if this is what this dear, gutsy, quiet man of heroic action chose, I’m glad he got his way. He died with his secrets. (As Miep did and, I, who like Jan get more and more quiet in this tumble down world everyday, hope I will too.)

When news of the German surrender finally came, everyone in the neighborhood wanted to go outside, light fires, dance and celebrate.

“Come,” Miep said, “Let’s join the celebration.”  

Jan shook his head, “No. I’ll stay here. I don’t feel like joining in the jubilation in the streets. Too much has happened in these five years to my country. Too many people have been taken away. Who knows how many will never return? Yes, I’m happy its over but I want to stay in and be quiet.” 

IMG_2701[Photos: Top: Jan’s photo on his identity card during the war.

Bottom: Miep and Jan on their wedding day, 16 July 1941]

Anne Frank was arrested on this day in 1944

 

Excerpt from Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies, who helped to hide the Frank family, and me:

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Part III The Darkest Days

Chapter Fifteen

It was an ordinary Friday morning, August 4, 1944. First thing in the morning, I’d gone into the hiding place to get the shopping list. Lonely after the long night locked in together, my friends were hungry for a good visit. Anne, as usual, had many questions to ask and urged me to talk a little. I promised that I’d come back and sit and we could have a real talk in the afternoon when I returned with the groceries but conversation would have to wait until then. I went back to the office and got started with my work.

Elli Vossen and Jo Koophuis were working across from me in the office. Sometime between eleven and twelve o’clock, I looked up. There in the doorway stood a man in civilian clothes. I hadn’t heard the door. He was holding a revolver, pointing it at us. He came in. “Stay put,” he said in Dutch. “Don’t move.”

Then he walked toward the back office where Mr. Kraler was working leaving us alone. We were petrified.

Jo Koophuis said to me, “Miep, I think the time has come.”

Elli began to tremble and shake. Meanwhile, Mr. Koophuis’ eyes darted toward the doorway. No one but the man with the gun seemed to be about.

As soon as the man with the gun left our office, I  quickly took the illegal ration cards, the money, and Jan’s lunch out of my bag. Then I waited. It was about the time that Jan would come to lunch. After a very short time I heard the familiar sound of Jan’s footsteps on the stairs. Before he could come inside, I jumped up, ran to the door, opened it, grabbed him by the arm, and said, “Jan, it’s wrong here.”

After Jan left, Mr. Koophuis saw that Elli was very upset and was crying. He reached into his pocket and took out his wallet, handed it to Elli, and said to her, “Take this. Go to the drugstore on the Leliegracht. The owner there is a friend of mine. He’ll let you use the telephone. Telephone my wife and tell her what has happened and then disappear.”

Elli gave me a frightened look. I nodded my agreement with Koophuis. She took the wallet and dashed out the door.

Mr. Koophuis locked eyes with me and said, “Miep, you can also leave.”

“I can’t,” I responded. It was true. I couldn’t ….

…. Koophuis came to me, handed me the office keys, and said, “Miep, see to it that you stay out of it.”

I shook my head.

Jo Koophuis’ eyes burned into mine. “No. See to it you stay out of this. It’s up to you to save what can be saved. It’s in your hands.”

Then, before I could do anything but absorb his words, he squeezed my hand, then went to Kraler’s office, shutting the door behind him.

I had no idea  where he [the man with the gun] had gone. I had no idea what was going on in the rest of the house. I was in a terrible mental state. I felt as though I was falling into a bottomless hole. What could I do? I sat down. I was in shock.

Then, along the corridor past Mr. Kraler’s private office and our office, down the old wooden stairway, I could hear the sound of our friend’s feet. I could tell from their footsteps that they were coming down like beaten dogs.

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[Photos:

[Top: Anne Frank, 1931, age 2, before leaving Germany]

[Bottom: Otto Frank, the only member of the Frank family to survive the war revisiting the hiding place, 1960]

November, then and now

photoGreeks greet each other by saying Kalo Mina [wishing all a good month] at the beginning of every month, like today, as it is November 1. The clocks have ‘fallen back’ and light drains away earlier each day. I’m about to put my garden shoes away and when I go outside, I’v on a scarf, cashmere socks and a jacket. I like the embrace of socks and sweaters, I like being under a duvet and find November/December’s friendly darkness sympathetic. As roughed-up as the world and national affairs are, I’m enfolded by my cozy life. There’s food in my refrigerator, water when I turn my faucets, heating when/if I want some, artificial light anytime of the day or night. I’m pleased because Anne Frank Remembered, my first born, written with Miep Gies (already translated into more than twenty languages including an inquiry about a Bengali translation last week), is now available in Chinese. Chinese! It’s the first of my books to reconfigure in the Chinese language. How cool is that!

