Most people in my life know that writing is one of my biggest passions and ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. But then I did grow up, and well, life happened and becoming a writer didn’t.
But when my wonderful Elisabeth was born I decided that I was not ready to let the dream go and I would somehow become a published writer one way or another. A lot of writing projects were started but very few were finished, apart from one. One that meant an awful lot to me because of the person I wrote about.
Just writing the story was incredibly satisfying, but I wanted the world to know about this amazingly brave person, and I was over the moon when ‘Dutch Magazine’ (dutchthemag) was willing to publish it.
This is the story of how Anna Elisabeth Van Nes-Visser, my beloved grandmother, saved the life of a young jewish girl during the second world war.
Around the corner from Anne Frank
Everyone knows the story of Anne Frank and “Het Achterhuis”, but Miep Gies, who looked after the Frank family, wasn’t the only one who, during the Second World War, risked her life by hiding Jews. There were thousands of them. It is estimated that 25,000 Jews survived the Second World War because they were offered a hiding place. Some people hid Jews to make money, some did it because they thought it was the right thing to do and some because not doing it didn’t even occur to them. Anna who lived at the Leliegracht in Amsterdam, around the corner from where Anne Frank was hiding, was one of those very brave people. She was also my grandmother.
In the summer of 1943, the house where Liesje, a young Jewish girl from Amsterdam, and her family lived was raided. Liesje was the only one who managed to get out of the house before the German soldiers took her whole family. She was hidden by the family who lived next door but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep her. They put her in touch with someone who moved her to Utrecht where she found a place to hide, but in the winter of 1944 she was no longer safe there. This is when Anna was asked if she would take in a Jewish girl who had nowhere else to go.
Just over a year before, Anna’s father had been executed in Camp Vught. He was given the choice to either tell where Klaas, Anna’s husband, was hiding or to die. The Nazis did manage to find Klaas in the end, and he had been in Camp Vught for almost a year when Anna was asked to take Liesje in. Anna felt she needed to do something because of what the Nazis were doing to her family, and she agreed. After the war she often struggled with her reasons for this decision. She came from a very religious family and feelings of revenge weren’t generally accepted.
Liesje moved into Anna’s attic room. Anna tried very hard to accommodate Liesje’s Jewish traditions and Liesje tried to be as little a burden as she could. From March 1944 until May 1945 Liesje lived in Anna’s attic. She would only come downstairs for dinner, this was risky of course and the door to the attic was always left open just in case she had to go back upstairs quickly, but Anna insisted that dinner was eaten at the dinner table. This was her way of bringing some normality into the girl’s life.
Liesje helped out where she could. Anna had three children under five and had to go out every day to queue up for food. One day when the two youngest were ill and it was freezing cold outside, she left her three children with Liesje. All went well until someone she had known for years, and who knew that her husband had been captured, asked her: “Anna, where are your children today?” Anna didn’t expect the question and didn’t know what to say. She made up an excuse about her oldest looking after them. Luckily her lie had been believed, but that was the last time she ever left the children with Liesje.
Liesje lived in the attic until the end of the war without ever going outside. If she ever looked out of her window, she could have seen “Het Achterhuis”, but she wouldn’t have known there was a girl hiding there, just like her, living through the same fears. If they had both looked at the same time, they could have seen each other, and maybe even given a careful wave.
The stories of these two girls, Anne Frank and Liesje, are very similar. Both of them were Jewish, both were scared, but both of them were lucky enough to find a woman brave enough to risk their lives by hiding them. But the end of their stories couldn’t be more different. The Franks were betrayed and arrested. Little Anne died in March 1945, two months before the end of the war aged only 15. Liesje on the other hand struggled to walk normally when, on the 6th of May 1945 Anna took her outside for the very first time since she arrived 14 months earlier. Little Liesje, or Auntie Lies as she would later be known to us, died a happy woman aged 82.
After the war there has been some debate over what actually happened. Two parts of the story have different versions. The first is what happened to my great grandfather. My grandmother’s account is that he was executed because he wouldn’t give up my grandfather’s location, but my grandmother’s sister has always insisted that he died of pneumonia in Camp Vught. The other part where there is some doubt, is how Liesje ended up with my grandmother. The story that she has always told her children is that Liesje was living next door and escaped into my grandmother’s garden when their hiding place was raided. She hid in her coal shed overnight and knocked on the back door in the morning. A written account that we have from Anna however, tells us that she was asked whether she would take Liesje in. This document also mentions my grandmother’s struggle with the reasons why she decided to hide a Jewish girl. We do not know for sure what actually happened, but in my opinion the way I have written it here makes most sense. It seems likely that the execution of Anna’s father would have instilled the feelings of revenge that made her decide to help Liesje and that she later struggled with. This could also explain why she told a different story of how Liesje came to live in her attic. If she would have found Liesje in her back garden it almost takes away the conscious decision of taking her in and therefore the hiding of the girl is not a decision based on feelings of revenge.
We will never know for sure what really happened, but regardless of which version describes history most accurately, the plain truth is that Anna, without a shadow of a doubt, saved Liesje’s life, and so did so many other brave souls who risked everything by offering innocent people a place to hide in their homes. Their stories need to be told. And never forgotten.