Most people have heard the name Anne Frank, and many have read her diary, which details her and her family’s time spent in hiding during the German occupation of Amsterdam in World War II. Less known are Miep and Jan Gies, two people who helped shelter the Frank family and preserved Anne Frank’s diary after she was captured. In this episode, Alison Leslie Gold, who co-authored Miep’s memoir, shares their history and what we can take away from their stories. And we’ll hear from the co-creators and star of the National Geographic limited series A Small Light about how anyone can step up and be a hero.
AMY BRIGGS (HOST): “On Friday, June 12th, I woke up at six o’clock and no wonder; it was my birthday.”
These are the unassuming opening lines of one of history’s most important books: Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. First published in 1947, it’s the real journal of a teenager who received it as a birthday gift when she turned thirteen in 1942. Her first few entries start with her celebrations—the presents, a party—but then in her third entry, she writes about her life as a Jewish girl in Nazi-controlled Amsterdam.
Anne details how Jews were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothes. They couldn’t own bicycles, ride trains, or drive a car. Jewish children had to go to Jewish schools. They could only shop between three and five and had to be indoors by 8 o’clock. Jews were banned from theaters and public sports venues—so no playing tennis, hockey, or swimming. As Anne wrote, “So we could not do this and were forbidden to do that. But life went on in spite of it all.”
But then, life changed. Less than a month after Anne’s birthday, the Nazis summoned her sister Margot to a labor camp, and the Franks had to go into hiding. They lived in the back rooms of her father’s office building, which Anne dubbed the Secret Annex. She brought her diary with her, and over the next two years documented her life, including her thoughts about growing up, her relationships with her family, everyday life in the Annex, and the ongoing events of World War II.
On November 8th, 1943, about a year after they went into hiding, Anne wrote, “I see the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter.”
And the danger did come. On August 4th, 1944, Gestapo officers broke into the annex and arrested the people living there. They were separated and sent to concentration camps. Anne did not survive the Holocaust, but her diary did, thanks in part to a woman named Miep Gies, who helped hide the Frank family during those two years. She would make trips to the Annex, bringing them groceries and supplies.
Here’s Miep speaking to NPR’s Susan Stamberg about what it was like to pick up the shopping list in the morning.
MIEP GIES (FROM NPR ARCHIVAL AUDIO): When I came in, nobody would speak, just standing in line and waiting for me to begin. It was always an awful moment for me because it showed how dependent these fine people felt on us. They would silently look up to me, except for Anne, who in a cheerful tone used to say, "Hello, Miep. And what is the news?"
BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our complex and changing world.
Miep Gies passed away in 2010 at 100 years old. In the eighties, she and today’s guest, Alison Leslie Gold, wrote a book called Anne Frank Remembered. It’s an account of how Miep helped the Frank family. This week, we sit down with Alison to learn more about Miep and her husband Jan, their relationship with the Franks, and how Miep saved Anne’s diary. We’ll also hear from the co-creators of the Nat Geo limited series A Small Light about how anyone can step up and be a hero.
GIES (FROM NPR ARCHIVAL AUDIO): They say always that it's the past, that it's over. But it is not true. The past go always with you.
BRIGGS: More after the break.
ALISON LESLIE GOLD (AUTHOR): My name is Alison Leslie Gold. I’m an author. I've published fiction, nonfiction.
BRIGGS: Alison says she stumbled upon the story of Miep and Jan Gies purely by happenstance. In the 1980s, she was working as a researcher for a TV show when she heard about a man named Barry Spanjaard. He had written a book called Don’t Fence Me In: An American Teenager in the Holocaust.
GOLD: And I thought it was a very moving story. And it seemed like it would be a wonderful thing to see if we could get them to do a show about him. So in the course of that, I met people connected to the Anne Frank world. And found out about Miep and Jan Gies. I don't want to get mystical, but it was—as it turned out, it was a total life changing experience.
BRIGGS: Though Miep and Jan had been interviewed before, they had never written a book and had mostly stayed out of the spotlight.
GOLD: I thought, here's a story that’s untold, like a little piece of endangered history. And these people are old. She was in fact the age I am now. She was 76. I'm 77. And he was almost 80. And I thought if somebody doesn't get their side of the story soon, this is all going to wash away in time. And I wrote to them and said, Could I come and interview you for an article? And they said OK, and I went and interviewed them. And somehow through an agent in Hollywood, it was sent to a New York agent who said, This is a book. This is a book. So suddenly there were Miep, Jan, and I—all of us sort of neophytes—with this rather grand offer from several publishers to write a book.
