Miep Gies, Hero of the Holocaust

In March 1945, Anne Frank died of typhus while imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen, a German work camp. Though she lost her life to the horrors of the Holocaust, her thoughts and dreams live on in her diary, which her father sought to have published after her death. She's remembered not only for telling the truth about what the war was like, but also for her enduring optimism about life and human nature. Today, we're exploring the life of Miep Gies, one of the people who helped nurture the young girl's optimism during one of the darkest times in history.

For decades, schoolchildren the world over have learned about Anne Frank. The teenager who hid with her family from the Nazis, in an attempt to escape the concentration camps where she later died, has become a household name. She's considered one of the great inspirations of the 20th century, thanks to her diary, recovered after her death and published as The Diary of a Young Girl. It's been reprinted in more than 60 languages, topped best-seller lists, and been adapted into a play and an Oscar-winning movie. Frank's months in the secret annex are well-known, as are her thoughts about her friends and family who hid with her, her sexual awakening, her hopes and fears.

From time to time, Frank's writing turned to the scant six visitors her family sometimes received in the annex. As we grow up, we learn less about them than we do about the Frank family, but they're as deserving of international fame as Frank was, because they were the brave friends who worked to keep the Franks hidden. Their names were Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman,  Bep Voskuijl, Johannes Hendrik Voskuijl, Jan Gies and Miep Gies. Miep Gies died Jan. 11, 2010, five years ago, and at age 100 she was the last of the group to survive. We remember her remarkable courage and humble modesty today.

When Gies took a job in 1933 working for Otto Frank at his Opekta office, an Amsterdam branch of a company that made pectin and spices, she couldn't have imagined the chain of events that would be set in motion a decade later. As the German occupation of the Netherlands intensified and the Franks and their friends realized they must go into hiding, the Opekta premises became their home. The business had to continue running just as it always had in order to protect the family – any change in routine might prompt Nazi authorities to investigate. So it was up to Gies and her co-workers to maintain the business for Otto Frank as he hid, as well as bring food and supplies to his family.

Beyond bringing food and other necessities, Gies was a key source of moral support for Anne Frank and the others. She brought Anne her first pair of high-heeled shoes, baked a holiday cake, gave birthday gifts to everyone, and provided books and news of the world. Feeding and buoying the spirits of eight refugees was no easy feat. Gies had to turn to the underground resistance for extra food ration cards, and she avoided raising suspicion by cycling all over the city to visit different grocers, never purchasing too much from any one store. All the while, she had to maintain daily operations at Opekta, and to make matters more dangerous, she and her husband, Jan, were hiding an anti-Nazi university student in their own apartment.

It's a life that would seem daunting to most, even if it only lasted a few weeks. Gies carried it on for more than two years, and in the end, when it unraveled and Nazi authorities arrested the refugees, Gies gathered her remarkable courage one more time to avoid being arrested herself. By standing up to a Nazi officer, she was able to remain free and continue her work with the resistance. And when she stood her ground and continued running the Opekta office, she was able to save Frank's diary, turning it over to Otto Frank, the lone survivor of the family, when he was released from captivity in the concentration camps.

She and the other Opekta helpers were heroes by any definition, but perhaps the most notable thing about Gies was her refusal to accept the idea that what she did was remarkable. In fact, she plainly stated that she didn’t wish to be considered a hero. Shocking? Not when you consider her reasoning, as explained to a group of schoolchildren in a 1997 online chat:

"Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty. I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary."

Risking arrest and execution for treason – every day, for two years – was simply her human duty, in Gies' eyes. She was one of tens of thousands of Dutch people who hid Jews from the Nazis, as she stressed in the introduction to her memoir, Anne Frank Remembered: the Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family. But just as Anne Frank has come, through her words, to represent the millions who perished in the Holocaust, Gies is a single individual who represents the thousands who helped.

Gies never believed that she was special, but we beg to differ. A woman of deep resolve, she didn’t go through any soul-searching when asked to help hide the Franks. She immediately agreed – and, one suspects, would have done it again and again if asked.

Anne Frank famously wrote, "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." Gies must have been one of the people who inspired Frank's optimism.