Anyone familiar with Anne Frank’s story knows that the eight Jews hidden in the annex at Prinsengracht 263, Amsterdam, were helped by various employees at Otto Frank’s firm, among them Miep Gies. Miep was hired in 1933 to run Otto Frank’s complaint department and over time handled an increasing number of tasks within the office. If all you read is Anne Frank’s diary, the actions of these helpers on the “outside” is naturally almost always in the background. I recently finished reading Anne Frank Remembered, written by Gies (with Alison Leslie Gold) and first published in 1987. It perfectly complements Anne’s diary, describing the incredible difficulties Miep and the other helpers had in supplying the Franks, the Van Pels, and Fritz Pfeffer with food, news, books, clothes, and most importantly, encouragement. Gies eloquently describes the rigors of life in occupied Holland, with ever stricter food rationing and ever greater Nazi control and surveillance. Added to the pressure of working in an office, knowing all the while that eight people are silently hiding upstairs, was Miep’s realization that she could not afford to get arrested (even though she and her husband were also hiding a young student in their own apartment) or even sick, given the vital lifeline she represented to the trapped occupants of Prinsengracht.
Of the four helpers involved in the hiding scheme, Miep is best known since she recovered Anne’s diary after the Gestapo left with the family, which papers she then kept safe in her desk drawer for the duration of the war, awaiting Anne’s return.
In my Introduction to From Day to Day, I discuss at some length the unique character of a diary as a written document, as well as the fragile nature of any diary written during wartime, or in a prison. I point out that it was so easy for someone’s most intimate work to get lost, stolen, discarded or seized, destroying any chance it would ever see the light of day.
I had not realized, until I read Anne Frank Remembered, just how lucky we are to have Anne’s diary at all. Anne’s older sister Margot also kept a diary while in hiding, but it was never found, its fate unknown to this day.
What I did learn about Anne’s diary is the following:
>Anne kept all her personal papers in her father’s briefcase. When the Gestapo officer arrived at the annex, he decided to use this briefcase to carry away all the occupants’ valuables (cash, jewelry, etc.) and therefore simply dumped all of Anne’s papers on the apartment floor without a second look.
>The only reason Miep escaped arrest at the time of the raid was the fact that the Gestapo agent, Karl Silberbauer, was Viennese, as was Miep, and, recognizing his unmistakable Viennese accent, she asked him about his Austrian roots. For whatever reason, this was sufficient for Silberbauer to spare Miep from the fate of all the other helpers who were hauled away. But for this exemption, Gies would never have had the opportunity to retrieve the diary.
>Miep never once looked at Anne’s manuscript for the duration of the war, feeling it would be an invasion of Anne’s privacy. Once Miep learned after the war that Anne had died, she was even more determined never to read Anne’s writings for fear of all the painful memories it would provoke, notwithstanding Otto Frank’s repeated requests that she read Anne’s remarkable observations and musings. Only after the book had been in print for some time did Gies finally relent, and read it straight through at one sitting. While she was glad she did, claiming that she could once again hear “Anne’s voice come back to speak to me,” Gies also admitted that, had she known of the contents of the diary during the war, she would have burned the manuscript “because it would have been too dangerous for people about whom Anne had written.”
So Anne Frank’s diary exists because the Gestapo ignored it, it was rescued by the one person miraculously not arrested on the day of the roundup, who had the presence of mind to collect the scattered papers, and was left undisturbed for months in a desk drawer, while, if its contents had been known, it would have immediately been destroyed at the hands of a well-intentioned friend.
Such are the vagaries of diaries. As I recount in my Introduction, the fate of many other known diaries (such as Margot’s) was not nearly so fortunate; the number of unknown diaries which disappeared during the course of the war will forever remain a mystery.
All we can be is eternally thankful that such an eloquent window into the day-to-day lives of remarkable people such as Anne Frank and Odd Nansen survived despite daunting odds.
PS: In one of the many, many ironies with which World War II abounds, Miep Gies was born in Vienna (as noted above). She was only sent to Holland as a young girl in the aftermath of World War I when she failed to thrive in war-ravaged Austria. It was hoped that the abundance of milk, cheese and other good food in Holland would help young Miep to recover. Not only did she recover, Miep fell in love with Holland and never returned to the land of her birth. This turned out to be a most fortuitous decision—in spite of her sickly childhood Miep Gies died on January 11, 2010, five weeks shy of her 101st birthday.