Miep Gies was the last of the Secret Annex helpers to survive, passing away in 2010 just shy of her 101st birthday. She and Anne had a special sisterly relationship from the time Anne was four, and naturally people wanted to know more about that. In 1987, she published a book, Anne Frank Remembered, with Alison Leslie Gold ghostwriting, It not only fills out Anne’s story, but Miep’s as well.
Originally Hermine Santrouschitz, Miep was born in Vienna, Austria on February 15, 1909. Food shortages during the First World War prompted many parents to send their children to the Netherlands to be fed and cared for, and a then-eleven year old Hermine was one of these children. A family named Nieuwenhuis took her in, and what was meant to be a three-month stay was extended to another three months and then another. By that time, Hermine had become so immersed in Dutch life, including taking the name, “Miep,” that she never went back to Vienna to live.
Miep had a busy life. She made her own clothes, worked full-time, and went out dancing, where she met her husband, Jan Gies. It was around that time that she started working for the Opekta Company and met Otto Frank.
The two of them were friends right from the start, and one day Otto’s wife, Edith brought Anne to the office. Anne was four at the time and wearing a little white fur coat. She curtsied when she was introduced to Miep and then settled in for a glass of milk. Although she didn’t say much, her eyes told Miep everything.
Miep and Jan went over to the Franks’ house on the Merwedeplein when they had their Saturday get-togethers, so she was able to watch Anne and her sister Margot grow up. Margot was quiet while Anne was the chatterbox. She especially loved talking about movies with fellow movie buffs Miep and Jan.
Naturally, Miep and Jan were very worried about their friends when the Nazis took Holland in 1940 because everyone knew how the Jews were being treated in Germany. The Dutch found ways to stand up to the Nazis, though–when Jews were forced to wear a yellow star, many non-Jews also wore them, or yellow tulips in their lapels. The Dutch would lift their hats in greeting to their Jewish neighbors as another sign of solidarity.
So many people wore yellow stars that the River and Jewish Quarters in Amsterdam were nicknamed the Milky Way and Hollywood, respectively. The show of support continued until the Nazis threatened the Dutch with prison and possibly execution, but this only prompted them to help Jews under the radar.
When the Franks were forced to go into hiding in early July of 1942, the Gies sneaked over to the Merwedeplein wearing raincoats so they could smuggle out clothes and other valuables. The next day, Miep escorted Margot to the hiding place by bicycle while Otto, Edith, and Anne came on foot. They would be joined a few weeks later by the van Pels family and then dentist Fritz Pfeffer.
For the next two years, Miep, Bep, and the other helpers went out every day to get food and other necessities for the Secret Annex inhabitants, which was tricky because no one else was to notice all the extra food and goods coming into the office or extra trash coming out. Some of it, like the bread, milk, and potatoes, were easily passed off as being for the office workers, but anything else required stealth.
Every visit to the Annex was treasured by its inhabitants. Miep remembered Anne always greeting her from the top of the stairs with “Hello, Miep. What is the news?”
There are so many details that make Anne Frank Remembered such a gold mine, especially for those who are just beginning to learn about Anne and her world. All of a sudden she’s not a black-and-white face smiling remotely, but an exuberant girl with deep-set gray-green eyes with green flecks. We find out personal details that aren’t in the diary, such as when Miep walks in on Anne as she writes and is unnerved by the intense concetration on her face.
The book was published before the real identities of the people involved were made public, but it doesn’t matter. The information it gives is fascinating and unique.
It’s also heartbreaking. Miep and Jan witnessed Amsterdam hitting rock bottom towards the end of the war, when people were desperate for food that wasn’t there and burning anything they could for fuel. Miep herself dreamed about hot cocoa so much she could almost taste it.
Miep was in the office when Otto Frank found out his daughters weren’t coming back, Fortunately for him and the world, she had saved Anne’s diary following the arrest on August 4, 1944. Otto lived with the Gies family for seven years after he came back from Auschwitz and stayed friends with them for the rest of their lives.
Naturally, a movie was made out of Anne Frank Remembered. Retitled The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank, it was originally broadcast on CBS April 17, 1988 and starred Mary Steenburgen as Miep. It was a pretty major hit, scoring an Emmy for screenwriter William Hanley and nominated for five more awards.
I didn’t get to see the movie until a few years later, when I found out it was going to be broadcast on Channel 36 in the Bay Area. My parents and I were already living in Auburn at the time, but broadcast signals were strong enough that we were able to get a fairly discernable taping. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t unwatchable, either. It didn’t take much for The Attic to become one of my favorite Anne Frank movies. When I found it on DVD I was psyched.
It’s amazing what time and a clear picture can do. For years I fondly assumed that I was looking at the interiors of the real 263 Prinsengracht on my fuzzy VHS copy. Now, however, my docent brain has collided with my film studies brain and I have to wonder: Was the movie really filmed in the Annex? Rooms in old buildings can be tiny and Anne’s room in particular is long and narrow. Could a film crew have fit in there?
The short answer is: Nope. While many of the exteriors were filmed in Amsterdam with a few interiors apparently shot at the Prinsengracht (mostly hallways and staircases), the film most definitely did not take us inside the real Secret Annex. For one thing, the walls aren’t streaked from water damage; for another, the paper covering the bathroom window has a different pattern than the real one.
The biggest tipoffs are Anne’s walls, because the pictures look a little too precisely hung as opposed to the real room’s teenaged haphazardry. Still, it’s all pretty impressive and looks more authentic than most films in the Anne Frank canon, even if it’s unusual in other ways.
Like the casting. Pretty much no one in the movie got their roles because they resembled their real-life counterparts, but the cast is made up of mostly British actors who caught the spirit of their parts wonderfully. The two highlights for me are Mary Steenburgen’s steady, reliable Miep and Paul Scofield’s quietly distinguished Otto Frank, although I like the other actors as well.
The only one who strikes a slightly false note is Lisa Jacobs, who played Anne. She mostly looked the part, but she speaks in a French accent all through the movie.
The Attic gets criticized constantly by Anne Frank buffs because of this, but I still like it. The movie was done with a lot of respect and love for Miep and everyone connected to the Secret Annex. It hits all the nostalgia feels. Plus it’s fun to see bits of Amsterdam and 263 Prinsengracht, and many of the shots are nicely composed, although the film could have been lit a little better.
Despite her fame and renown, Miep Gies always insisted that she was no one special. She wrote:
I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more–much more–during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bore witness.
–Prologue, Anne Frank Remembered
Another review is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all…
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Gies, Miep with Alison Leslie Gold. Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped To Hide the Frank Family. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.