The main characters

Hermann van Pels

On 13 July 1942, Hermann van Pels and his family went into hiding in the Secret Annex. Anne's diary paints the picture of a chain-smoking joker with a great understanding of politics. This is Hermann’s story.

Hermann van Pels was born in the German city of Osnabrück. His father's family originally came from Groningen (the Netherlands). As a result, Hermann had the Dutch nationality. 

On 25 December 1925, Hermann married Auguste Röttgen. We do not know how the two met. Just a year later, their son Peter was born. From 1932 onwards, Hermann worked as a representative for his father's company. The company traded in butcher's supplies. 

In 1937, Hermann and Auguste decided to leave Osnabrück. They did not see a future for themselves in Hitler's antisemitic Germany. Hermann and Auguste decided to go to the Netherlands. Over the following years, Hermann's father, brother, and three sisters would follow them to Amsterdam. The Van Pels family lived close to the Frank family. 

Herbal specialist

In Amsterdam, Hermann and his brother-in-law set up a textile trading company. In early 1939, he left this company and joined Otto Frank. His knowledge of meat and sausage herbs was essential to Otto's second business: Pectacon. Pectacon traded in herbs, spices, and later also in surrogates.  

In the spring of 1942, Hermann van Pels and Otto Frank set up a hiding place. The empty annex of the business premises had room for both their families. A week after the Frank family had moved in, the Van Pels family joined them in the Secret Annex. 

‘If I haven't anything to smoke then I get ill.’

Chain smoker

Hermann knew a reliable butcher, who provided the helpers with sausages and meat for the people in hiding. He would write down their orders on a slip of paper, which were then collected by Miep. 

Just like Otto Frank, Hermann remained involved in the company. In the evenings and weekends, he often went through the business correspondence. According to Anne, he often looked things up in the encyclopaedia and liked to read books about medicine, as well as detectives and romance novels. 

Cigarettes were very important to Hermann. When there were no cigarettes in the house, he was bad-tempered, according to Anne. Anne quoted him in her diary. It made it easy to come up with a Saint Nicholas gift for Hermann: he was presented with an ashtray.

‘Oh, he can spit like a cat.’


When he was not in a bad mood, Hermann was the joker of the Secret Annex. Anne frequently wrote down his jokes in her diary, for instance: ‘Who is black, sits on the roof, has two feet, and can whistle? The chimney sweep’s apprentice.’

In addition to the jokes, Hermann had ‘a great understanding of politics’, according to Anne. You just did not want to contradict him, because then you would get lectured at. Anne thought him rather conceited. 

After D-Day, Hermann van Pels and Otto Frank were optimistic. They expected the advance of the Allies to run smoothly and the Netherlands to once again be a free country by October 1944. But that was not how things went.

Bribing does not work

On 4 August 1944, the Sicherheitsdienst raided the building on the Prinsengracht. Dutch police officers, headed by SS-Hauptscharführer Karl Josef Silberbauer, discovered and arrested the eight people in hiding and two of the helpers. 

According to Otto, Hermann made a last attempt to bribe Silberbauer. He asked him if he would let the people in hiding go for money, but Silberbauer did not respond. After a few days in prison, Hermann and the others were put on a train to the Westerbork transit camp.

Hermann and Peter stay together

In Westerbork, the men and women were separated. During the daytime, Hermann had to work (the type of work is unclear), but in the evening Hermann, Auguste, and Peter were together. Their greatest fear became reality when they were put on an eastbound train on 3 September 1944. 

The family found themselves in a cramped cattle car, with dozens of other prisoners. After three days, the train stopped, and they had arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. On the platform, Hermann and Auguste were separated. Peter stayed with Hermann. 

Murdered in the gas chambers

During the selection process, Nazi doctors decided that Hermann was fit to do hard labour. Together with Otto Frank and Fritz Pfeffer, he was made to work in road construction, outside of the camp. When he wounded his hand, he had to stay behind in the barracks.

After the war, fellow prisoners declared that the guards had sent Hermann to the gas chambers in October 1944. That is where he was murdered. Hermann van Pels was 46 years old.

  1. Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation [NIOD], The Diary of Anne Frank: the revised critical edition (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2003), A-version, 22 October 1942.