And that was the beginning. And it was really, as it turned out, it totally altered my life. I mean, because suddenly I was part of something that meant something. And that—it sounds very corny, but that side of me woke up to what was meaningful and what wasn't. And we worked together for about two years on this book, mostly in Amsterdam. And, you know, those were incredible experiences. And being there for months at a time and going to their apartment every morning, and we were all scared to death. And Miep hardly spoke any English. In fact, as we were working she learned English because I was too stupid to learn Dutch. And the three of us would have coffee together and then we—I would collect their memories. Then we'd have lunch, and I'd leave. And every day we'd do that until I collected enough to do this book.
BRIGGS: Anne Frank Remembered—it's first published in the late 1980s, and the book tells the story of Miep. Who was Miep?
GOLD: Miep was born in Vienna. She was from a rather poor family, Catholic family, and through the interviews she never really liked speaking much about her family. She remembered the beginnings of World War I. At the end of the war, she was put on a train with a tag around her neck because she was starving. Dutch workers had started a program to help children, and she was ten years old and she was put on a train at the Vienna train station and knew nothing. And the train went to Holland, and they were taken off of the train, and a man, a Dutchman, came and saw her name and took her. And she went with him, and he brought her into his house and he had a wife and—I don't remember now—four or five of his own children. And she was welcomed into the family, and she was bathed and she was fed and put into school. And basically she liked it and she liked them. And she was very happy. And she learned Dutch very quickly. She was very smart. And after a few years when the time came to go home, she didn't want to.
BRIGGS: So Miep stayed in Amsterdam. When she was 24, she took a secretarial job with Anne’s father, Otto Frank. At the time he owned a company that sold pectin, a powder that is used to make jam.
GOLD: The first thing he asked her to do wasn't to type or take dictation or anything. It was to go into the kitchen and make jam out of different fruits. So she did. She made jam and then he liked her and hired her, and she was the complaint department. When a housewife would screw up the recipe or something, they'd call and Miep would go through it and try to understand why it turned to mush instead of jam.
BRIGGS: So did Miep and Jan become close with the Franks? You know, just through work, it feels like they must have had a very tight relationship.
GOLD: Well, I don't know. I mean, it was very, very formal. I mean, she called him “Mr. Frank” until after the war. I mean, it's one of the moments in the book where he says, Please call me Otto. And she almost faints. And she says, OK, but not at the office. But what happened was, Mr. Frank lived in this little neighborhood in Amsterdam called the river quarter, where a lot of other Jewish refugees were living. And he and his wife would have a little gathering sometimes on a weekend, and they’d invite people for coffee and cake. And at one point Miep was invited and she brought Jan, and they were what the Franks called “our Dutch friends”. I mean, they were really the only non-Jewish refugee people there. And they would go and they'd have a cup of coffee for an hour, and this is how they sort of got to know Anne. And then when they were having problems finding a place to live, it was Mr. Frank who connected her to the woman who became her landlady, who rented them a room. So there were little friendly things, but I wouldn't exactly call them that close or intimate in any way and certainly not on any personal level.
BRIGGS: And it's so interesting because I know—as, you know, Germany invades the Netherlands and, you know, with the occupation comes all of the policies and abuses that the Franks were, you know, running away from in Germany. And Otto Frank, as I understand it, is coming up with the plan to go into hiding, and enlisting Miep and her husband feels like a very big thing to ask someone and especially knowing that they had a more formal relationship. How did they have that bond? How did he—there's no way to know it. How did he know that Miep and Jan would be willing? And it's a very big thing to ask somebody to do.
GOLD: Well A, he didn't know. I mean, the first thing that brought them together in terms of something illegal was when Jews weren't allowed to own businesses. So Jan offered to pretend to have taken over the business. So it became Gies and Company, and Mr. Frank's name was taken off the letterhead even though he was still running the business. And then he quietly started preparing those rooms with supplies and furniture. And then what happened was, it wasn't really ready. He wasn't really finished. And then suddenly Margot received a postcard that she had to report for forced labor. She was 16. That's when forced labor began. And so suddenly Otto Frank had to hurry up and get them into hiding. And that's when he told the kids, and that's when he asked Miep.
