The People Downstairs
 by Sheryl Flatow
In the spring of 1942, as the situation for Jews in The Netherlands was growing more dire every day, Otto Frank approached three of the employees at his company, Opekta, to ask if they would be willing to help should he and his family need to go into hiding. Without hesitation, Miep Gies, Victor Kugler, and Johannes Kleiman said yes. Miep’s husband, Jan, was also on board. On July 6, 1942, the day after Margot Frank received a deportation notice to a labor camp in Germany, Otto, his wife Edith, and daughters Margot and Anne moved into the Secret Annex of the Opekta building. They were joined a week later by Otto’s employee Hermann van Pels; Hermann’s wife, Auguste; and their son, Peter. Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist, moved into the cramped quarters in November.

Michael McKeever’s The People Downstairs, which runs through December 19, depicts the challenges and perils faced by the Righteous Christians who aided and protected the people upstairs until August 4, 1944, when the Nazis entered the Secret Annex and arrested its occupants. If you’ve seen the play and some of the names don’t sound familiar, there’s a reason. McKeever uses the same pseudonyms that appear in Anne Frank’s diary. Kleiman became Koophuis, Kugler became Kraler, and Jan became Henk. The van Pels were called the van Daans, and Fritz Pfeffer was given the name Albert Dussel.

“The play is a work of fiction that’s inspired by and based on these people,” McKeever says. “It’s not an actual documentary on the events. I liked the idea of staying true to the names Anne Frank created. In that way, the play lives in the world of the diary, as opposed to the real world. The play The Diary of Anne Frank used those names as well.”

McKeever also took some artistic license: his character, Mr. Visser, was created for the play. And he chose not to include Bep Voskuijl and her father, Johan, two employees who became part of the circle of providers and protectors just after the Franks took up residence in the Secret Annex.

“I wanted to stay as true to what happened as I could, while at the same time taking the liberties that I needed to take in order to create a more interesting story,” he says.

It’s for that reason that Visser was created, at the expense of Bep and her father. “Of all the helpers – and I don’t mean this with any disrespect – I found Bep the least interesting and the least impactful,” McKeever says. “So I let her fall away, and in her place I created the character of Visser, who had questions about what they were doing. I have such respect for and awe of these heroes. In all the research I did, there was never a doubt in any of their minds about their commitment to what they needed to do. While that’s incredibly commendable, it doesn’t offer much conflict within the group for storytelling. And I was loathe to put any kind of questioning in their mouths about something that they simply didn’t feel. To be honest, I would imagine there had to be some doubt in their minds somewhere along the line. But because there wasn’t any documented proof, I didn’t want to make that presumptive jump. So I created a character who, though as committed as the others were, was perhaps not as strong as they were. I created him just to have a devil’s advocate to question what they were doing, so there could be some conflict.”

The play is a testament to the character of the individuals who willingly and resolutely defied the Nazis and risked their own lives to help people in imminent danger of deportation and death. In Judaism, there is an expression when people die: “May his/her memory be a blessing.” The saying is best explained on the website of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh: “It refers to the continued blessing that the person leaves behind, from her good works, good deeds, teachings, example, etc. – from her life so well lived that the goodness should continue to flow.”

The memory of each of the people downstairs is a blessing. So, we’d like to tell you more about the real people, including the two who do not appear in the play. Attention must be paid!
Left to right: Miep Gies, Johannes Kleiman, Otto Frank, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl
SPOILER ALERT: The article includes accounts of what happened to each of the people downstairs, so you might prefer to read this after seeing the play.


In 1994, Miep Gies was the recipient of the Wallenberg Medal, an annual award presented by the University of Michigan that honors outstanding humanitarians. In her acceptance speech, one of the first things she said to the audience was, “Please do not look up to me. It does embarrass me very much.” She later explained her aversion to being called a hero. “Those in hiding were the brave people,” she said. “I also don’t like it [the hero label] because people should never think that you have to be a very special person to help those who need you. I myself am just an ordinary woman. I simply had no choice. I could foresee many, many sleepless nights and a miserable life if I had refused to help the Franks.”

