Miep Gies: Office secretary who helped to hide the Frank family from the Nazis before rescuing Anne's diary
Thursday 14 January 2010
Going underground or into hiding has become as routine as the proverbial pipe and slippers that used to await the man of the house after a long day at work." So wrote 14-year-old Anne Frank in her diary in January 1944 during 25 months' refuge in a "Secret Annex". This was on the other side of a door hidden by a bookcase in the Amsterdam office of the spice-dealers Opekta, to which her father, Otto, had previously travelled from home to deal in spices. Crowded together, resolutely silent by day, were two families, along with a later arrival, a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, a friend of Miep Gies. Gies, two decades older than Anne, has died at 100 – six decades after events which she would remember on every subsequent day of her life.
In that same diary entry, Anne noted, "it's amazing how much these generous and unselfish people do, risking their own lives to help and save others. The best example of this is our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so far and will we hope bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they'll find themselves sharing the fate of those they're trying to protect." The success of the annexe depended upon the continued existence of an office whose staff gave the impression that the Franks were in Switzerland.
What's more, not all of them were aware of life behind the bookcase, which, come the evening, Gies would pull aside to deliver the provisions that, by dint of silent understanding among various shopkeepers, she unobtrusively ferried by bike across the city.
All of this could easily have been one more tale of unknown heroism, especially as Gies only began to speak of it later in her life, but – after the terrible treachery which brought the Gestapo to the annexe in August 1944 – she had presciently gathered papers scattered over the floor: the diary to which Anne had embarrassedly confessed to writing when Gies saw her hunched over a notebook ("it was a look of dark concentration, as if she had a throbbing headache").
Without Gies, the diary would have gone the way of its author, who, with her sister, died from typhus in Belsen soon after their mother's end in Auschwitz. Born in Vienna in 1909 as Hermine Santrouschitz, Miep herself understood what it was to be a displaced person. One of many children who suffered malnutrition during the Great War, her kneecaps were bony and her teeth soft. In December 1920, with the prospect of another cold Viennese winter potentially fatal, she joined a crowd of children bound for restorative Holland.
"A card was hung round my neck. On it was printed a strange name, the name of people I had never met." She was meant to stay for three months, but her health was still poor; with her mother's blessing, she stayed on with her adoptive family, who duly moved to Amsterdam. "My sensibilities were Dutch," she said of her formative years in the Netherlands, "the quality of my feelings also Dutch." It was here that she also picked up the nickname "Miep".
As a teenager she kept a notebook, "in secret, for myself only, not for discussion. I had a deep longing for an understanding of life." Technically still Austrian, she remained in Holland, where in 1933 she was without work until a neighbour put her in touch with a spice firm, whose director was the German émigré Otto Frank. "His dark eyes held mine, and I felt immediately his kind and gentle nature, stiffened somewhat by shyness and a slightly nervous demeanour." One of her first tasks was to set to work on jam-making. This was in order to tell complaining Dutch housewives where they were going wrong in using the firm's pectin as a swift-working ingredient.
She and Frank had a rapport, shared interests, and soon she met his family, including his four-year-old daughter: "her dark, shining, alert large eyes, which dominated her delicate face, were drinking in everything around her." Miep's marriage to Jan Gies in 1941 was a close-run thing: her passport had been cancelled and her birth certificate proved almost elusive.
This was but one of many dramas. Summary can do scant justice either to Anne's diary or – its equal – Gies' 1987 memoir, Anne Frank Remembered, which revealed much unknown to the Franks, including her and Jan's also hiding in their own home a young man rash enough to leave it at times (Jan worked in the Resistance). Especially memorable is a first wedding anniversary dinner in the annexe, where she later spent a night: "I never slept; I couldn't close my eyes... the fright of these people who were locked up in here was so thick I could feel it pressing down on me. It was like a thread of terror pulled taut."
She never wanted to suspect a particular traitor, but Carol Ann Lee's biography (2003) of Otto makes a persuasive case that it was a lowlife, Tonny Ahlers, who had been blackmailing Otto over supplies of goods to the German army. Otto's life changed with the diary, which he duly read after Gies gave it to him on his return from Auschwitz. It took Gies some while longer to read a work which, to suit a publisher's format, Otto abridged effectively enough for it to sell millions, little by little, and appear on stage and screen. A brilliant work, as described by Oscar Wilde in another context, "simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication." In preparing a second version, before capture, Anne set aside such entries as a description of her vagina. The complete version, published in 1991, is all the more remarkable.
Gies, of course, would have infinitely preferred to have succeeded in bringing the family back. (She herself had almost been captured but was saved by the fact that the German recognised that she shared his Viennese accent.) She even visited Gestapo headquarters in the hope of buying them off; no dice; she was amazed to leave the building alive.
She herself felt blessed, at almost 40, to become pregnant; post-war life was happily quiet and she claimed to be no hero. But she most certainly was, and we can be thankful that, in time, she wrote a book which brought her many invitations to describe that unthinkable time.
I was privileged to have met Miep on several occasions in the 1990s both at the Anne Frank House and when she came to Anne Frank Trust events in London, writes Gillian Walnes, executive director of the Anne Frank Trust. In conversations we had, she never saw herself as heroic, but simply doing what she saw as her duty to help other human beings. As well as looking after all eight people in hiding above Otto Frank's office, Miep and her equally heroic husband, Jan Gies, were also hiding – in their own home – a young Dutch man who had refused to join the Nazi party. Can you even begin to imagine the pressure she was under in acquiring food for all those people for more than two years without arousing suspicions?
When the Frank family were arrested in August 1944 Miep broke the lock and rescued Anne's diary, not for publication but to give back to Anne, in the hope she may survive the camps. She also bravely went to Gestapo HQ to try to buy the Frank family's freedom, but sadly this was not possible.
I was lucky enough to visit Miep in her home once and she showed me items that Anne had actually written about in her diary. One particular memory I will always treasure is attending the 1996 Oscars ceremony in Hollywood for the documentary feature Anne Frank Remembered (coincidentally shown on the BBC on Tuesday evening, the night of Miep's death). Travelling down in the limousine to the ceremony and seeing the iconic Hollywood sign, I leaned forward to Miep and, knowing how much Anne Frank had loved movie stars, asked her, "What would Anne have said if she knew you were in Hollywood?" Miep simply sighed and shook her head.
Last year the Anne Frank Trust dedicated an Anne Frank Award in Miep's honour, which was presented at the House of Commons to a remarkable Kent teenager, Nicole Dryburgh. The Anne Frank Trust will ensure that Miep Gies' story will continue to be an inspirational force for good.
Miep Gies (Hermine Santrouschitz): born Vienna 15 February 1909; married 1941 Jan Gies (died 1993, one son); died Netherlands 11 January 2010.
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