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Megan Wells brought Miep Gies to life in a poignant and emotional portrayal on June 23 as part of the virtual Levy Lecture Series sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation. Compared to the historical women who have been portrayed in other lectures earlier this year – such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Florence Nightingale, and Queen Elizabeth – Miep Gies is largely unknown, but her contribution to history is monumental.
“The Diary of a Young Girl,” also known as Anne Frank’s diary, was first published in Dutch in 1947. Since then, it has been read by at least 30 million people and translated into nearly 70 languages. Anne’s story was turned into a play and a movie, and the place where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis became a museum that is open to the public.
None of this would have happened if not for the discretion of Miep Gies: She is the one who retrieved, saved and hid the diary after the Frank family was arrested. She later returned it to Otto Frank, the only member of the family to survive the war.
Miep Gies was born in Austria in 1909; her birth name was Hermine Santrouschitz. During and after World War I, food was scarce and her health suffered. Luck intervened: she was accepted into a program that paired malnourished Austrian children with foster families in other countries where there were no food shortages. She was sent to the Netherlands and paired with a loving Dutch family. She thrived with this new family and they allowed her to extend her stay. She went back to Austria once – years later – to visit her parents. They recognized how happy she was living in the Netherlands and agreed she should return there, the country she considered home, and to stay with her adopted family.
After graduating high school, Miep started doing office work. She had worked in Otto Frank’s factory as an office assistant since 1933. The factory manufactured pectin, a key ingredient for making jam. If used incorrectly, the jam was filled with lumps and irate customers called up to complain. Her job at the factory, in Ms. Wells’ captivating retelling, was to “get out the lumps” and provide assistance to frustrated customers over the telephone. Otto Frank and Miep shared the same sense of humor and had a good rapport. She became close to his two daughters. He introduced her to Jan Gies, the man whom she would marry in 1941. All four of the Franks attended Miep and Jan’s wedding. The two couples were friends with one another.
The Nazis invaded and occupied the Netherlands in May 1940. Laws and regulations against the Jews, limiting where they could gather and what they could do to earn a living, began almost immediately.
Otto was forced to sell his factory or risk having it fall into Nazi hands. Jan Gies and a trusted employee, Victor Kugler, set up a company, Gies & Co., that took over running the factory. Soon Jews were forced to wear a Star of David on their clothes. On July 5, 1942, Margot Frank received a summons telling her to report to a “work camp.”
That decided it: Otto, his wife Edith, and their two daughters, 16-year old Margot and 13-year old Anne, needed to go into hiding immediately. Otto was ready, though, as he and a few trusted employees had been painstakingly preparing a secret annex behind the factory to accommodate his family. The four Franks moved there the next day and were soon joined by four other Jewish friends who needed a place to hide.
Ms. Wells describes how each day Miep would go grocery shopping, trying desperately not to attract attention with the items or quantities she purchased. She and her husband were two people, but she was actually shopping for 10. She had rules that she followed to avoid detection. She never carried more than one bag of groceries. She visited different shops at different days of the week. She hid food in her coat. Her husband, Jan, was active in the Dutch Resistance, and he managed to get her forged ration coupons. Somehow, she was able to gather and cook enough food so that no one went hungry or became malnourished, and she did not arouse suspicions.
Miep was close to Anne and noticed the tension between Anne and her mother, and how her mother seemed to be more comfortable around Margot. Anne was more like her father – gentler, warmer, more affectionate. Miep was heartbroken when the Frank family and their four friends were arrested.
Miep could have been arrested, too: It was against the law to hide Jews. She recognized the Viennese accent of the arresting officer and spoke to him in German, saying they were once neighbors and to have pity on this poor family. The officer became flustered and yelled at her, but did not hurt or harm her.
The rest were arrested and imprisoned. The next day, Miep went to where they were being held and tried unsuccessfully to bribe the officials on duty to release the family.
After the Frank family was arrested, Miep went upstairs to the annex to gather whatever personal or valuable items she could to hold for the family, hopeful that after the war she would return them.
She found Anne’s diary and a bunch of assorted papers, all in Anne’s handwriting, and hid them in her desk. Mipe was so discreet that she never read any of the diary. Even after the diary was first published in 1947, she did not read it. Otto Frank implored her to read it, which is the only reason she relented. Eventually she wrote a book “Anne Frank Remembered” about her experience as one of the “helpers” who kept the family safe for those two stressful years. It has never been determined who betrayed the family to the police.
Miep and Jan remained friends with Otto Frank for the rest of their lives. In 1953, Otto remarried another Holocaust survivor, Fritzi Geiringer, a widow. Fritzi’s daughter, Eva, born the same year as Anne, also survived and lived with them.
They moved to Switzerland to be near other surviving relatives; Otto died there in 1980 at the age of 91. Miep’s husband, Jan, died in the Netherlands in 1993 at the age of 87. Miep died in the Netherlands in 2010, one month before what would have been her 101st birthday.
Ms. Wells as Miep captured her poise, discretion, and generous spirit. Miep was embarrassed by all of the attention, awards, and honors she received, saying “I am not a hero. I am not a special person. I don’t want attention. I did what any decent person would have done.”
Megan Wells’ next Zoom lecture will be at 1 p.m. on June 30, when she tells the story “Chicago’s Fire.” Levy Lectures are always free, but registration is required at the Levy Senior Center Foundation website.
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