Protector of Anne Frank, guardian of her diary
Miep Gies, who has died aged 100, found and preserved the diary of Anne Frank after the girl and her family were caught by the Germans
Miep Gies: MIEP GIES, who has died aged 100, wrote towards the end of her life: “I am not a hero. I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did – and much more.”
She was, however, the material from which the truest, most decent, most steadfast heroes are made. She found and, at great personal risk, preserved the diary of Anne Frank for posterity in 1944 after the girl and her family were caught in hiding by Germans.
More than that, she was, earlier, the friend who looked after the Frank family in their now world-famous Amsterdam annexe. She shopped for them, watched out for them, cheered them up and gave the adolescent Anne her first – and only – pair of high-heeled shoes. Without Gies, the family’s two years in hiding would have been impossible.
After their capture, she tried to buy the people of the annexe back from Gestapo officers, only to be called “ schweinehund” and thrown out. When Anne’s father, Otto, returned from the camps as the Franks’ only survivor, he lived as one of her family for some years.
In the 1950s, as the diary began to win a reputation, Gies was one of a wide range of people investigated on suspicion that she had betrayed the Franks to the Nazis. Otto stopped the investigation with a sentence: “If you suspect Miep, you suspect me.”
She was the last human link with the concealed but intense life in the secret building on the Prinsengracht canal, now known as the Anne Frank House, which attracts 500,000 visitors a year.
Like the Franks, who were German Jews, Gies was not Dutch. She was born Hermine Santruschitz in Vienna, Austria. But, because her body became wasted through undernourishment during the first World War, she was sent with other Austrian workers’ children to be revitalised in the Netherlands.
She took to Holland, reached the top of her Dutch language class within months and was happy when her stay was prolonged. By agreement with her natural parents, she was adopted by a middle-class Dutch family, the Nieuwenburgs, while keeping her Austrian citizenship – it was the Nieuwenburgs who nicknamed her Miep.
As an adolescent, Gies read Baruch Spinoza and Isaac Beeckman, kept a diary and – like Anne – had “a deep longing for an understanding of life”. In 1933, she answered a newspaper advertisement for a job in Otto Frank’s firm, which sold pectin for home jam-making. After a few weeks on jam-making duties, she was given an office job, dealing with customer complaints.
In 1941, after the German occupation of Holland, she became a Dutch citizen by marrying Jan Gies, a social worker. The Frank family provided their wedding breakfast and Anne, then 12, gave them a silver plate.
In June 1942, Anne’s elder sister, Margot, was sent papers ordering her to report for forced labour in Germany. The Franks, with others, went into hiding in the annexe with a concealed entrance accessible from Otto’s office. Jan, active in the Dutch resistance, got them forged ration cards. Miep, with 10 mouths to feed in a time of increasing scarcity, did so by cultivating relationships with black-market shopkeepers.
Her memoir, Anne Frank Remembered(1982), gives a unique glimpse of Anne’s intentness as a writer. Interrupting her at work without meaning to, Gies saw “a look on her face I’d never seen before – of dark concentration, as if she had a throbbing headache. The look pierced me and I was speechless. She was suddenly another person, writing at the table. It was as if I had interrupted an intimate moment in a very, very private friendship.”
On August 4th, 1944, the police came. Gies heard the sound of the fugitives’ feet as they were led down the annexe staircase like “beaten dogs”.
According to her book, the investigating German officer was about to arrest Gies as an accomplice when she noticed his Viennese accent. She mentioned the link and, after some thought, he said: “From personal sympathy . . . from me personally, you can stay. But God help you if you run away. Then we take your husband.”
Later, Gies retrieved Anne’s clothbound diary and shawl. In June 1945, Otto returned alone from Auschwitz. Margot and Anne had died in the Belsen concentration camp of typhoid weeks before the liberation.
Each year, on August 4th, Gies and her husband would stay silently at home, marking the day of the family’s arrest. Only when the diary was published in 1947 could Gies bring herself to read it. She realised that if she had known its contents before liberation she would have had to destroy it. It gave too many people away. In 1950, when she had a son, Gies used Anne’s shawl to keep her baby warm.
Gies later said the diary had done much good, but she still wished daily that the family had survived instead. “A human being is more than a book.”
Miep and Jan continued to live in Amsterdam until Jan’s death in 1993. On her 100th birthday she asked that the many “unnamed heroes” who helped Dutch Jews to escape deportation and death should be remembered: “I would like to name one, my husband Jan. He was a resistance man who said nothing but did a lot. People like him existed in thousands but were never heard.”
Her son, Paul, and three grandchildren survive her.
Miep Gies: born February 15th, 1909; died January 11th, 2010