My Family Connection to Anne Frank
Co-producer Steve Koek compares the story in The Diary of Anne Frank to his own family's Dutch Holocaust history
“None of us know what the future holds for us. We never see our parents again.”
- Joe Koek (1930-2015)
Growing up, my brothers and I referred to the couple responsible for sponsoring our father’s move to America as our grandparents. They could not have loved us more or treated us more as family than if they were our blood relatives.
I recall having lunch with Grandma Bloomberg shortly before she passed away when I was in Florida for spring break during high school. At the time, I knew few details of what my family went through in the Holocaust. During the course of that lunch she told me that my dad had known Anne Frank and that they had even been in hiding together at one point.
While this was not true (my dear, sweet grandmother was simply confused), it speaks to the connection by proximity and circumstance between the author of the most famous memoir in history, and my father and his sisters’ experiences during the war. It was a connection I felt even before my lunch with Grandma Bloomberg and only grew stronger as my dad began to speak about his experiences late in his life. The connection becomes stronger still after my Second Generation Speaker’s Bureau training and when I start speaking on his behalf after his death. In the last three years, I have spoken to a number of local community theater and high school casts of The Diary of Anne Frank to provide insight and support for the production.
1. Stepping Into the Secret Annex
“What the story of the Holocaust tells us is that there are people who hate other people
so much that they will kill them---only because they believe different things or look different.”
- Joe Koek (1930-2015)
The day Andi and I agreed to co-produce The Diary of Anne Frank for Summer Place Theater there was a part of me that stepped into the secret annex above Otto Frank’s business in Amsterdam, and a part of me that joined my dad and aunts in hiding, as well.
The eight Jews who went into hiding at Prinsengracht 263 in 1942 stayed hidden in Otto’s secret annex above his business for two years and one month before being arrested and deported to concentration camps. Otto was the lone survivor and his daughter’s diary was all that remained of his family.
Retelling the Stories
For me, the production process of this show will be more than merely immersing myself into the work to prepare for the play. It will, in part, be retelling and reliving many of the same circumstances and emotions that define my family history. There are some striking similarities and some horribly sad differences between the two stories, but the fear and the tragic consequences play out in many of the same ways.
Both Otto Frank and my grandfather, Phillip Koekkoek, were respected, connected businessmen of their time (my aunt and father changed their names to “Koek” when they moved to the United States after the war). Otto was a German Jew from Frankfurt who immigrated with his family to the Netherlands early in the Nazi regime. Phillip was a native Dutch tailor living with his family in The Hague. Both men were committed to doing whatever was needed in an attempt to secure the safety of their families, and both sprang into action immediately after receiving letters demanding family members report to a holding station before being deported to the Westerbork transit camp and sent to the concentration camps.
“My parents must have been laying plans for an escape for a very long time,” my father Joe “Joop” Koek would tell groups at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Ill. The same was true for Otto, who with the help of four trusted business companions had the annex prepared for their arrival, though that arrival turned out to be earlier than they had thought it would be needed.
Otto chose to keep his family together and go into hiding with his wife, Edith, and their two daughters, Margot and Anne. “The children would never have understood if we had separated,” Otto tells Edith in The Diary of Anne Frank. “They couldn’t have borne it. No more than we.”
Phillip was convinced by a group of university resistance students to put his children into hiding separately to give them a better chance at surviving.
“I am wondering what must have been going on in my mind, and—more than that—what my parents must have been thinking,” Joop said. “My parents hand over their children they love to strangers, who they must trust. None of us know what the future holds for us. We never see our parents again.”
In such terrifying and fast-moving circumstances, there were no right or wrong answers, no palatable solutions to the horrors going on in their country and across Eastern Europe. Both men did what they felt was right for their family, acting out of love and care for their wives and children.
Handing Their Children Over to Strangers
Phillip and his wife, Katrien, handed their three children – Eva, Joop, and Henny – over to the resistance, who got them into hiding about a mile from their home at the top floor of a three-story building where several other children were also in hiding,
Like the Franks, the children would have to stay silent, without their shoes on, all day long. They were discouraged from even looking out the window at all, even though an eave made it impossible for anyone outside to see who or what was at the window.
