Soon after the SS arrested Anne Frank on August 4, 1944, Miep Gies—one of the helpers who’d hidden the young girl from the Nazis for the past two years—snuck back into her room to see what had been left behind. Retrieving Anne’s checkered diary, notebooks and loose handwritten papers, Gies tucked the trove in the bottom drawer of her desk, pledging to “keep everything safely for Anne until she came back,” as Gies recalled in her autobiography.
Gies safeguarded Anne’s writings through the end of the war in May 1945 and into that summer, when Anne’s father, Otto Frank, returned home, the only survivor of the eight Jews who lived together in the “Secret Annex” of an Amsterdam office building. Shortly after Otto learned of his daughters’ deaths, Gies returned the diary to him, saying, “Here is … Anne’s legacy to you.”
Aside from Otto himself, Gies arguably deserves the most credit for bringing Anne’s diary to a global audience. Without her intervention, the young writer’s words—which “gave a child’s face to the incomprehensible truths of the Holocaust,” according to National Geographic’s Erin Blakemore—might never have reached the wider world. But preserving Anne’s diary was only one part of Gies’ legacy. In addition to helping the Franks, the van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer, she and her husband hid a Dutch university student who refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Nazis. Later in life, Gies traveled widely, sharing Anne’s story with students and other members of the public.
Thirteen years after Gies’ death at age 100, a limited series from National Geographic that’s streaming on Hulu and Disney+, focuses on the life of Anne’s protector. Titled “A Small Light,” the show follows Gies’ transformation from a carefree young woman to an individual who risked everything to help others. Its title is taken from one of Gies’ most famous quotes:
I don’t like being called a hero because no one should ever think you have to be special to help others. Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can turn on a small light in a dark room.
What is “A Small Light” based on?
The series’ creators, husband-and-wife duo Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, started working on the project six years ago after a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Working with a local researcher, the couple set out to examine Gies’ life beyond her 1987 autobiography, Anne Frank Remembered, and a 1995 documentary of the same name. They discovered that Gies and her husband, Jan, had hidden more people than previously known, including two nurses.
“When we started digging, we started putting together these pieces that I don’t know that anybody had ever put together before,” Phelan tells the New York Times’ Claire Moses.
Starring Bel Powley as Gies, Joe Cole as Jan and Liev Schreiber as Otto, “A Small Light” draws heavily on Gies’ memoir and the showrunners’ original research. Anne (played by Billie Boullet) is a supporting character, with more attention paid to the Gieses’ “terror as they smuggle people and food, talk to soldiers, and hide from bombs,” all while agonizing “over whether they’re ever, truly, doing enough,” writes Mira Fox for the Forward. Instead of ending with Anne’s final diary entry, written three days before her arrest, the series dramatizes the aftermath of World War II, showing how Otto grieved for his murdered family and friends before resolving to honor Anne by publishing her writings.
“Miep is an ordinary person who history has mythologized like Anne Frank,” Rater tells the Daily Beast’s Jacqueline Cutler. “I want to tell the story about the ordinary person.”
Who was Miep Gies?
Born into an impoverished Catholic family in Vienna in 1909, Gies was originally named Hermine Santrouschitz. As a child, she was severely malnourished due to lack of money and food shortages associated with World War I. Hoping to secure a better life for their daughter, Gies’ parents sent her abroad to the Netherlands as part of a program for children like her to regain their strength under the care of foster families. She arrived in Leiden in 1920 and remained with her foster family, the Nieuwenburgs, when they moved to Amsterdam in 1924. They eventually adopted Gies, giving her the Dutch nickname “Miep.”
Gies started working for Otto, who operated a pectin-packaging company in Amsterdam, in 1933. The two quickly developed a close rapport, discussing the worsening political crisis in the Franks’ home country of Germany. “We agreed that it was just as well to turn one’s back on Hitler’s Germany and be secure and protected by our adopted homeland, Holland,” Gies later recalled. Joining Otto after he settled into life abroad, the rest of the Frank family—his wife, Edith, and daughters, Margot and Anne—soon became friends with Gies, too. Gies and Jan, then her fiancé, often joined the Franks at their home for dinners or Saturday afternoon gatherings.
The Franks’ hopes of finding refuge from the Nazis proved short-lived. In May 1940, Germany invaded, defeating the Dutch army in just five days. Anti-Jewish policies followed in quick succession, among them a ban on Jews owning their own companies. To circumvent this measure, Otto asked Jan and colleague Victor Kugler to take over the business, leaving him to serve in an advisory role.
Around this same time, in July 1941, Gies and Jan wed in a ceremony attended by Otto and Anne. Then 12 years old, Anne gazed at Gies’ gold ring “dreamily,” perhaps “imagining that some day she, too, would marry a tall, handsome man” like Jan, wrote Gies in her autobiography. “She treated us almost as though we were two movie stars rather than two perfectly ordinary Dutch people who had simply married.”
In spring 1942, Otto approached Gies with a request, asking if she would help take care of his family while they were in hiding. “Of course,” she replied.
“I asked no further questions. The less I knew, the less I could say in an interrogation,” Gies later recalled. “I knew when the time was right he would tell me … everything else I would need to know. I felt no curiosity. I had given my word.”
How did Gies help the residents of the Secret Annex?
On July 5, Margot received orders to report to a forced labor camp, prompting Otto to accelerate the plan to go into hiding in Otto’s office building at Prinsengracht 263. Tucked behind a door that was later covered by a bookcase, the hiding place consisted of two small bedrooms, a common space that doubled as a kitchen during the day and a bedroom at night, a bathroom, and an attic.
