Opekta, Pectacon, Gies & Co.
The Franks, a young Frankfurt family of prominent social standing, came to the Netherlands in 1933 so that Otto Frank could set up a branch of Opekta, a business Otto had learned about from his brother-in-law Erich Elias, who worked for the company in Basel. Opekta manufactured and sold pectin, a gelatinous substance used to make jam, and Otto’s job was to corner the Dutch retail market. He rented commercial space on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and hired an office staff that included Victor Kugler and Miep Santrouschitz, as well as a couple of warehouse workers. In 1937, he took on Bep Voskuijl as secretary. Later, Bep’s father, Johannes Voskuijl, joined the firm as the warehouse supervisor.
Pectin sales gradually increased, but because it was a seasonal product—there was less fresh fruit available in the winter, and certainly during that period—Otto Frank still searched for a way to expand his operations. In 1938, he launched Pectacon, a company that mixed and sold spices and other ingredients used in the production of foodstuffs. Joining him in this venture was Johannes Kleiman, whom he had known for several years. Otto also hired a spices specialist, Hermann van Pels, who had recently fled Germany with his family. From Singel 400, where both companies were located, they began looking for a new commercial space that could accommodate grinding machines on the ground floor and that had better access for deliveries.
On December 1, 1940, they moved into a large building at Prinsengracht 263, which was divided into a voorhuis (front section), and an achterhuis (back section or annex). The ground floor, which ran all the way back beneath the annex, was used as a warehouse and work area, and was filled with packing tables, the spice mill, and the grinding machines. On the first floor, in both the front section and the annex, were the offices and a kitchen. The second floor of the front section served as storage space. The two upper floors of the annex, including the attic and loft, were empty...In late 1941, when an ordinance came into effect prohibiting Jews from running businesses, Otto Frank, Johannes Kleiman, Victor Kugler, and Miep’s husband, Jan Gies, devised a construction to hoodwink the occupiers. Kleiman became the director of Opekta, and Pectacon’s operations continued under the guise of a new firm, Gies & Co., with Kugler as manager and Gies as supervising director. To the outside world, both of Otto Frank’s companies had now been Aryanized.
The Hiding Period and the Arrest
In early 1942, when the situation for Jews in the Netherlands was becoming increasingly difficult, Otto Frank, with the help of Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, and Hermann van Pels, began work on the Secret Annex, turning it into a hiding place for the Frank and Van Pels families. This was quite unusual; most families split up to reduce the chances of discovery. Otto asked his office staff if they would be prepared to help the families when the time came. All of them agreed without hesitation, even the young secretary, Bep Voskuijl.
They chose July 13 as the date to go into hiding. But when Margot was called up to report for a German “work camp” on July 5, 1942, the Frank family realized they could not wait any longer and left for Prinsengracht 263 the following day. The Van Pels family followed a week later. In November of that year, Fritz Pfeffer became the eighth person to occupy the Secret Annex. For more than two years, all eight of them were confined to a space of about 1,292 square feet. For the helpers, finding enough food was difficult because many food items were scarce. During office hours, the hiders had to keep noise to a minimum. The irritations and tensions among them sometimes rose to fever pitch, and they were in constant fear of being discovered.
On August 4, 1944, that fear became reality: They were betrayed. The eight Secret Annex occupants, along with Kleiman and Kugler, were taken to the headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), where they were interrogated. On August 8, after one night in the SD building and three nights in an “Amsterdam house of detention, the eight people in hiding were transported to the Westerbork transit camp. They were later transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Kleiman and Kugler—declared enemies of the regime because they had assisted people in hiding—spent a few weeks in another house of detention and were then transported to the Amersfoort Police Transit Camp (Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Amersfoort). Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl were not arrested. In the Secret Annex, which was in shambles after the arrest, they found Anne’s writings. Miep kept them in her desk, hoping that one day she would be able to return them to Anne.
Ultimately, the Secret Annex occupants died terrible deaths in various concentration camps, the victims of deprivation, inhumane treatment, and sickness. Except for one: Otto Frank. He returned home. The helpers also survived the war, but the events in the Secret Annex, the memory of their friends, and the publication of Anne’s diary would influence the rest of their lives.
Background: A Cheeky Little Toddler
Annelies Marie Frank was born on June 12, 1929. Anne’s parents’ home was on Marbachweg in a rather new part of Frankfurt. Anne spent her first years there in a comfortable house with a lovely garden. Gertrud Naumann, an older neighbor, and Kati Stilgenbauer, the live-in housekeeper, were only too happy to take care of the cheeky little toddler. Anne had no grandfathers, but she did have two grandmothers she was crazy about, along with five uncles, three aunts, and two male cousins. Anne was not physically strong and was often sick. In addition, her joints were overly flexible, and when she was a bit older, her limbs had a tendency to become dislocated. She had light-brown flecked eyes; pretty, dark hair; and cheeks that dimpled when she smiled.
