Meeting Miep Gies

January 18, 2010

Tens of thousands were wiped out in Haiti last week, and because of that you may have missed one other quiet, dignified passing.
Miep Gies, aged 100, died on Monday in a nursing home in the Netherlands.

I have kept half an eye open for that announcement for some years – ever since I met Miep, already an elderly woman, in 1995. [I have decided to call her by her first name here because Ms Gies feels wrong, and because I think she would have comfortable with that informal friendliness.] She was part of an extraordinary period of my life, both personal and professional, and I will never forget it.

You may well know this already, but . . .

Miep Gies, along with her husband Jan, worked for Anne Frank’s father Otto, after the Frank family moved from Germany to the Netherlands in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution of the Jews. From its new base on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht, Otto’s company – Opekta – sold pectin for jam-making, later diversifying into herbs and spices.

With the occupation of the Netherlands, life became increasingly difficult for Jews in general, and the Franks in particular. Desperate to save his company from confiscation, Otto made Opekta over to Jan Gies. But in 1942, the thing the Franks most feared finally happened – Margot, Anne’s sixteen-year-old sister – was summoned for deportation.

Now the Franks went into hiding in the famous Secret Annex behind the bookcase. And as Anne diligently, painstakingly poured out her heart to ‘Dear Kitty’, and as her famous Diary took shape over the next two years of captivity, Miep and a small group of fellow employees risked their lives to help the Franks and their friends, Fritz Pfeffer and the van Pelses.

Miep risked exposure and death on a daily basis as she struggled to bring the food, reading materials, clothes, and news that the Franks needed to survive. But she did even more than that. When the Franks were betrayed and the Annex raided on August 4, 1944, it was Miep who picked up the pages of Anne’s Diary which had been thrown on the floor and abandoned after their arrest. It was many years before she read that Diary, and she handed the pages intact to Otto Frank on his return after the war to the news of his murdered family – his girls taken by typhus in Bergen Belsen days before its liberation; his wife starved in Auschwitz.

So what is my connection to Miep Gies and the dreadful, inspiring story of Anne Frank?

In 1994, newly arrived as Editor at Macmillan Children’s Books in London, I was put in charge of publishing a new edition of the Diary which had languished untouched on the list until our red-hot, crazy-obsessed new team arrived to remake MCB. Full of fervour for the book and its power, we set to work, rejacketing it with a full-cover, haunting image of Anne Frank, and adding a searing new prologue by Rabbi Hugo Gryn, himself an Auschwitz survivor and beloved broadcaster on inter-faith issues in Britain. Forget Hollywood celebs – I was awestruck by this man who had seen so much, suffered so much.

Lunch with Rabbi Gryn was a publishing experience of a whole new kind. What we were doing wasn’t just about sales or marketing – it was about what really mattered: justice, the truth of history, both remembering genocide and calling attention to it today. The Diary of Anne Frank had, and still has, the power to open eyes to all that.

At events in London to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II (co-sponsored by Macmillan), I met Elfriede ‘Fritzi’ Frank, Otto’s second wife, who with her daughter Eva had lived opposite the Franks in Merwedeplain, Amsterdam, before they too had gone into hiding and followed the same route to Auschwitz. In the devastation of the camps after the Nazis fled, Otto stumbled upon Elfriede again – and Eva subsequently became, in effect, stepsister to Anne. Eva lived not far from me in north London; we met a number of times and became quite friendly.

In the flickering candlelight of the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, I shed a few secret tears as we remembered the life and death of Anne Frank. At Rabbi Gryn’s invitation I was possibly the only Gentile at an event commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – mesmerized as I heard a jack-booted Russian general tell how he had been first into the camp, and what he saw. Shutting my eyes in the darkness as hundreds of people around me chanted the Kaddish, the haunting prayer for the dead.

Then a special reception in honour of Anne Frank, where I met Buddy Elias, Anne’s much-loved cousin and only surviving relative (still living, I think, in Switzerland).

And then meeting Miep Gies. Shaking the hand of this quiet, elderly lady without whom there would have been no knowledge of Anne Frank, no Diary. A woman of such courage and forebearance. It was always said that she knew the identity of the Franks’ betrayer, but she never disclosed it or capitalized on it. Instead, every August 4 – the anniversary of the Franks’ arrest – she would stay alone in her house with the curtains drawn, remembering. And, she said, never a day went by in her subsequent life when she did not think about what had happened.

In the years that followed, I kept my connection to Anne Frank’s enduring legacy. In Amsterdam I went on a solo ‘pilgrimage’ to find Anne’s school and the family’s apartment on the Merwedeplein (now, I believe, restored and protected in perpetuity so that persecuted writers can work there). Visiting the House, I picked up The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank – published by Random House – and took it back to Macmillan, where we published it for a UK/Commonwealth audience. It was never going to sell a million, but it was important that it should be read, and kudos to Macmillan for supporting that. Several years later we published a photographic memorial to Anne’s life and times, full of newly released family pictures.

I got to know Gillian Walnes, the inestimable director of the Anne Frank Trust in London (http://www.annefrank.org.uk/), which does so much to expose and prevent persecution in all its forms today, in part through its travelling Anne Frank in the World exhibit. I met young people whose families had been slaughtered in Bosnia; elderly people who had been on the Kindertransports out of Germany during the war (often never seeing their parents again). And I met prisoners whose lives had been changed by the example of Anne Frank as they helped to host the exhibit in their jails.

Very excitingly, one of my sons – a chorister at Westminster Abbey at that time – sung at the Anne Frank Awards for Moral Courage which are given annually to young people who are shining examples of strength and bravery in adversity.

So why is all this so important to us as writers and aspiring writers?

Well, it all comes down to that famous Diary – and to the spirit of Anne Frank, which blazed so strongly in her prose despite the privations and anxiety of her years of confinement. She was, quite simply, a great writer. Not just a great TEENAGE writer, but a great writer. Period. She was ruthlessly honest with herself; in her writing she spoke as she saw. She expressed herself strongly and effectively, and her zest for life shines through. Hearing a radio broadcast about the need for war diaries to be published, she set about readying her work for publication – her instincts married the commerciality of someone who saw her future as an author, with a deep belief in the integrity of what she was doing as a writer.

On my bookshelf is a copy of the Diary of Anne Frank, crudely wrapped for protection. In the prelims are the signatures of Elfriede Frank, Eva Schloss, Buddy Elias, and Rabbi Hugo Gryn. I think I was too awestruck to ask Miep Gies for her autograph.

I knew I was touching history back in 1995 and that before long many of those names would have passed away. Indeed, Rabbi Gryn died in 1996, and Elfriede Frank in 1998.

I still receive a Christmas card every year from the management and staff of the Anne Frank House, and as I write, Otto Frank smiles over his shoulder at me from this year’s card. One day I will get in touch with the House again and see what they are doing over here in the USA.

How can we forget Anne Frank and the way her Diary affected us, touching our view of the past and our own present, and making us ask – what might we be capable of? Because of Anne’s shining spirit, acute observations and extraordinary writing skills, great humanitarian work is being done around the world, decades later, in her name.

As Anne said: ‘I want to go on living after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me! When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?’

Anne Frank, you were the best. And thank you, Miep Gies, for everything. We owe you.

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