In stark contrast, nothing whatsoever was cozy (gezellig) in Amsterdam in November, 1944, as explained in this book. The Frank family and the others in hiding had been taken by the Nazis the previous August. No one knew where. The Christian student Miep and Jan kept hidden in their own apartment (unknown by the Frank family), had gone, as it was no longer safe for him. Now Miep had only to worry about feeding herself and her husband, as well as trying to keep Mr. Frank’s business afloat, since was at its helm since the arrest of the people in hiding and the arrest of the senior men who ran the business.

Following, an excerpt from Miep’s November, 1944 life from Anne Frank Remembered, Part II, The Darkest Days, Chapter 16:

The situation deteriorated rapidly when the rivers and canal froze up in November and barges could no longer bring food into the city. Black-market prices doubled, tripled, and multiplied again. For some weeks I had been leaving my bicycle at home when I went to work. It was too dangerous….. The walk [to work] took more than an hour each way. Most days were gray and drizzling and desolate….There was no coal to heat our houses, no gas to cook with, no streetcars, and on and off, no electricity. The German’s were supplying only themselves and hospitals with electricity and other essentials.

As there was no transportation, people had to go out into the countryside to search for food. People used anything they could find – handcarts, baby carriages, bicycles with wooden wheels, pushcarts, anything. We and been living on very little food before, and now the whole population began to live from hand to mouth, staying one step from starvation at all times, always weak and half-faint from lack of food.

I began to make trips out to the country too. Each time farther and farther. One day I went along with the wife of one of the salesmen. We left before dawn and decided we’d go as far north as we could go and still be able to get back to Amsterdm by the eight-o’clock curfew Because we both still had bicycles in working order and with real rubber tires, we decided to chance it and use our bicycles.

We got very far north, and began going from farm to farm. We were literally begging, offering money and objects that we had to sell, like sheets. We managed to pick up a few things – some potatoes, beets, carrots.

Knowing that we’d gone many, many miles north, we began to ride back as quickly as we could. Along the way, we passed two men who were pushing a cart. We felt sorry for them because we were going so much faster, and quickly left them far behind us. The weather was mild, for once, no rain, and we were making good time. We commented that these men would never make it back to Amsterdam by the eight-o’clock curfew going at the slow pace they had to go to push a wagon.

Suddenly my friend got a flat tire. There was nothing we could do but get off and push our bicycles. Figuring that we’d never get to Amsterdam by eight, we decided we would be better off going to the next village and trying to find a place to sleep for the night and then heading for Amsterdam again in the morning. 

We asked people if we could please sleep in their barn, explaining that we couldn’t make it back to Amsterdam in time for the curfew. None of them seemed to want strangers on their property, and everyone refused us. We were beside ourselves as to what to do.

Suddenly, the two men we’d seen pushing the cart appeared. They overtook us and we told them what had happened. They listened, then one said, “Here’s what you should do. Take your bicycles and put them in our cart. You walk with us and we’ll pretend you’re our wives.”

We looking at them suspiciously. The man continued, “You see, we work for the post office and we have special permits to be on the street after eight o’clock at night.”

My friend and I looking at each other, still nervous. The man continued, “I don’t want to upset you, but we’re going to come to a German control station shortly.”

Without one more thought, we quickly put our bicycles into the cart and leaned our own shoulders against it to help push.

Sure enough, we reached a German inspection station. The men told us to stay with the cart “We’ll go inside.” And they went. We were very scared, because these Germans could do anything they wanted to, including taking all the food we’d found. The men were inside for quite some time, making us very nervous, but finally they came out smiling and said, “It’s all right. We can continue.”

Of course, we pushed even harder now. We hadn’t been asked for our papers. Inside the cart were beets and carrots that these men had found. Finally, we arrived at the Amsterdam harbor, Het Ij. It was after midnight We had just missed the midnight ferry, and there wouldn’t be another until one o’clock. Fortunately, the night was mild. We waited. We were so tired, we could barely stand anymore.

Finally, the ferry came. We crossed the harbor and walked through the silent streets until we cane to the Berlage Bridge. There we said goodbye to our “husbands.”

We pushed our bicycles and carried the food. My friend lived right nearby. In much danger, we didn’t breathe until we’d shut the door to her house, bringing food, bicycles, and our weary selves inside. I slept there, woke at dawn, and pedaled the rest of the way home in the drizzly, gray light of dawn.

Jan and I had enough to stay alive on for several more weeks.