Holocaust survivor Nanette Konig on Anne Frank and the last days of Bergen-Belsen

One of the last surviving childhood friends of Anne Frank, 84-year-old Nanette Konig, lends her voice to National Geographic’s documentary Anne Frank: The Nazi Capture, which marks the 70th anniversary of both the end of the war and Anne’s death, and is airing on Tuesday 10 March at 8pm on the National Geographic Channel.

Like Anne, Nanette – who appears in the diary with the made-up initials ‘ES’ – was only 10 years old when the Germans invaded The Netherlands, and while Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz as penalty for hiding, Nanette was sent to Bergen-Belsen.

However, on 28 October 1944, the women of Auschwitz – Anne included – were transported to Bergen-Belsen and the pair had an unlikely reunion in the darkest of times. We caught up with Nanette to find out more about her experiences.

What do you remember of Holland before the occupation, before the war?

I had a very happy youth. Unfortunately my younger brother died in 1936 – he had a heart valve that didn’t function properly – but I went to a very good public school and I practised a lot of sport. We went to England a few times – my mother was born in South Africa, my family lived in England – and we also went to Switzerland a few times so I had a very normal and happy life, which all ended in May 1940 when the Germans invaded The Netherlands.

Nanette Konig in Anne Frank: The Nazi Capture
Nanette Konig in Anne Frank: The Nazi Capture

What was the first sign that things were going to be dangerous for you and your family?

The Dutch believed that they were going to be neutral like they were before in World War I. They were very much unprepared in any respect for what was going to happen. The Royal Family left before the capitulation and left the country in the hands of the Nazis. So we realised that our lives had changed from day to night.

As a Jewish girl growing up in The Netherlands did you feel any different from the children around you?

No, no, I don’t think so. The Jewish community was very accepted at the time, although in the 17th and 18th centuries there were cities in The Netherlands where Jews could not reside. There was always latent anti-Semitism in Holland and my father worked for the Amsterdam Bank and in the management of this bank in spite of being a Jew. I think he must have known about anti-Semitism.

German troops enter Amsterdam in May 1940 © Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L23001 / CC-BY-SA
German troops enter Amsterdam in May 1940 © Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-L23001 / CC-BY-SA

What do you remember of meeting Anne Frank?

Our meeting was very coincidental. At the end of 1940 the government workers were dismissed and at the beginning of 1941 they asked the schools how many Jewish students were present and from that they organised 25 schools just for Jewish students, without anybody raising their hand and saying: “Why do we need these schools?”

So the school where I met her was one of those. So you might say it was sheer coincidence that I got into the same class as Anne. When I first met her I thought she was like any other girl. The peculiarity of that class was we were already, I think, aware of the circumstances under which we were living and we were all good friends.

Did you know Anne’s family well?

I know the family Frank? Yes, certainly. I went to her [13th] birthday party in June 1942 and that’s where I first saw her diaries. I didn’t know it but they went into hiding in July, because people didn’t announce it. It was rumoured they had gone to Switzerland.

They went into hiding sooner than they thought they would because [Anne’s older sister] Margot had to present herself to the police and they knew if she didn’t go they would all be held hostage.

Prisoners board the train at Westerbork in January 1942
Prisoners board the train at Westerbork in January 1942

When you were moved to Westerbork transit camp, did you know that was only temporary or did you think that was as bad as it could possibly get?

From Westerbork every week there was a transport that went to the extermination camp, and on the Monday the ones who were left didn’t believe that was their destiny. Because the BBC in 1942 had already announced that there were extermination camps – in other words we didn’t believe any longer that they were going into forced labour – and it was all very, very traumatic.

What was it like going from Westerbork to Bergen-Belsen, were you expecting the worst?

That was completely different. Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp as such, it was a ‘residence camp’ because they didn’t want the Red Cross to inspect the camp, obviously. We belonged to the people that worked on the Palestine route, which gave you the right to be exchanged for prisoners of war or something else. They kept a stock of Jews in Westerbork, in what they called the ‘star camp’, not that we were treated better.

We were not numbered because you couldn’t exchange a numbered prisoner, right? But the conditions were so terrible. That they died of these conditions of hunger, or how they were treated in every respect, it was abominable.

The site of Bergen-Belsen as it appears today, from Anne Frank: The Nazi Capture
The site of Bergen-Belsen as it appears today, from Anne Frank: The Nazi Capture

When you saw Anne again in Bergen-Belsen, did you recognise her straight away?

You have to remember we were both skeletons, I didn’t have any flesh left on my hip bones. We did recognise one another and it was very emotional. It’s really terrible. For me it’s very hard to think that she died and I survived, but she was in no condition to withstand the typhus. Typhus was rampant in the camp and most people died from it.

I had typhus after… I say “liberation” but Bergen-Belsen was never liberated, Bergen-Belsen was going to be exchanged with the Germans so that the British would have a better military position. They blindfolded the Germans that went [through the British lines to negotiate a truce] and then they made out that the British Medical Corps was to enter on 15 April 1945.

What’s the most powerful impression you still have of Bergen-Belsen?

Toward the end it was terrible. When the British Medical Corps entered Bergen-Belsen they were confronted with a situation that they had never ever expected and were not prepared for. They were prepared for a war, right? They were not prepared to find mountains of dead bodies, of filth, of death, of typhus, of people that were starving or dying of hunger. They actually brought them food, the people ate it and then died because they couldn’t digest the food.

The whole episode is tremendously traumatic and I do what I do because I had the chance to survive. I have a mission to make the world aware of what the Holocaust was really like and what happened. I always explain to the students that the dimension of the Holocaust is much larger than most people realise.

I started because of the six million Jews. Three million came from Poland but those people from Eastern Europe didn’t have any idea what happened in Western Europe, when I perceived that this was the case I started to speak because I thought it was time that somebody realised that the other three million came from the 19 other countries occupied by the Nazis.

Prisoners sit by the wire fence dividing the various sections of the camp. They are eating their first meal after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen.
Prisoners sit by the wire fence dividing the various sections of the camp. They are eating their first meal after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen.

Did you know Anne’s diaries were going to be published?

Otto Frank came to see me in October 1945 and he told me that his mother had suggested he publish the diaries. He came to see me and he said to me that he would leave out the parts of his wife, who he had recently lost, and what did I think about them and I said: “Sir, if you think this is the right thing to do, then by all means.”

It was published on newspaper paper in 1947 so I was not surprised, I had been one of the first to read the diaries.

Anne Frank: The Nazi Capture premieres Tuesday 10 March 2015 at 8pm on National Geographic Channel. For more incredible men and women from history, pick up the new issue of All About History or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.