Forty years later, Miep Gies, 79, can still hear the sad, slow footsteps on the stairs as Anne Frank and her family were led away to the Nazi death camps. For 25 months, Gies, a former employee of Anne’s father, Otto Frank, had helped the Franks and four other people evade the Gestapo by bringing food, comfort and news of the world to them in a tiny hideout above her Amsterdam office. But on that August afternoon in 1944—just nine months before the end of the war in Europe—she could only sit helplessly as the secret police raided the attic. A few hours later, wandering mournfully through the four small upstairs rooms, Gies discovered the plaid-cloth-covered diary kept by her young friend Anne.
By saving the diary, first published in 1947, Gies made sure that more than 13 million readers to date would see into Anne’s heart and mind. But few people could ever know the girl as Gies knew her. They would never see the passionate look on Anne’s face as she wrote in her diary or savor her coquettish delight when Gies gave her a pair of second-hand red pumps—the young girl’s first pair of heels.
For years, Miep Gies (pronounced MEEP GEZE) and her husband, Jan, would share such memories only when asked. But last year Miep finally agreed to collaborate with American journalist Alison Gold on a book about her role in sheltering the Franks. Her memoir, Anne Frank Remembered, will be dramatized this Sunday (April 17), in the CBS-TV movie THE ATTIC The Hiding of Anne Frank, starring Mary Steenburgen as Miep and Lisa Jacobs, 25, as Anne.
“So many people in Holland did the same thing we did,” says Miep to explain the Gieses’ past inclination to avoid the spotlight. “We are not heroes. We only did our human duty. We helped people who needed our help.” But a few years after the 1980 death of Otto Frank (the only member of his family to survive the camps) Miep realized that she and Jan were the last living witnesses to the Frank tragedy. It was time to tell their story, though in both the book and in conversation, it is Miep who does the talking. Jan, an 82-year-old retired social worker who also conspired to save the Franks, adds only an occasional remark in Dutch or English when his wife reminisces. “It was very painful for us,” Miep says of the book, “but we finally did it.”
Born in Vienna as Hermine Santrouschitz, Miep suffered malnourishment during the First World War and was sent by her hard-pressed parents to live with a middle-class Dutch family. In 1933 she took a clerical job at Travies and Company, a firm that specialized in home jam-making kits. She soon became friends with her mild-mannered boss, Otto Frank, who, to escape the Nazis, was relocating to Amsterdam from Frankfurt with his wife, Edith, and their daughters, Margot, 7, and Anne, 4.
After the Germans invaded Holland in 1940, Miep was in danger of being deported to her native Austria. Frank helped her obtain a birth certificate so she could marry her sweetheart, Jan, and become a Dutch citizen. Then, when the Nazi crackdown on Jews intensified, Frank asked Gies for a much greater favor: He needed her to help his family go into hiding. “I told him I would help,” she says. “No problem.” In July 1942, when Margot received a notice to report to a deportation center, the Franks fled to the attic, where they were joined by their friends the Van Daan family and later a dentist, Albert Dussel.
Miep began her twice-daily trips to the little rooms behind the bookcase, bringing the scarce food and necessities that she and Jan and three other office workers—Jo Koophuis, Victor Kraler and Elli Vossen—managed to scrounge using illicit ration coupons and ingenuity. All of them were risking death for harboring Jews, and the tension wore heavily on the little group. “You could never tell of your fear, your anger, because the things you knew were a danger to other people,” Miep says. Still, she adds that there were moments of joy during those two years, many of them sparked by Anne, who remained, even in hiding, “always friendly, smiling, always ready to help.”
Thoughts of Anne’s last days in Bergen-Belsen, where both she and Margot died of typhus, have haunted Miep for years, compounding the guilt she feels for escaping detention herself because the arresting officer was a fellow Viennese. “When I learned what happened at the camps,” she says, “I thought I should have gone. Anne died after Margot, when she was left all alone. Maybe if I had been there to help, she would have lived.” Overcome with grief, she pauses, unable to continue. Jan reaches out to comfort her.
It was three years before Miep could bring herself to read Anne’s diary, which she had turned over to Otto Frank unopened on the day he learned his daughters were dead. Finally, at Otto’s insistence, she opened the published book—and found comfort in it. “I was happy—as if Anne came into me,” she says. “I heard her voice. There was a light in me.”
Today, the Gieses’ cozy four-room apartment is often brightened by visits from their son, Paul, 37, a coin expert, and his two children. But it darkens each year on the anniversary of the Franks’ arrest. “August 4 is a black day,” says Miep. “We don’t go out. We don’t answer the telephone. We hardly speak. We don’t look at the clock the whole day because every hour we know what happened. Then it’s over. Every year.”
—By Michael Small, with Cathy Nolan in Amsterdam