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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Who Was Who In and Around the Secret Annexe?

Book Review

by Richelle Budd Caplan, Director, European Department, International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem[1].

Who Was Who In and Around the Secret Annexe?

Amsterdam: Anne Frank House, 2013
174 pages
ISBN: 978-90-8667-014-7

Annelies Marie Frank would have celebrated her 84th birthday this year had she survived the Holocaust. Despite the passage of time, her story as one of the one-and-a-half million Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust continues to be well known. Her diary – found following her family's deportation – has touched the hearts and minds of millions of readers. More than one million people every year still visit this Holocaust-related authentic site where she and her family hid for two years.

Since its establishment, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam has gathered information about various circles around the Secret Annexe, particularly about the victims, helpers and workers in the building and in the vicinity of the hiding place. Who Was Who In and Around the Secret Annexe? is not an academic publication per se, yet it provides historical context to the events and persons mentioned in the diary that Anne Frank wrote on a daily basis in almost total silence.

The complexity of keeping silent during difficult times has been noted in the Bible, namely in the book of Amos, Chapter 5, Verse 13, "… a person who is prudent shall keep silence in such a time; for it is an evil time." Clearly, Jewish victims in hiding during the Holocaust painfully remained quiet in order not to draw attention to their existence during this "evil time." Although the Righteous Among the Nations did their best to be "prudent" in secretly risking their lives to save Jewish people, the vast majority of the European non-Jewish population did not help Jews.

In the context of Holocaust studies, the actions of the "silent" bystanders have received quite a bit of attention though more research is needed. Theologians continue to explore questions about "Where was God?" and analyze the "silence" of various religious leaders during the Shoah, such as the Pope. In recent years, public discourse in various parts of Europe has also focused on the silence of bystanders during the Shoah. For instance, in Poland the works of Jan Gross and Jan Grabowski, as well as others, have sparked public debate and raised Holocaust awareness. In essence, numerous books and articles published on this complex subject have broken the “silence” about the importance of grappling with local and national history.

This new book importantly draws readers’ attention to the ongoing “silence” of the Jewish families, the Franks and the Van Pels (later joined by Fritz Pfeffer), who are hiding together in the middle of Amsterdam for approximately two years. The smallest noise during certain hours of the day endangered their existence. As noted on page 19, “The eight occupants get up and get washed before the warehouse workers arrive at half past eight. After that they must keep all noise to a minimum. They walk in slippers, avoid the creaking stairs and don’t use any running water. Coughing, sneezing, laughing, talking or quarreling is absolutely forbidden.” For the occupants, silence is a means to try and survive their tense daily life in hiding. Despite their efforts, however, all of the Jewish occupants of the secret Annexe are arrested in 1944 and only one of them – Otto Frank - survived the Holocaust.

Who Was Who In and Around the Secret Annexe? also sheds light on the “silence” of the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to help Jewish people during the Holocaust. The Jewish occupants are fully dependent on their good deeds as well as on their ability to keep their secret. For example, the only person in her life that young Bep Voskuijl “can share the stress of the responsibility is with her father [Johannes Voskuijl], whom Otto Frank has also taken into his confidence. No one else knows! For two long years, she and Miep [Gies] do the shopping for the occupants of the Secret Annexe. Bep is responsible for the milk and the bread and is also sent to fetch other household necessities, such as cleaning supplies and clothing (p. 131).” Voskuijl’s missions may be viewed as a silent, but active resistance to Nazi antisemitic policies.

In addition, Johannes Kleiman “tries to cheer up the occupants as best as he can and to bring them bits of information every day. He keeps the worst things to himself to avoid upsetting them… (page 111).” Kleiman therefore intentionally keeps quiet about some news with his friends who vigilantly maintain silence for the majority of the day in order to avoid discovery.

This new user-friendly volume outlines the personal stories of each of the thirteen individuals mentioned in Anne Frank’s diary as well as others who were in the neighborhood of the building on 263 Prinsengracht. The book importantly also highlights the pre- and post-war lives of all of those involved, denoting how their wartime experiences ultimately bonded them all forever. In addition to the various short biographies, the book also includes a timeline, glossary, maps and many photographs.

Teachers who chose to assign the Diary of Anne Frank to their students should consider augmenting their lessons with this book in an effort to provide a stronger background about the Holocaust period and about those involved helping these Jewish victims during that time.

For more information about the various editions of this book (currently published in Dutch, English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian), see:

[1] The author would like to deeply thank Shulamit Imber of Yad Vashem and Karen Polak of the Anne Frank House for their constructive comments and suggestions.
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