Miep Gies, Protector of Anne Frank, Lives A Hundred Years

Miep Gies, protector of Anne Frank, died today (January 11, 2010), at the age of 100.

I remember her from Anne Frank’s diary; she was the one whose name I had no clue of how to pronounce, (whom I always called the “M-one” in my many devoted readings of the book).   She seemed so young, lively, enterprising, in the diary, bringing Anne and her family whatever sparse treats and necessities could be found and smuggled in by someone inventive and brave.

Reading the news of Mrs. Gies’ death, I felt amazement,  first, that she had been alive all this time,  not only someone who had actually known Anne, but the woman who had preserved Anne’s diary.

The second, and deeper, amazement arose at the thought that Mrs. Gies had lived at all.

It made me think (strangely) of years I had spent in Brooklyn, some time ago, with very difficult neighbors.  For the sake of this post, I’ll call them “Pat and Mike.”  Pat and Mike were not bad people;  they could be jolly, they certainly had friends.  Unfortunately, they didn’t count my husband and me among their friends.  We are both friendly, and we had two beautiful tiny children (well, soon, after moving in, we had two beautiful tiny children).

Still, Pat and Mike could not be won over.  For one thing, my husband and I were artists (or, at least my husband was an artist) and he had converted a storefront space from an active business (a flower shop) to an art studio (which, to Pat and Mike, made the space look unpleasantly abandoned.)

Additionally, we were new to the neighborhood (they’d lived there all their lives.)  We seemed young to own a building;  they imagined our youth to mean that we were financially spoiled (we did have help from our parents).  Worst of all, we rented an apartment that was at the top of our little building to an inter-racial couple.  This was particularly upsetting to Pat and Mike who viewed our particular block as being “the line” between a poorer black and Hispanic neighborhood, which held a large public housing project, and a neighborhood that was largely working/middle class and Italian.  Pat and Mike, who sat on lawn chairs in front of their own small building all day long, every day, viewed themselves as personally holding this line.  They watched the street like literal (if sunburnt) hawks, Pat especially, whose sharp nose, and heavily made-up eyes, gave her a raptor’s profile.

Generally furious at us, Pat and Mike looked for every possible specific transgression.  Our children’s drawing with chalk on the sidewalk led to a call to the police. An attempt to install a wood-burning stove in the back of my husband’s studio quickly generated a raft of complaints and threats.  Even a tree planted in front of our building was quickly chopped down by Mike, before it had a chance to sprout leaves which might flutter onto their property and lead to pedestrian slippage and law suits.  Before another tree could be planted, Mike poured cement into the plot (our plot).

No charges were ever pressed by either side. But sometimes our dealings with Pat and Mike made me think about Miep, and the others she worked with, to hide the Franks.  Of course, it’s a completely silly comparison (and it had nothing to do with our particular tenants.  We didn’t rent to them as a political statement;  they were simply the best candidates for the apartment.)   Still, it was perhaps the first time I could palpably imagine what it might be like to face the scrutiny of angry, sniping, busybodies.

One likes to think that one would be brave in a totalitarian society; that one would save the persecuted.  But I suddenly understood how many Pat and Mikes a totalitarian society might hold, just watching, watching, just waiting to turn you in.  In that kind of situation, under that kind of scrutiny, would I really be brave enough to put myself at risk?  And what about my two small children?  Would I put them a risk too?

In addition to shielding the eight people in the annex above Otto Frank’s business, Mrs. Gies and her husband hid an anti-Nazi university student in their own apartment.  Mrs. Gies was working in the Frank’s office when the Gestapo came (because of an anonymous tip), and was apparently spared arrest because of a shared Austrian heritage with one of the Nazi agents.  Later, however, she went to the Gestapo in Amsterdam to try, without success, to offer a bribe for the release of the eight whom she had hidden.

Anne Frank’s diary is a testament to suffering and transcendence.  Mrs. Gies was a link to that suffering and transcendence but also personified it.   In her memoir, “Anne Frank Remembered,” published in 1987, Ms. Gies wrote, “not a day goes by that I do not grieve for them.”  So many days.  So sad that they’ve come to an end.

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