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How unique was the Secret Annex? People in hiding in the occupied Netherlands

Anne Frank and the other people from the Secret Annex were not the only Jewish people living in hiding in the Netherlands. But how similar was their situation to that of others in hiding? Where did those people stay? Who helped them? And what dangers did they face?

Jaap Cohen

“Going into hiding.” When they hear this phrase (in Dutch the term onderduiken literally meaning “diving under”), many people immediately think of one person, Anne Frank, the smart and slightly impertinent teenage girl who hid in a secret annex on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam for more than two long war years. Posthumously, she became the face and voice of Jewish people who went into hiding.

To what extent was Anne Frank’s situation an “ordinary” example of going into hiding? In her case the move had been well prepared, with eight people on two floors, in the centre of a large city, for a long period and in one place. There were five dedicated helpers and, certainly at the beginning, there was sufficient financial support.

To examine this, we will look at the story of the Secret Annex in the broader perspective of the Jewish people who went into hiding in the Netherlands. This immediately shows a bit more about what it must have been like “to live a non-life” as a Jewish person in hiding in the Netherlands.

Number of people in hiding in the Netherlands

During the war, there were between 300,000 and 330,000 people in hiding in the Netherlands. This included 28,000 Jews. This may not be very many in relation to the total number of people who were hiding, but as a percentage of the Jewish community of 140,000 people it was a substantial number.

Cooperating or going into hiding?

The summons on 5 July 1942 for the first thousand Jews to present themselves for “labour in Germany” marked the start of the third phase of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands. After identifying and isolating Jews, the occupying forces now started on the phase of deporting them.

In many Jewish families this call led to heated discussions about whether or not to go into hiding. With hindsight this may seem incomprehensible, but at the time the decision was by no means self-evident. For many people, entering the world of illegality was entirely against their nature, particularly as the Jewish Council was also against the decision: as it was impossible for everyone to go into hiding, no one should do so. In addition, for many people it was unthinkable to be separated from their family members.

The extreme dependence on often unknown people was another obstacle, and there were also more practical objections: for example, it would be impossible to continue to observe all the religious rules in a Christian family where Jews could go into hiding.

Finally, certainly during the first stage of the deportations it was not generally known that a large proportion of the deported people would be sent to the gas chambers as soon as they arrived at a “labour camp”. According to Abel Herzberg, one of the first Dutch authors to write about the history of the war, there was a tendency to underestimate the dangers of being deported and overestimate those of going into hiding.  

Organising the hiding project

When Margot was called up on 5 July 1942, this was the signal for the Frank family to go into hiding. Despite months of preparations, the organization with regard to the Secret Annex was quite haphazard at first. Going into hiding was still an unknown phenomenon and none of those involved had any experience of it.

Fortunately there were close ties between the people who went into hiding and the helpers who knew each other well and trusted each other. A well-oiled network of involved helpers who really managed to look after “their” charges soon developed at Prinsengracht 263.

Most Jews did not have a hiding place where they could go with the whole family or the possibility of preparing thoroughly for going into hiding. Many people who went into hiding ended up in the country; there was more food available there during the war and farmers could always use cheap labour.

During the course of 1942 the process of going into hiding became increasingly well organized and there were small networks to find hiding places in different parts of the country. Often there was a charismatic figure at the centre who had many contacts in the area and a heart in the right place.

Costs of going into hiding

In addition to the requirement of a kind heart, funds were obviously needed to finance the people who went into hiding. There was an enormous difference between the sums that were asked for this. It was fairly normal for people to ask for a few guilders per day, but there are known cases where a farmer asked for 1,000 gilders per month for an attic room on a farm – the equivalent of more than 6,000 euros nowadays.

This shows that some of the people who provided the opportunity to go into hiding saw it as a way of making a lot of money. The Jews in particular had to pay high “accommodation costs” because it was generally assumed that the punishment for hiding Jews was greater. The higher the risk, the more expensive the hiding place - or at least that was the idea behind it.

Apart from the costs it was more difficult for Jews to go into hiding anyway: to find a suitable place it was essential to have non-Jewish family members, friends or (business) contacts.  

Living in hiding

The places where people went into hiding varied enormously in type and size. In the city the spaces were often small and the people in hiding had to remain absolutely quiet; the walls were thin and the slightest noise could betray their presence to the neighbours.

In the country there was more room, although this did not necessarily mean that the living conditions were any better. Some people went into hiding in the forests, building huts and digging underground tunnels. At a later stage, the organizers regularly used empty chicken runs to accommodate Jews, but these were very uncomfortable and obviously icy cold, particularly in winter.