The next morning, Gies escorted Margot there, relying on heavy rain to mask their movements from the authorities. Biking alongside each other, the pair “pedaled evenly, not too fast, in order to appear like two everyday working girls on their way to work on a Monday morning.” They arrived at the office building-turned-hiding place without incident; Otto, Edith and Anne joined Margot later that day. To the outside world, the Frank family appeared to have vanished without a trace. A cover story spread that they had fled to Switzerland.
Otto’s business partner, Hermann van Pels, and his wife and son arrived a week later. Pfeffer, a dentist who was acquainted with the Franks and van Pels, joined too after asking Gies if she happened to know of a hiding place. Eight people crammed into a small space, unable to make noise during the day and completely reliant on six helpers, the annex’s residents lived in constant fear of being caught. According to the Anne Frank House, they passed the time by reading, writing, studying and napping. When the warehouse laborers who worked below the annex went home for lunch or the end of the workday, the helpers, most of whom worked in the office, visited those in hiding, bringing supplies and news from the outside world.
“Bep [Voskuijl] took care of bread and milk,” said Gies in a 1992 interview. “Kugler and [Johannes] Kleiman kept the business going and brought books and magazines along with them for the people in hiding. And my job was fetching vegetables and meat.” Anne noted as much in her diary, writing, “Miep is just like a pack mule, she fetches and carries so much. Almost every day she manages to get hold of some vegetables for us, brings everything in shopping bags on her bicycle.”
All of the helpers risked their lives to protect those in hiding. As a social worker, Jan had more freedom to move around the city than most. He was involved in the Dutch resistance, drawing on his connections to acquire ration cards and illegal papers.
“He brought books from the library, he visited the hiding place every day and went up and kept them company because they were lonely,” Alison Leslie Gold, co-author of Gies’ autobiography, tells the Independent’s Sheila Flynn. “He found [a] hiding place for the landlady” and others. Jan, Gold adds, was “like a double trouble, because you don’t even know what else he did—and you’ll never know [because] he was too modest to even tell anyone much of anything.”
The Franks had no idea that the Gieses were also sheltering Kuno van der Horst, a young man whose refusal to declare his loyalty to the Nazis meant he could be sent to Germany as a forced laborer. As Gies recounted in her autobiography, van der Horst’s mother was hiding the Gieses’ Jewish landlady in her home, so when she asked the couple to hide her son, they “felt an obligation to reciprocate.” Van der Horst passed the days by playing chess and reading in the Gieses’ apartment, but “he tolerated confinement in his room poorly” and sometimes left his hiding place to attend horse races, according to one of Anne’s biographers, Melissa Müller.
On the morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a man brandishing a revolver entered Gies’ office and told the helpers to stay put. He and his colleagues searched the building, discovering the Secret Annex and its inhabitants. (The question of how the Nazis found the hiding place and who, if anyone, betrayed the people in hiding is the subject of much debate.)
The men arrested the eight people in hiding, as well as Kugler and Kleiman, but left Gies and Voskuijl behind. A few days later, Gies walked into the Gestapo’s local headquarters and attempted to bribe Karl Silberbauer, the SS officer in charge, to free those he’d arrested. Her efforts failed, but she was allowed to leave without incident.
What happened to Gies after World War II?
The months that followed the arrest brought fuel and food shortages, resulting in a famine known as the Hunger Winter. But the end of the war was on the horizon, and the Allies liberated Amsterdam in May 1945. Jan started working at an aid center for those returning from concentration camps, keeping an ear out for news of their friends. But he heard nothing until June 3, when Otto showed up at the door of the Gieses’ home. “Miep, Edith is not coming back,” he said. “But I have great hope for Anne and Margot.” This hope faded in July, when Otto received news of his daughters’ deaths, leading Gies to return Anne’s diary to him.
She’d never read the pages, viewing such behavior as a violation of Anne’s privacy, and she refused to do so until the diary’s second printing in late 1947. When Gies finally opened the book, she read it in one sitting, sensing “Anne voice’s [tumbling] out of the book, so full of life, moods, curiosity, feelings. She was no longer gone and destroyed. She was alive again in my mind.”
Otto stayed with the Gieses for some seven years, witnessing the birth of their son Paul in 1950. He eventually moved to Switzerland, where he remarried to a fellow Holocaust survivor. He remained close to the Gieses until his death in 1980.
Though Gies “lived quietly in Amsterdam [as] a homemaker” for much of her life, she entered the public eye following the publication of her memoir in 1987, traveling “widely as a living link to Anne Frank [who] spoke on the lessons of the Holocaust,” as the New York Times’ Richard Goldstein wrote in 2010. Every August 4, the anniversary of the Secret Annex residents’ arrest, the Gieses “remained at their Amsterdam home, [where] they withdrew from the world and reflected on the lost,” Goldstein added. Jan died in 1993 at age 87, and Gies died in 2010 at age 100, just one month shy of her 101st birthday.
Gies holds a large degree of responsibility for preserving Anne’s diary. But things might have turned out differently if she’d read the journal after the arrest. “Had I read it,” wrote Gies in her autobiography, “I would have had to burn the diary because it would have been too dangerous to people whom Anne had written about.” After reading the diary for the first time, she concluded:
When I had read the last word, I didn’t feel the pain I’d anticipated. I was glad I’d read it at last. The emptiness in my heart was eased. … My young friend had left a remarkable legacy to the world. But always, every day of my life, I’ve wished that things had been different. That even if Anne’s diary had been lost to the world Anne and the others might have somehow been saved. Not a day goes by that I do not grieve for them.