Hermine Santrouschitz was born in Vienna in 1909. She suffered from malnutrition during and after World War I, leading her parents to take advantage of a relief project for Austrian children and send their 11-year-old daughter to live with foster parents in the Netherlands in order to regain her health. Her foster parents nicknamed her Miep. She flourished in her new environment, and in 1924 her biological parents agreed that it was best for Miep to remain with her new family.

She went to work as a typist when she was 18 and remained at the job for six years, until the Great Depression reached the Netherlands. A neighbor got her a job interview with Otto Frank shortly after he established Opekta in 1933. He hired her and made her the company’s customer service officer – after she learned how to use the pectin the firm sold to make homemade jam.
Miep married Jan Gies in July, 1941, a year before Otto Frank asked her if she would be willing to help hide him and his family. In addition to her role in caring for the eight people hidden in the Secret Annex – which included being first visitor each morning, shopping for meat and vegetables, and bringing library books to the people upstairs – Miep, together with her husband, hid a 23-year-old student in their home in 1943. He was not Jewish, but he had refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Nazis.

After the Secret Annex was discovered and all the occupants were arrested, Miep and Bep Voskuijl went upstairs either later that day or the next day (neither could remember) to see if they could salvage anything. They found Anne’s diary scattered on the floor. (The diary was not a single entity. It was made up of an actual diary that Anne had received as a gift from her parents for her thirteenth birthday, and additional notebooks. She also began editing and rewriting the diary on May 20, 1944 after hearing a radio broadcast in which a Dutch minister, who had fled to London, asked his compatriots to save any papers documenting their experience under Nazi occupation. That gave her the idea to publish a book about her life in hiding after the war, under the title The Secret Annex. She went over the diary page by page, eliminating some of the more personal material and adding new text. According to the Anne Frank House, in the two-and-a-half-month period until she was captured, “she wrote around 50,000 words, filling more than 215 sheets of paper.”) Miep put the diary in her desk drawer, without reading it, intending to one day give it to Anne.
A few days later, executing a plan that she conceded was “crazy,” Miep went to Gestapo headquarters and tried to bribe officers to release the Franks and the others. She wrote, “I should probably have been arrested right away, but they were too astonished to react, and I fled from the building as fast as I could.”

In June, 1945, a month after the end of World War II, Otto Frank appeared at Miep’s home, having been liberated from Auschwitz. He told her that his wife had died there, but he still had hope that his daughters were alive. A short time later, he received word from a nurse that Anne and Margot had died at Bergen-Belsen. He handed the letter to Miep and, after reading its contents, she opened her desk drawer, “gathered up every volume of the diary, and presented them to Mr. Frank, with the words ‘This is the legacy of your daughter Anne,’” she recalled in an interview.

The diary was published in 1947, but despite the pleas of Otto, who lived with Miep and Jan for seven years after the war, she still had not read it “out of fear.” It was only after the second edition was published that Miep gave in and read the diary. “I have to admit I was happy,” she said in the same interview. “It was like having them all back again. It wasn’t the frightful task I’d imagined it to be. . .. I could even hear their voices again.” Miep and Jan remained friends with Otto until his death in 1980. He moved to Switzerland in 1952 to be near his mother, and remarried there in 1953. Miep and Jan, along with their son Paul, born in 1951, often visited Otto in Switzerland.

Miep never wanted to be in the limelight, but it came to her with the publication of her 1987 memoir, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family. The book was co-written by Alison Leslie Gold, who persuaded her that it was important historically for the world to learn what she and the others did during the Holocaust. She spoke at schools all over the world to share Anne’s story, and vocally repudiated Holocaust deniers. In 1972, she was recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Miep Gies was 100 years old when she died on January 11, 2010.

Victor Kugler was born in 1900 in a German-speaking region of Austria-Hungary. He served in his country’s navy during World War I, and moved to the Netherlands in the early 1920s. He became one of the first employees of Opekta in 1933.

