On the fourth day of every August for the past 50 years, Miep Gies has closed her curtains and refused to answer the doorbell or telephone at her Amsterdam home. It was on that day in 1944 that she last saw Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl whose diary immortalized the lives of eight Jews who hid from the Nazis during World War II.
It was the day that my Jewish friends were taken away to the death camps, Gies said. I have never overcome that shock. Why did these wonderful people meet such a cruel fate?
Gies, who delivered the fifth annual University Wallenberg Lecture last week, provided a first-hand account of her role in caring for Anne Frank and her family and four other Jews who hid together for more than two years in German-occupied Amsterdam.
Although she risked imprisonment, and even death, by helping her Jewish friends, Gies said she is not comfortable being labeled a hero.
Those in hiding were the brave people, she said. I loved and admired them so much. During more than two years, they had to live in a small place with little food and were not allowed to go outside nor speak to their friends or relatives, yet they were always friendly and grateful.
I, myself, am just an ordinary woman. People should never think that you have to be a very special person to help those who need you. I simply had no choice. I could foresee many, many sleepless nights and a miserable life if I had refused to help.
Gies was one of five people, including her future husband, Jan, who helped hide Otto and Edith Frank and their daughters Margot and Anne; Herman Van Daan, his wife, Petronella, and son, Peter; and an elderly dentist, Albert Dussel.
Each of us had our own task, she said. In the morning, I was the first to enter the hiding place in order to pick up the shopping list. When I came in, nobody spoke. They would silently look up at me, except for Anne, who in a cheerful tone used to say, Hello, Miep. What is the news?
Gies said that Anne was very curious, always asking about the outside world, and was extremely charming.
Talking to her gave the impression of talking to a much older person, she said. No wonder, because the special conditions in the hiding place made her change very quickly from a child to a young adult.
Gies had worked for Annes father, Otto, a food products businessman.
When he was forced by a German decree to leave his business, many Dutch associates and employees remained loyal friends. They prepared a group of rooms in the businesss warehouse/office building, which the Franks entered in July 1942.
But on Aug. 4, 1944, the Gestapo learned of their refuge from an informer, and the Franks and their four Jewish friends were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Only Otto Frank survived the war.
Gies, who afterward found Annes diary strewn across the floor of the hiding place, stored it away in hopes of some day returning it to her.
I wanted to see her smile, receiving the diary, she said. I wanted to hear her say, Oh, Miep, my diary, how wonderful. But after a terrible time of waiting and hoping, word came that Anne had died.
Gies said she gave the diary to Annes father, who in turn gave it to the world. But, initially, she could not bring herself to read it because she feared it would cause still more pain.
When I finally started to read it, all my dear friends came back to me, she said. I heard their voices, their laughs, their arguments. I wept a lot while reading, but basically, I felt happy. Anne and all the other people were with me again. Thank you, Anne, I thought. You gave me one of the finest gifts life ever gave me.
After the war, Gies said she was deeply ashamed of her home country, Austria, and felt hatred toward all Germans and Austrians. It was not until she learned that many of them were also imprisoned for opposing the Nazis that she experienced a change of heart.
I began to understand the wisdom of Otto Frank, who said we should never lump people together, she said. Otto said we all make our own decisions. Even parents and their children act differently. If we do not realize it, we could make the same mistake millions of Germans once made. Lumping people together is racism, and it led to the Holocaust and still destroys countless lives today.
In 1987, Gies published her own book, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family.