BY VIC ALHADEFF
June 1, 2016
Few people qualify as a hero: risking everything to save others; possessing a sense of humanity so instinctive they are willing to confront brutal authorities so that others may live.
Miep Gies was a hero. Defying the most barbaric regime in history, she played a vital role in keeping eight people alive for two harrowing years. Using illegal ration cards, she kept them supplied with meat and vegetables when doing so meant a death sentence at the hands of the Nazis, smuggling the supplies beneath her coat through the streets of Amsterdam despite the fact being caught meant a firing squad.
One of those eight was Anne Frank, who famously wrote a diary while hiding with her family and four others in an annexe above her father’s offices on 263 Prinsengracht. A three-tiered bookcase concealed the stairway to the annexe, its windows covered with floral paper to prevent anyone inadvertently peering out.
A gift to Anne on her 13th birthday just days before the family went into hiding, the diary has been translated into 70 languages and sold 40 million copies.
Anne, who with her sister died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen weeks before British forces liberated the concentration camp, should have turned 87 tomorrow.
Gies was born into a working-class Austrian Catholic family as Hermine Santruschitz and was adopted by a family that already had six children. They moved to Amsterdam, where she was employed as a secretary by Anne’s father Otto at Opekta, a firm that sold herbs and spices.
One morning in 1942, she once explained to Inquirer in an interview, he summoned her. “He asked me to sit down,” she recalled. “I have something important to tell you — a secret. We plan on hiding in this house. Are you prepared to help with provisions?” I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ I thought it went without saying.”
It didn’t go without saying. More than 100,000 Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust — 75 per cent of the community and a high percentage compared with other Nazi-occupied countries. Aged 24 and despite witnessing thousands of Jews being transported to the death camps, Gies delivered the life-saving provisions in a carefully devised routine. For two years she acted as confidante and support, sometimes visiting the annexe several times a day and even sleeping there on occasion. Not even her foster parents were aware of her clandestine activities.
She also kept the fugitives informed of the deportations. “Those were terrible events and I relayed them honestly. After a while, my husband said, ‘Miep, don’t tell them everything. These people are incarcerated. They’re not free to move. It’s depressing enough as it is. Dilute the truth.’
“I did, but that didn’t get past Anne. She sensed there was more. She would take me aside and question me extensively. I told her everything. That was Anne.”
On August 4, 1944, 25 months after going into hiding, the eight were betrayed, the identity of the individual responsible still unknown. Gestapo officers burst into the building, commander Karl Silberbauer even remarking to Otto: “What a lovely daughter you have.”
“I looked up and a small man came in, pointing a revolver at me,” Gies recounted. “ ‘Sit down. Don’t even flinch.’ I went numb. I couldn’t say anything.”
The Gestapo officer “rounded on me. ‘Papers! Identity papers.’ I gave them to him. He thrashed them against my face and started to swear. ‘Have you no shame? Helping Jewish scum. You’re a traitor to your country. This crime demands the highest penalty and I think you know what that is.’ I did not answer. He seethed with anger. He paced the room, swearing at me. He departed. I heard them trudging down the stairs.”
Gies and the other employees hastened to the annexe. “I saw the pages of Anne’s diary. Scattered. We were stunned. We gathered it and went downstairs. I put it in my desk. That’s where it remained until Mr Frank returned” from Auschwitz — unaware he was the only one to have survived and that his wife, Edith, had died of starvation while saving scraps of food for her daughters in Auschwitz.
“You can imagine how happy we were to have him back,” Gies continued. “I still had hope for the children. I sorted the post and brought it to him. Suddenly, an icy silence descended — a silence which still speaks. He’d gone bone-white. He gave me this letter: ‘Anne Frank and Margot Frank perished in Bergen-Belsen, where I worked as a nurse. M Brandes Brilleslijper.’ I opened my desk drawer. I gathered every volume of the diary and presented them to Mr Frank: ‘This is the legacy of your daughter Anne.’ ”
Gies died in 2010 from injuries sustained in a fall. She had been honoured by Germany and Austria, knighted by Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, declared Righteous Among the Nations by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and had the planet 99949 named Miepgies in her honour. She was 100. And a hero.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.
Download the PDF: 2016.06.11_Alhadeff_TheAustralian_MiepGiesRiskedAll