After the Germans invaded the Netherlands, they passed a law that prevented Jews from owning businesses. Otto Frank gave control of Opekta to Kugler and Jan Gies, and registered a new enterprise, Gies & Co. With non-Jewish owners, the Nazis wouldn’t confiscate it. But Otto remained its supervisor, and he continued to consult with Kugler while in hiding. Years later, when Kugler was asked in an interview why he agreed to help protect the Franks and van Pels families, he replied, “They were my friends. I could not let them be butchered by the Germans.”

It was Kugler who felt that the door to the Secret Annex was too visible, and suggested that they place a bookcase in front of it. Anne wrote in her diary, “Miep and Mr. Kugler bear the greatest burden for us. . . .Miep in everything she does, and Mr. Kugler through his enormous responsibility for the eight of us, which is sometimes so overwhelming that he can hardly speak from pent-up tension and strain.” He never told his wife what he was doing.

When Karl Josef Silberbauer, a member of the Gestapo, led the Dutch police in the raid of the office building, he forced Kugler to move the bookcase. In addition to arresting the eight occupants of the annex, Silberbauer also arrested Kugler and Johannes Kleiman. (Silberbauer let Miep go because he, like Miep, was born in VIenna.) Kugler was sent to a concentration camp, then two different labor camps. He managed to escape on a death march to Germany in 1945, and went into hiding. The day after he returned home, he said in his biography, “I started to prepare a hiding place in my house for myself and my wife. Should the Germans come to take me back, I was determined that they would not find me.” Fortunately, the Germans surrendered four weeks later.
Kugler’s first wife died in 1952. He remarried a year later, and emigrated with his new wife to Canada in 1956. He continued to stay in touch with Otto and the others. Upon his retirement – he had been an electrician, and then as an insurance agent – he gave talks about Anne Frank and his experience. In 1972, he was recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Victor Kugler died in December, 1981, at age 81, of Alzheimer’s disease.

Johannes Kleiman was born in Koog aan de Zaan, the Netherlands, in 1896. He was the deputy manager of a bank in the 1920s, when he became a business acquaintance of Otto Frank. The two men became friends when the Franks settled in Amsterdam, and Otto hired him as bookkeeper either in 1933 or 1938 (different sources have conflicting dates). When Opekta was handed off to Victor Kugler and Jan Gies, Kleiman became managing director. He was the person who suggested to Otto that an empty part of the office building, what would become known as the Secret Annex, could serve as the family’s hiding place. In an interview he gave after the war, Kleiman said, “A few months before going into hiding, we furnished the Secret Annex as a residence, where they could survive relatively well.”

In her diary, Anne wrote, “‘When Mr. Kleiman enters the room, the sun begins to shine,’ Mother said recently, and she is absolutely right.” He and his wife sometimes visited the hiding place on weekends, and he was the problem solver when the unexpected happened. The Anne Frank House website relates how he got the pesticides when the Secret Annex was infested with fleas. He was also the person who provided updates to Otto’s mother in Switzerland via encoded messages.
The stress took its toll on Kleiman, and he developed bleeding ulcers. As Miep wrote in her memoir about one of his doctor visits, “Little did the doctor realize that Kleiman, concerned deeply for the safety of our friends in hiding, had been carrying around an extra load of tension and pressure.” He was hospitalized in September, 1943 and was gone from the office for a month.
A year later, he was in a concentration camp with Kugler. Kleiman was at his desk on the day that the Secret Annex was discovered, and the two men were arrested. But his illness proved to be a blessing: the Red Cross managed to get him released. He went back to work and ran the business, assisted by Miep and Bep Voskuijl.

In May, 1957, the Anne Frank House Foundation was established with the goal of preserving the Secret Annex. Kleiman was very involved in the work of the foundation – he organized tours of the hiding place for journalists and other visitors – but he did not live to see the museum open in 1960. He died at his desk in January, 1959; Otto Frank gave the eulogy at his funeral. In 1972, Johannes Kleiman was recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

When Jan Gies died in 1993, the Anne Frank Foundation issued the following statement: “Jan was not a person to stand in the limelight, not even amidst all the publicity surrounding Anne Frank. He was throughout his lifetime a man of few words, but many deeds.”

