Miep Gies (1909-2010): Who Saved More than a Diary
Miep died this week at the tender age of a hundred.
She is possibly one of the world's most famous secretaries. Mostly because one day she found a little girl's diary and saved it for a time when she hoped she could return it to the poor kid. But that day never came. Instead she gave it to the young lady's father.
The first time I remember seeing Miep's face was in a picture on the first floor of the Anne frank house. The kids and I went there when we first lived in Amsterdam. And then I went pretty much every time someone from home came to visit. That's one of the things you do in Amsterdam. Sure some folks smoke dope, everyone tours the red light district and then sooner or later your mind returns to the profound history of the city and the Anne frank house becomes a must see attraction.
We all know the story. After the Nazi's invaded the Netherlands and the Dutch royal family fled to Canada and all hell broke loose. And I mean hell. The kind of hell only certain Rwandans and Sudanese and Armenians and Native Americans and Mayans and others can imagine. The kind where an organized genocide is carried out; a government sponsored genocide.
I was in Amsterdam studying this World War 2 time period at the University of Amsterdam. The U.S. literally shut its borders to all Jews who didn't have a sponsor. During the height of the holocaust only seventy thousand Jews were allowed to come to the United States from Europe and most of them had financial sponsors; these were Americans who could afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars for each person who emigrated away from the slaughter.
Winding through the spice warehouse that was the first floor of the building in which Anne and her sister and her parents and four other Jews hid from the Nazis it is hard not to hear the building settle under the weight of the guilt you feel as you walk. Guilt you carry as an American, as a non-Jew, as the privileged who have not been persecuted.
If you've read her diaries than you know - as you walk up the stairs to the annex - that Anne and the others listened to the BBC on the radio and heard the news reports of d-day. You're mind recalls her joy and you forgive your country almost completely for its heartlessly closed borders.
Then you arrive up stairs. The Dutch restored and preserved the annex. Thoughts of Miep, who bravely fed and loved and cared for these eight refugees, flood your mind. Thoughts of Anne who walked to the annex with numerous layers on so that she would have a couple of changes of clothes while she hid away. Thoughts of Anne's mom who made them lay almost breathlessly as the Nazis regularly searched the lower floors never looking behind the giant book case that hid the stairway to the annex. The stowed captives' fear and hope all crash through your heart at once.
Miep had to be careful. she had to ride her bike all over the area to buy them groceries with illegal black market ration cards so that she wouldn't arouse suspicion and delivered the food to them. She also enrolled in correspondence classes and brought the lessons to Anne and her sister. Miep died this week likely never understanding a word of Latin because all those Latin classes she had signed up for were taken - tests and all - by the girls hiding up stairs.
And she brought Anne, who was totally star struck, magazines.
When the preservation society restored the annex they placed plastic on the original walls - on the original wall paper - and over the pictures that Anne had taped to them. Then they cut the walls out of the building; restored the structure to its original strength and put the walls back.
You walk into a room with movie star pictures taped to the wall paper; pictures that Anne taped up herself. Notes and lessons that Anne and her sister taped there with their own young hands; hands that worked the same way that the fingers and thumbs of the Nazis hunting them down worked. And you think of the similarities between the brutes and the captives and you can almost hear the sound of hearts breaking. Then when you reach over to touch the plastic over the picture of a fading starlet; you realize that the cracking sound is not the ghost of past tragedy but the sound of your own heart - at that very moment - breaking for the murdered residents of this attic prison. A prison of hope thanks to Miep's courage and her husband's courage and the others who tried their hardest to keep the Franks safe until the rest of the world stopped the genocide.
Even chatty tourists fall stone silent in that garret. I've been in that small three room space a dozen times and sometimes with dozens of others and you could hear a pin drop. And then slowly, achingly you descend the stairs - the stairs the Nazis dragged the family down - thinking of that scenario played out a million or more times. The hunt, the hunted, the dead and you come to the bottom of the stairs and you see the mission of the Anne Frank house as it is today.
High over head is a sign that says "no genocide was ever cancelled for a lack of executioners" and you see what hopefully - certainly - would make Anne Frank proud. The reminder that we need to be better people: A better species. That we can't waste our lives wondering about making other lives better or even forgetting that other lives need to be better. We must struggle to just MAKE THEM BETTER, to love each other. Stop the pain by having the courage that Miep had.
Miep didn't want to be called a hero because she wanted 'doing your human duty' to be thought of as ordinary not heroic. But sadly we know otherwise. Being a really good human requires heroism. Interestingly, Miep never read Anne's diaries when she had them. She didn't want to invade a young girl's privacy. And later she told a reporter that she was glad that she didn't because the diary's named the names of Anne's protectors and to save herself she would have had to have burned them.
The courage to love and respect Anne Frank blindly; even after the Nazis took Anne. That is a courage the rest of us mere mortals can only hope to have. I hope that I might have half that courage.
May Miep's memory live on forever! Every day Anne Frank lived in that annex was a gift Miep gave her at the potential cost of her own life.