When there was any danger, the people in hiding often had to flee immediately and look for a new address. It was extremely unusual to hide in one place for a long time as Anne Frank and her family did.

After the war, it became clear that some people had spent time in hiding at more than twenty different addresses. The Orthodox Jewish butcher’s boy Benjamin Kosses actually spent time at more than 42 addresses. The average number of addresses where Jewish children went into hiding has been estimated at 4.5.

Setting foot outside the hiding place

The Jewish people who went into hiding usually arrived in the dark; after all, it was dangerous to be seen outside. Nevertheless, there were some Jewish people in hiding who did go outside during the day. This happened particularly during the last two years of the occupation when illegal identity papers, virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, were produced on a large scale.

For example, the Jewish writer Hans Keilson, who was in hiding with a Christian family in Delft, regularly went out into the street and even had discussions with passers-by. However, most people in hiding considered the street to be enemy territory and tried to keep well away.

The best hiding place

Apart from being afraid, every time someone in hiding moved they would be anxious about whether the new situation would be any safer than the previous one. In one of the first historical retrospective accounts, Karel Norel wrote that “going into hiding in an inconspicuous place was much better than a remote or really out of the way hiding place.”

Often the places where people were in hiding proved to be quite close to German military centres or police stations right under enemy’s nose, and these proved to be the best. It didn’t occur to the occupying forces that people would dare to hide so close to them.

Some people in hiding ended up at a relatively safe and affordable address with good provisions and sufficient space and privacy. The Secret Annex was one of these places. But even there it was not possible to escape the physical and mental deprivations of being in hiding.

Hunger, loneliness and fear

Many people in hiding went hungry, as did the residents of the Secret Annex, who were faced with scarce supplies and a lack of food, particularly during the last years of the war. In addition, hiding could be mentally exhausting. Monotony and boredom were always lying in wait, as was loneliness.

Many Jewish children ended up without their parents in Christian farmers’ families who had very different customs. Because they were moved about many times it was difficult for them to develop close ties with the people hiding them. Missing their loved ones meant that they felt extremely lonely and suspicious of the world.

Many children who were in hiding during the war continued to be plagued by these feelings afterwards. But above all, there was one emotion which dominated the lives of everyone in hiding – the enormous fear of being discovered.

Dependent on helpers

Because of the extreme dependence and the cultural, religious and social differences, relationships between the people in hiding and their helpers could be quite complicated. Sometimes, this dependent relationship even led to excesses such as exploitation and sexual abuse. Girls who had to go into hiding without their parents were particularly at risk and completely powerless in this situation. One victim looking back at this period of twofold misery said: “I couldn’t do anything, anything at all, because I wasn’t really supposed to be there.”

However, in many cases, a special relationship developed between the people in hiding and those who were hiding them, and many of the survivors kept in touch with their helpers. In retrospect, these difficult years had often been the most intense time of their life for both those in hiding and their helpers.

Discovery and arrest of people in hiding

When Anne and the other residents of the Secret Annex went into hiding, their situation was possibly exceptional in several respects, but their arrest was not. Of the 28,000 Jewish people in hiding in the Netherlands, about 12,000 were arrested, just over 42 per cent. This was primarily the result of a sophisticated system of premiums introduced by the Germans to tempt police officers and citizens to betray people in hiding.

Secret Annex: not a guesthouse

In her dairy Anne Frank called the Secret Annex a “special guesthouse”. At first sight, maybe this isn’t such an inaccurate description. The conditions of being in hiding in the Secret Annex were exceptionally favourable and they couldn’t have wished for a better hiding place.

However, their experience of being in hiding was very similar to other Jewish people in hiding in the Netherlands and was characterized by deprivation and emotions which were inextricably linked to a lengthy and uncertain time spent living a life of illegality. So life in the Secret Annex may have seemed relatively comfortable, but it was in no way comparable to staying in a guesthouse, no matter how special.

About the author

Jaap Cohen is a historian. He gained his doctoral thesis (cum laude) with De onontkoombare afkomst van Eli d’Oliveira. Een Portugees-Joodse familiegeschiedenis (Amsterdam: Querido, 20150, and regularly publishes on history and current affairs in daily and weekly newspapers. He is also the biographer of Theo van Gogh.

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  1. The Jewish Council was a Jewish organization set up by the occupying forces to help with the execution of anti-Jewish measures and deportations.