Jan Augustus Gies, unsung hero!
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 118 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 to be printed in this edition of our book that had been originally published in 1987. Read it and understand why Jan, like his wife, and a few others risked all to shelter, feed, and bring support and friendship to friends in a time of overwhelming peril.
(Entire posting can be found on 2016-08-18 on the occasion of his 111th birthday)
(Photo left: Identity card of Jan Gies from time of German occupation of The Netherlands, Photo right: photos taken by street photographer after wedding of Miep and Jan Gies on 16 July 1942, Amsterdam including Miep Jan, the wedding party following the bride and groom including Anne and Otto Frank, Mr and Mrs van Daan, Miep’s adoptive mother, two women who worked with Miep in Mr. Frank’s office)