Born in Amsterdam in 1905, Jan was a social worker who became part of the Frank family inner circle through Miep. Their 1941 wedding was attended by many of her co-workers, as well as Anne Frank. When Otto Frank handed over control of his company to his colleagues, Jan was named supervisory director.

He was a frequent visitor to the Secret Annex, bringing books and sharing news. On July 18, the Gies’ first anniversary, the Frank and van Pels families invited them to their hideout for a dinner celebration. Anne convinced them to spend the night; Miep later said they “did not sleep a wink.”
Jan was a member of the resistance, but even after the war he didn’t talk about what he had done. He had many contacts as a social worker, and through them he obtained extra ration coupons – for the people in the annex and other Jews. His job also gave him cover for visiting many people, which enabled him to distribute illegal papers and help find hiding places. Miep wrote, “My husband became a member of a resistance group that worked alongside the National Organization to assist hiders and that arranged all manner of things for people that wanted to go into hiding or already were. He never wanted to talk about it, but he must have saved scores of people.”

Jan Gies was recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1972. He was 87 when he died at home from diabetes.

Elisabeth "Bep" Voskuijl went to work for Otto Frank as a typist in 1937. Born in Amsterdam in 1919, she was the youngest employee to take care of the residents of the Secret Annex. She was apparently told what was happening the day after the Frank family moved in, and immediately agreed to help. Her main assignment was providing bread and milk. She also signed up for correspondence courses on behalf of the people in hiding. Ann described her as “cheerful and good-tempered, willing and good-natured.”

Because she was closer in age to Anne than any of her colleagues, the two young women developed a special relationship. Otto Frank made note of their bond in his memoir. At Anne’s urging, Bep spent a night in the Secret Annex in October, 1942 but, like the Miep and Jan Gies, she couldn’t sleep. But she gratefully dined in the Secret Annex quite frequently. She was one of eight children – her father was the company’s warehouse manager, and also helped the people in hiding – and there often wasn’t enough food at home.
When the Nazis came to arrest the occupants of the Secret Annex, Johannes Kleiman saw to it that Bep escaped without being seen. He gave her his wallet and told her to immediately bring it to a particular pharmacist, who would inform Kleiman’s wife that something had gone terribly wrong. When she finally returned to the office, she went upstairs with Miep and together they salvaged Anne’s diary. Bep and Miep continued to run the company until Kleiman returned.

After the war, in May 1946, Bep married Cor van Wijk and left her job. The couple had three sons and a daughter. Their daughter, Anne-Marie, was named after Anne Frank. In 1972, Bep was recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. She died in 1983, at age 63, due to a ruptured aorta.

Bep stayed in touch with her former colleagues throughout her life. But she gave few interviews, and beginning in the 1960s, shunned publicity entirely. In a biography of Bep published in Dutch in 2015 and in English three years later, co-author Joop van Wijk, one of her sons, speculates that it was his late aunt Nelly, his mother’s sister, who betrayed the occupants of the Secret Annex. Nelly had been a Nazi collaborator, a secret that his family never shared. They had revealed that she’d been involved with German soldiers, but it was only in 2010, when he began doing research for his book, that van Wijk discovered the truth.

Van Wijk told The Times of Israel in 2019 that Anne Frank was aware that Nelly was a collaborator; she wrote about it in the original version of her diary (a passage Otto Frank removed prior to publication). He also said Nelly knew that her sister and father were caring for Jews in hiding, and that it was a woman who called the Gestapo and revealed their hiding place. This had been confirmed to investigators in 1963 by Karl Josef Silberbauer, who led the raid. And it was about the time of that investigation, van Wijk wrote, that his mother “ceased granting interviews.” The Times of Israel reported that van Wijk has been interviewed several times since 2017 “by members of an international forensics team” still trying to determine who betrayed the occupants of the Secret Annex.