Flight to the Netherlands: Miss Chatterback
Anne was barely aware of the threatening situation and of her parents’ decision to move to the Netherlands. She was just four years old when she and her sister, Margot, went to stay with Grandma Holländer in Aachen. Margot rejoined their parents in late December 1933, and in February 1934, Anne was reunited with her parents and sister in Amsterdam. There, she attended the Montessori kindergarten. She made many friends, including Hanneli Goslar, her neighbor on Merwedeplein. The plein, or square, was a children’s paradise; whenever they wanted to play, the children went to one another’s front doors and whistled the same little tune.
From 1935 to 1941 Anne attended the Montessori primary school, where she was an average pupil. Although her parents tried to protect her from the menacing outside world, the now eleven-year-old Anne couldn’t fail to notice that life for Jews was changing radically, especially after May 1940, when the majority of the prohibitions came into effect. In 1941, she was forced go to the Jewish Lyceum. In the classroom, Anne was an incorrigible chatterbox, and on three different occasions she had to write an essay as punishment. The titles were “A Chatterbox,” “An Incorrigible Chatterbox,” and “Quack, Quack, Quack Said Miss Chatterback.”
Anne was a curious, outspoken child. She was often the ringleader and liked to boss people around. She loved games, skating, reading, movie stars, art, and history. Writing would ultimately become her favorite hobby—on her thirteenth birthday, she began keeping a diary and eventually began writing stories, too.
In Hiding: The Dream of Being a Famous Writer
The first thing Anne put in her bag when she heard that they were going into hiding was her diary. It wasn’t until they were on their way that she learned where the hiding place would be: the annex of her father’s office building on Prinsengracht. In the two years that followed, Anne rapidly changed from a child to a young woman. She developed keen powers of observation with regard to others and herself. As the youngest member of the group, she had to put up with a lot because everyone interfered in her upbringing. Like many adolescent girls, she fought with her mother and preferred her father’s company. Her relationship with Margot gradually improved to one of mutual affection and respect. In their second year in hiding, she wrote in her diary that she was in love with Peter. In the attic, he gave her her first kiss—a clumsy one, but an important moment!
During the day, Anne worked on her school assignments, her stenography, and did chores for “the office. She also helped with the housekeeping, such as peeling potatoes, doing the dishes, and sweeping the rug. Like the others, she read stacks of books, including the girls’ books that Mr. Kleiman brought for her and classic literature. She was also wild about the magazine Cinema & Theater, which Mr. Kugler brought her on Mondays. Sometimes she chatted with Bep about about the latest films or about Bep’s fiancé. When she thought about what she’d like to do after the war, she was “so blissful” she didn’t know where to begin, but decided she’d like to go back to school.
Time dragged on monotonously and Anne longed more and more for nature and for “fresh air and laughter.” She followed the passing of seasons by looking at the big chestnut tree, which she could see from the attic window. Later, Peter often joined her. Her diary, however, was still her greatest refuge—it was where she confided all her complex feelings, doubts, and longings. Anne’s dream was to become a famous journalist and writer. She took her work very seriously; she wrote stories and kept a “beautiful sentences” book with quotes from great writers and poets. On May 20, 1944, she began rewriting her diary to make it suitable for publication after the war, a task she wasn’t able to finish.
After Discovery: A Lonely Death
When the raid occurred on August 4, 1944, SD Oberscharführer Karl Josef Silberbauer needed a bag to gather confiscated valuables belonging to the occupants. He took the briefcase containing Anne’s precious diaries and shook it out onto the floor. Her writings were left behind.
On the way to Westerbork, Anne “would not move from the window,” Otto related after the war. “Outside, it was summer. Meadows, stubble fields, and villages flew by. … It was like freedom.” After two years of confinement, it was a relief for Anne to be outdoors again and to be able to talk to others.
In Auschwitz-Birkenau, Anne was one of the youngest to survive the first selection. After a few weeks, she came down with scabies and was sent to the Krätzeblock. Margot went with her, and Edith cared for them from outside as best she could. In late October or early November 1944, Anne and Margot were put on a transport to Bergen-Belsen. Edith Frank remained alone in Auschwitz-Birkenau: The selection system took no account of family ties. Auguste van Pels may well have been on the same transport.
The living conditions were even worse in Bergen-Belsen. It was freezing cold and they were given almost nothing to eat. First, the girls were assigned to a tent and later to barracks. Anne and Margot had one of the worst spots, right near the door where it was terribly drafty.
One evening, Auguste van Pels came to fetch Anne: Her friend Hanneli was in the adjoining camp! Anne met Hanneli at the dividing wall, which was made of straw and barbed wire. They couldn’t see each other, but they could hear each other’s voices. Sad and happy at the same time, they exchanged information. Anne thought her parents were dead, “and Margot [was] very sick too.”
Hanneli, who was with her father and sister under slightly better conditions than Anne and Margot, tried to bring her a package of food the following evening. She succeeded, but when she threw the package over the fence, another prisoner ran off with it. A few days later, she tried again, and fortunately Anne caught the package herself. Dried fruits, crackers, and warm socks: a precious treasure, but not enough to save her. Anne, like Margot, had contracted typhoid fever. When her sister died in February, Anne had no one left. It wasn’t long before Anne, too, died of disease, exhaustion, and despair. She was only fifteen years old.
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