Remembrance: Jan Augustus Gies






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)

Remembrance: Nurse Anna Kennedy aka Gerda

On Sunday, August 13th, after years in a nursing home on Staten Island suffering from Alzheimer’s, a treasured family Gerda (though her real name was Anna) died. My son, Thor, and I each wrote a remembrance to be read at the service/mass being arranged for August 25th at The Esplanade Assisted Living facility, the second of two Staten Island nursing home at which she’d resided.  Following: these eulogies:

Thor wrote:

Gerda became an important part of my life when I was very young. I believe I was 7 or 8 years old. She quickly became more than my friend, she became an aunt to me. We did a lot of things together, often driving around in her small, blue Toyota all over New York City. We did this while listening to the Beatles over and over. Our favorite song was Octopus’s Garden, which we would sing together as we drove around the city, then we’d argue about the song, and then we’d come to an agreement about who Ringo was singing about.
One time Gerda came to the rescue the night before Halloween. I was very stubborn and wanted to wear a Japanese Kabuki costume for Halloween. In order to do that, I needed white Kabuki make-up to complete my costume. The white Kabuki make-up is a white make-up, similar to the kind of white make-up a clown would wear. I had to have it for my Halloween costume. My mother had no idea how to find that kind of make-up. Gerda didn’t know either, but she and I hopped into her trusty little car and drove all around the city singing Octopus’s Garden as we searched for this make-up. Finally, at almost 10pm at night, Gerda and I found the make-up in Times Square (where else would it be!). She saved the day for me, allowing me to wear my Japanese Kabuki costume for Halloween. 
Gerda: I am lucky that you came into my life at a time when I needed it most! You were the best aunt a kid could want. What I learned years later, when my mom told me how instrumental you were in saving her life, I realized you were more than an aunt. You’re an angel! You looked out for my mom and me when we really, really needed it! I can never thank you enough for what you did for us!
I love you Gerda!!!

I wrote:

Over around fifty years ago I became friends with a young woman who had white skin, a choppy haircut, lively dark green. She spoke with a beguiling Irish lilt. Like me, she was in her twenties and, also, like me, full of fun, even a bit wild. We were cut from the same cloth – danced at discos until dawn, drank many Irish whiskies, smoked thousands of cigarettes, laughed ourselves silly, and never tired of partying. Her name: Anna Gerda Kennedy.

Anna was born in Dublin, Ireland, a city with cabbage-green busses and had studied at convent schools run by nuns. She went to nursing school in the London of red double-decker busses and, when she graduated, brazenly traveled to far-away New York City whose busses were Parakeet-green at the time. By then both parents were dead and she was without family except for a remote older brother who was studying law in England, an aunt in Canada, and a few distant relatives still in Ireland.

Quickly she became part of my family which consisted of myself and my small son. Later when she landed a rent-controlled  apartment on Bleecker Street, that happened to be across the street from my where my mother and father lived, they opened their arms to her too because she was funny, generous, and very good company.

Early on Anna worked nights on the kidney unit at New York hospital. A tireless worker who loved nursing, she later cared for drug addicts, and still later, the mentally ill. Through the many years of our friendship, almost anywhere we went in New York city, she would run into former patients, even on the Bowery.  These folks would greet her with a smile – “Hi Nurse Kennedy! Do you remember me?” –  and mostly she did remember.

As years, then decades passed, though our paths zigzagged in many diverse directions, our friendship continued on.

One night Anna, and another nurse friend, Andrea – from Belfast, also a nurse and life-long friend – and I were finishing a meal at my apartment. Once Anna had finished off a glass of red wine, she told us that she’d just been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer by her doctor. Later on, as she and Andrea were leaving, after Andrea had gone down the hall to ring for the elevator, Gerda and I stood face to face at the threshold; we fiercely embraced. When we drew apart, our hands remained tightly clasped. She looked into my wet eyes and said in that Irish lilt that hadn’t gone away, “Be assured … I won’t forget you!” and I replied in my ‘New Yawk’ way “Nor … will … I … forget … you!”

I have no reason to think that the promise we made to each other that night hasn’t been kept, in the deepest part of our souls.

When the time came, Gerda went to live at a small, cozy nursing home on Staten Island where she was very happy. When we could, Andrea and I would take the ferry and bus to visit. Each time we visited Gerda seemed to be a little worse. This is where we first met a beautiful woman with an alive, friendly face named Dalia. Because Dalia always treated Anna with tenderness, patience, and wisdom,  Andrea and I would leave knowing she was in very good hands, were especially grateful to her as our friend’s condition slowly worsened 

One spring day before that decline accelerated, we walked outside into the garden after lunch and sat together in the gazebo-style arbor enjoying the sunny day.  Anna had taken a bread roll and several packets of Saltine crackers from the breadbasket, and soon began pinching off bits of roll, tossing them into the air, laughing and smiling as she did so. As if out of nowhere, one small sparrow, then two, flew down to feast on the bread. These birds were brown and pale grey. Quickly, more birds joined in and scurried, gorged, hopped, and squabbled to get at the food.

When the roll was gone, crumbled Saltines were strewn about.  At one point I took a bite from one of the salty, dry Saltines and realized that it tasted exactly as those in my mother’s pantry had when I was a small child. I don’t know why I was surprised that the taste was the same, but I was!

We noticed a trail of ants had joined the feeding frenzy, were carrying away crumbs larger than themselves, Gerda scoffed, sang out, “American ants … join the Union!”

Just then, a cinnamon-colored squirrel cautiously stepped out from under a shrub, its nose and front legs trembled. Hoping the squirrel wouldn’t scare the birds away, Gerda shook her finger at it, sternly admonished, “Rub along!” and the squirrel dashed back into the shrub.

Spellbound, I watched while my precious old friend fed the happy birds: Here was the same woman whose visits to roulette or bridge tables went on around the clock, who had ridden a bicycle to work rain, snow or sunshine almost until she retired, who had driven anywhere and everywhere whenever she had the whim in her trusty blue Toyota.

This was the woman whose skill with cat-gut sutures had staunched the flow of the brightest red blood I’d ever seen late one winter night after I was stabbed in the throat with a broken bottle by a nutty drunk; this was the same friend who, when I was suffering from a dangerous illness that I didn’t recognize, did realize and figured out how to save my life.

Yes, it’s true. Had it not been for Anna Gerda Kennedy, I would have died before my 30th birthday.  Instead: I was saved, became a writer, and managed to publish many books and live to be an old, white-haired lady.

As I think about my eternal gratitude, I am reminded of Anna’s many years of nursing and realize she helped many thousands of beings, not just me. Remembering how hard she worked, how much tender kindness and compassion she freely gave away, my decades of solitary writing seem in comparison to be selfish and pale.

This goes for Andrea too, here today. Andrea was Anna’s life-long friend, also from Ireland, who was also a skilled and dedicated nurse.

It also goes for dearest Dalia, whom most of you know, who gave Anna tenderness, care, and devotion above and beyond the call of duty.  In my mind Dalia, you are a saint. I realize that the gods must have loved Anna very much because she brought and kept you, Dalia, by her side until the end.

I, and all who loved Anna, thank you Dalia from the bottom of our hearts.

Photo from Gerda’s scrapbook, labeled: Joseph, me, Daddy and Mammy. I presume it was taken in Ireland but, in fact, could have been anywhere including Shangri-La.