“It was too great a chance to take,” Joop said. “So we mostly kept away from the windows, keeping ourselves further isolated from the outside world.”
In The Diary of Anne Frank, shortly after they go into hiding, Otto tells his family and the Van Daan family who had joined them in the annex that “… we must be completely quiet. So no shoes. And move only when absolutely necessary. We can’t run any water. We can’t flush the toilet in the WC…. This is the way we must live, until it is over.”
While the Franks stayed in hiding for over two years, the resistance felt they needed to move the Koekkoek kids for their safety. Joop was separated from his two sisters and sent on a long train ride to the northern part of the Netherlands, where he stayed with a non-Jewish farm family posing as a distant relative who had been sent to the countryside to live a better life until after the war was over.
While Joop was in the hospital recovering from a broken leg he suffered bringing in a harvest of peas, the Nazis “had a round-up” in the village he was staying.
“They marched into the village where I had been staying. For a tiny village, they were sheltering a very large number of Jews and other escapees. Every single person who was hiding and every single person who was sheltering them was taken to the front of the farm or house, and shot on the spot.”
The resistance moved him again, this time to a dairy farm in Oostersee, where he stayed until the war was over. Eva and Henny mostly stayed together, but were moved several times over the course of the war, narrowly escaping capture a number of times.
Betrayed, Arrested, Deported
Just 20 percent of the pre-war Jewish population in the Netherlands survived the Holocaust, yet incredibly and against the odds, all three siblings survived. My dad passed away in 2015 at the age of 85, and both of my aunts are still alive and healthy as I write this.
Phillip and Katrien, however, were betrayed, presumably in the same manner as the Franks. They were arrested, sent to Westerbork and then to Auschwitz, the same horrific journey the Franks and so many other Jews took after their arrest. Katrien Koekkoek died the day the train pulled into Auschwitz presumably of exhaustion and hunger, while Phillip died after two years of hard labor in the camp.
Immeasurable Senseless Cruelty
No matter what choices the parents made and despite the efforts of those who tried to help, death and destruction would define both family histories. And that sentiment is what the Holocaust means to me. My grandparents were exterminated just as Otto Frank’s family was. Logic, clear thinking, and good intentions meant nothing. Immeasurable, senseless cruelty ruled the day. Pain, suffering, tragedy, and death touched everyone, regardless of the sound measures that were taken to avoid it.
That is the overriding connection my family has with the story told in The Diary of Anne Frank, a connection in the forefront of my mind as we begin the production process of this important, compelling play.
2. Those Who Helped
“My story tells us that there are also people who will do anything to save others---including risking their own lives.”
- Joe Koek (1930-2015)
The people who helped hide my family and the Franks were from a different set of resistance groups within the Netherlands. Otto had personal connections through his business dealings, while Phillip Koekkoek used his connections to contact a more formal, organized resistance group comprised of local university students who did everything they could to save as many Jews as possible, especially the children.
Eva, Joop, and Henny would not have survived the war were it not for the steady stream of brave men and women who sacrificed their own safety to protect the lives of others. Had any one of those who helped them been discovered rescuing, saving, and hiding these three children they did not even know, their lives would have been over. And for many of them, their part in the resistance did cost them their lives.
The same was true for Miep Gies, Victor Kugler (changed to Mr. Kraler in the play) Johannes Kleiman, and Bep Voskuijl. They are the four most responsible for securing the secret annex for the Franks, the Van Pels (the real Van Daans), and Fritz Pfeffer (the real Mr. Dussel). They visited the annex regularly, bringing them food, magazines, toiletries, and other amenities, as well as news from the outside world.
“Without them, we couldn’t live,” Otto says about them in the play.
“We’re not heroes,” Miep tells the attic dwellers. “We just don’t like the Nazis. Anything about them.”
They were doing what was right. In the end they were powerless to prevent the annex-dwellers being discovered and the ultimate demise of all but Otto, but any objective observer would conclude that they were the true heroes of both the actual story and of the play, if there is indeed an ultimate hero in either.
Escorted to Safety
The difference in my family’s case was that the people who helped them along the way were total strangers. Miep and the others had been working for Otto for some time and knew their family and circumstances. While no less honorable or heroic, they helped hide people they knew (in The Diary of Anne Frank, Mr. Dussel is brought in without a previous connection, the real-life Fritz Pfeffer did know them beforehand).
