Miep Gies was a recently married young office worker living in Amsterdam in 1942. As German occupiers tightened their grip on the city, Gies’s boss, Otto Frank, asked her to hide him and his family from the Nazis, who were sending Jews to concentration camps. For the next two years, Gies risked her life daily to smuggle food to the Franks and four others concealed in secret rooms above Otto’s business.
When she could no longer protect the family—when the Nazis finally came and took them away in 1944—Gies kept their story alive by saving Anne Frank’s journals. She’s the reason the world has The Diary of a Young Girl.
Later in Gies’s life, people called her heroic. Believing she simply did what she could in evil times, she is said to have made this response: “Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”
Miep’s extraordinary kindness was part of a circle of selfless deeds. She had already known the ravages of a world war. Twenty-two years before the Franks went into hiding, Miep’s desperate parents had sent her, at age 11, starving and ill, from their home in Vienna to a foster family in Leiden, Netherlands. There, she recovered, flourished, and eventually met the people she would then help.
A Small Light tells Gies’s story in an eight-part miniseries shot in Amsterdam and Prague. In interviews on location, its creators and actors reflected on why Gies remains an inspiration.
“While most of us are familiar with the diary, what was going on outside the annex ... is the mystery,” says Tony Phelan, who with wife Joan Rater helmed the project. Rater adds to that idea: “What does hiding people mean on a day-to-day basis? Miep said yes to Otto Frank, and then you have to say yes every day afterwards, even when it’s hard, even when you’re sick, even when you don’t want to ... And that, to me, the everyday drudgery of it all, is quite dramatic.”
Phelan and Rater, married for 30 years, created, executive produced, and wrote the miniseries after six years of research. It was a 1995 documentary, Anne Frank Remembered, that initially sparked their interest, and they visited the Anne Frank House, the museum established where the Franks once hid. After descending its steep, narrow stairs—as Anne had—Rater noticed a girl doing cartwheels outside.
For A Small Light, Rater turned that memory of a girl’s carefree spirit into a flashback scene: Anne in 1941, on Miep and Jan Gies’s wedding day. She’s skipping, giddy over the romantic city hall nuptials. Then, Anne was sassy and bridled at constraints; within a year, her life would be nothing but constraints.
One bright spot for Anne was visits from Gies, who ferried supplies by bicycle. Actress Bel Powley plays Gies and, to get into her character’s mindset, retraced those journeys. “Tony and Joan gave me all these cool maps so that I could cycle Miep’s route,” she says.
Powley, who is Jewish, felt the weight of telling this story, especially as the shoot neared its end. Amsterdam’s besieged streets, Otto’s business, and the famous attic were re-created in Amsterdam and Prague.
Everything on-screen is rendered as accurately as possible. Period-specific costumes are intentionally threadbare, as they would have been during wartime. Although glamour might seem frivolous given the constant threat of death, the women in hiding “wanted to keep up appearances,” hair and makeup designer Davina Lamont says. A dash of lipstick was an attempt at seeming normal, when nothing was.
On a raw day in Prague, 300 extras cheer GIs in a World War II tank rolling down a cobblestone street. The crowd waves orange flags, the Dutch royal color, for this scene depicting Liberation Day in May 1945. It came too late for the Franks: Anne had been arrested a few months earlier and died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen.
The girl who wanted to be a famous writer became one, of course. Her diary uniquely revealed the heart of a typical teen and the truth of the Holocaust, because readers who found the extermination of six million people unfathomable could relate to one girl.
Still, no one would ever read entries that began “Dear Kitty” had Gies not gathered the scattered papers and the diary with the red-checkered cover and later given them to Otto, the family’s sole survivor. She did this “to be kind and compassionate,” says Liev Schreiber, who portrays Otto.
Schreiber, whose Jewish grandfather emigrated from Ukraine, sees parallels between World War II’s anti-Semitism and today’s. He co-founded a humanitarian group that vets donations for NGOs in Ukraine, and while volunteering in that war-torn land, he met modern heroes risking their lives to help others.
In Schreiber’s words, “The Miep Gieses of the world—the small lights, the extraordinary ordinary people who did something, who pushed back against tyranny, who pushed back against authoritarians, who pushed back against fascists—remembering what they accomplished, I think, gives us some perspective on what we can accomplish.”
Journalist Jacqueline Cutler regularly covers television. She previously wrote about the National Geographic series Limitless.
This story appears in the May 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.