Johan Voskuijl, Bep’s father, joined Opekta in 1941 as the warehouse manager. He was the last colleague told about the people hiding in the Secret Annex, and he proved to be invaluable. He kept an eye on the employees who worked in the warehouse. And he built the bookcase that concealed the door leading to the Secret Annex.

He was a master craftsman. On St. Nicholas Day in 1942, a holiday that none of the occupants of the Secret Annex had ever celebrated before, each of them received small gifts. The bookends for Otto Frank, the picture frame for Fritz Pfeffer, and the ashtray for Hermann van Pels were all carved by Johan. Anne wrote in her diary, “How anyone can be so clever with his hands is a mystery to me!”

But his time with the company was short-lived: stomach cancer forced him to stop working. On June 15, 1943, Anne wrote: “It is a disaster for us that good old Voskujil won't be able to keep us in touch with all that goes on, and all he hears in the warehouse. He was our best helper and security adviser; we miss him very much indeed.”

Johan died at age 53 in November, 1945.
Most of the information for this article came from, website of the Anne Frank House. Additional sources include (the English language version of Miep’s website),,, and (Miep’s Wallenberg Award speech).
Please join us for our fourth annual New Year/New Plays Festival, which will take place on Zoom from Wednesday, February 2 through Sunday, February 6.  
The five plays, all of which were read during our Drama(in the)works series, are The Science of Leaving Omaha by Carter W. Lewis, Dark Skinned Pavement by TJ Young, Past Midnight: A Visit with Larry and Viv by Donna Hoke, The Chisera by Paula Cizmar, and how it feels to fall from the sky by Dominic Finocchiaro. The Festival also includes a discussion with the playwrights.

And we hope to hear from you again during the Festival. As always, we’ll be taking questions and comments at the end of each reading. We’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating: your thoughts and comments are valuable to the playwrights as they continue to refine their work.
Tickets for the 2022 Festival are on sale now. You can purchase your tickets online at, or by calling the box office at 561.514.4042 x2. Use ticket promo code NYNP50 for the five-play package discount, or ticket promo code NYNP30 for the two-play package discount.

The executive producers of the Festival are Diane and Mark Perlberg, and Penny Bank. The associate producers are Sandra and Bernie Meyer. 
2022 New Year/New Plays Festival Schedule:
The Science of Leaving Omaha by Carter W. Lewis

Iris feels trapped in her job at a crematory and wants to get out of Omaha. When Baker breaks into the funeral home to say goodbye to his recently deceased wife, he and Iris find themselves trying to understand the dismantling of their working-class lives before their pasts, and the police, catch up with them.  
Thursday, February 3, 7:30pm
Dark Skinned Pavement by TJ Young

When Harpo’s daycare business is threatened, she and her husband are introduced to Dwaylan – a man who can save her from being shut down. But what Dwaylan wants in return might be more than Harpo is willing to give, as the memory of the one child she couldn't protect comes flooding back.
Friday, February 4, 7:30pm
Past Midnight: A Visit with Larry and Viv by Donna Hoke
Summoned by Vivien Leigh's final companion, Jack Merivale, Sir Laurence Olivier rushes to the apartment where his former wife has been recovering from tuberculosis. Viv and Larry's love story was as legendary as their careers – until devastating mental illness tore them apart. Is it too late for them to make amends?  
Saturday, February 5, noon – 1:30pm
Playwrights Forum
Saturday, February 5, 7:30pm
The Chisera by Paula Cizmar

Set in the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra in both 1903 and the present, an early environmental writer and a contemporary scientist confront the questions: What actually constitutes “being green?” And how do we advance the rights of one group without harming another?
Sunday, February 6, 2pm
how it feels to fall from the sky by Dominic Finocchiaro

After witnessing a woman plummet from the sky, five strangers in New York form a support group to process what they have seen. A melancholic dramedy about loneliness, loss, and the unending possibility of salvation through human connection.
December 20 at 7:30pm
In the tradition of Charles Dickens reading his own work, this Zoom presentation will showcase PBD artists reading his 1843 novella – from our family to yours.