The organized group of resisters, or the Underground as Aunt Eva calls them, moved the two sisters around several times, which must have taken a good deal of planning and coordination from a network of people. For Joop, that network spread across the Netherlands as he traveled to the north section of the country.
“During the course of this very long trip,” he would recall, “I changed trains a number of times. Every time that we changed trains, my escorts changed. None of these escorts knew one another or knew each other’s names. They identified each other through secret signals or code words. That way, if one of the Resistance fighters had been captured, they could not have given away the names of all the other fighters, or the children they were transporting.
“By the time I reached the end of the line, far out in the countryside, my original escorts had no idea where I had gone or what my new name was.”
A different group of resisters helped move him when his leg healed following the massacre at the farm community where he had been living.
He would never see any of these people ever again. It must be assumed that when they handed my father off to the next member of the resistance network, they would return to the city to retrieve more children to take to safety. It must also be assumed that many of them did not survive this hazardous duty and that some of them may have been betrayed in the process of saving my father and/or aunts. Many are known to have been discovered, arrested, and killed.
‘For Us, It Is Too Late’
The Allied Forces were on the move throughout Eastern Europe when the annex was raided and its inhabitants were taken away. Paris, Brussels, and Antwerp were being freed of Nazi terrors as the Franks and their friends were being transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
“… for us, it is too late,” Otto recalls in his final monologue to end of The Diary of Anne Frank.
There has never been firm confirmation regarding who betrayed the Jews in the attic and gave up their hiding space, but because of Anne’s diary the world will always know that it was Miep, Bep, Johannes, and Victor who provided them safety and comfort for as long as they possibly could. The four are woven together to form the characters of Miep and Mr. Kraler in The Diary of Anne Frank.
The tiny slivers of light that fought through the immense darkness of the Holocaust were created by brave and determined people who would not sit back and watch while innocent lives were needlessly being destroyed around them. Those people were willing to sacrifice their lives to help keep Jews like Eva, Joop, Henny, Otto, Edith, Margot, Anne, Hermann, Auguste, Peter, and Fritz safe. My father owed his long life to their efforts and by extension, I do too.
3. Belonging to the ‘Second Group’
“My wish is that you will grow up and belong to the second group.”
- Joe Koek (1930-2015)
Just before the Nazis raid the annex near the end of the play, Anne writes in her diary that “in spite of everything, people are truly good at heart.” I wonder if that notion would have become merely a wish had Anne known the horrors that would befall her and her family.
My father’s parting thought from his presentations was his wish for people to do whatever they could to help other people, regardless of their differences. It was his “wish” that we be kind to others. He could have said, “I know you will grow up and belong to…” or “I am happy to see that you belong to…” Instead he “wished” it. He knew there is still evil in this world capable of performing such horrrific acts against other people.
There is Work to be Done
Joe Koek was telling us that there is work to be done. Even since his death late in 2015 the world has seen a spike in hate crimes directed towards Jews. Anti-Semitism continues to be an issue in the United States and around the world, as well, with grave desecrations at Jewish cemeteries, swastikas painted on Jewish homes, and mass shootings at synagogues.
In the same way that the groups of resisters and helpers who helped the Franks, my family, and so many others who stood up and said, “No,” it is our responsibility to keep saying, “Never Again,” by telling and retelling the stories of the Frank family, my family, and millions of others.
It is my wish through this production of The Diary of Anne Frank that our extended community comes together in memory of those who died in the Holocaust, in honor of those who survived, and in gratitude to those who resisted and worked to help save as many people as possible.
Steve Koek is a member of the Speakers Bureau at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, sharing his father’s story of tragedy and survival to groups of all sizes and types. He has consulted a number of productions of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in recent years, meeting with the casts and sitting on post-performance talkback panels. He is on the Board of Directors for Summer Place Theater in Naperville, Ill, and last produced and acted in “Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific” in 2019. Steve lives in Naperville with his wife, Andi, who is co-producing “The Diary of Anne Frank” with him.
Summer Place Theater’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” opens on July 10, 2020. Tickets are on sale now and sponsorship packages are available.