Now, the way this was described to me, it was not discussed whether it was a big or small thing to ask. He simply asked, Would you be willing to help take care of us? Because she worked in the office. And as we of course know, he also asked three other people in the office to do the same thing. And she said that he asked her. He looked into her eyes. She looked into his eyes, and she said, Yes, of course. And he said, Don't answer so quickly. Think about it. This is very serious. And of course, unsaid was the fact that, you know, she could lose her life over something like that. And she says she said, Absolutely, yes. Period. Jan was a social worker. He'd come and have lunch with Miep every day. And once they were in hiding and the situation started to get kind of heavy, he would go and visit the hiding place every day and just say hello to everybody. I mean, people were starving for company. And he also did things, like he'd get library books and he'd bring them.
Everybody went and visited as much as they could, and Miep would go up and get the shopping list in the morning. Then she'd go back later and bring the shopping and Elli would go and eat lunch with them and eat their food. So I don't really know what the—whether there were mea culpas, or—in my interviews in the book, it was a very straightforward and no discussion. She just said, Yes, period. And never, ever regretted anything except for the fact that she failed and they died, except for Mr. Frank, which she never got over, really.
BRIGGS: So after they're arrested, you know, there's this memorable scene of Miep being in the Secret Annex and finding Anne's diary. What did she tell you about her preservation of the diary?
GOLD: After the arrest, when the Gestapo guy appeared one morning in August 1944, she was told to stay in the office. So she didn't see anything that had happened. And she also never saw them being taken away. She just heard their footsteps on the stairway as they were being brought down this old wooden stairway beside her desk.
Later, Miep wanted to go up and see what had gone on—what was left, how things were left. And through the whole hiding, Anne had used up her diary, her little famous red checkered diary very quickly, and Miep and Elli had saved paper—accounting sheets and things like that for them to use, for Anne to use, because she had started writing and writting and was writing more and more. So when they went up into the rooms, everything was a mess. They’d flung things all over the place, I guess looking for valuables. And Anne always kept her diary in her father's briefcase. And obviously they flung it out, and she saw it all spread out on the floor. And it struck her. She gathered up the diary and in her mind, the way she told it was—I mean, they really didn't know what was going to happen to these people. I mean, it was August. Everyone knew the Germans were losing, that the war was maybe going to be over soon. And she and Elli gathered up all the pages and in her mind it was to hold it and return it to Anne when Anne came back. So she took all the pages down and put them in her desk drawer. She didn't read it—you know, ever respectful. She didn't read it. She just left it there. And later she said that if she had read it, she would have destroyed it because it implicated too many people who could have been punished for appearing in the diary. And she just left it in the drawer. And then eventually, when Mr. Frank came back and he didn't know—he sort of knew his wife had died somehow because he was also in Auschwitz to the end and she was too. But Anne and Mrs. Van Daan and Margot had been moved to Bergen-Belsen, and so they didn't really know if they were alive or dead, and the chances were that they were healthy young girls, that they could have survived. So he was hoping that they waited. And then when a witness was found and he got a letter saying that they had both died. As soon as he got that letter, Miep went into her drawer, took the diary, and gave it to Mr. Frank. And that was the end of it for her. She never read it. And in fact, later when it was published, she didn't—Miep didn’t want to read it. It was too upsetting until finally Mr. Frank bullied her into reading it. And finally she did and she was glad she did it. But, I mean, that's basically the story of the diary from Miep’s point of view.
BRIGGS: I'm really curious too about Miep and Jan as people. I mean, in your telling, you know, you get the sense that they're very buttoned up, but also very warm and generous and kind. But when you look at their actions, they seem very—both of them—just so brave. Did that come across just in your day to day work with them?
GOLD: Well there was really no context for that. They were absolutely set in their ways. You could set your clock by when they ate meals, when they had coffee. I mean, you had five meals a day. You'd wake up at 8:30 would be breakfast, 10 o’clock would be coffee, 1 o’clock would be lunch, 4 o’clock would be tea, and 6:30 would be dinner, and then maybe decaf at 10:30 at night. But they weren't doormats in any way. You know, it's like—you know, they weren't do-gooders who ran around doing nice things. I mean, you know, they did this in the context of the history and I mean, he worked as a social worker and he retired at whatever it was—65 or two—he then was pretty much stayed at home and looked at his stamp collection. She did shopping, she made—had like the same food, had about six recipes for dinner and a few friends. Most of their friends had died off or were dying off. They weren't social. I dragged them, when we were in New York together, I dragged them to the theater to see Cats.
GOLD: She had a neighbor who was a widow who lived upstairs. And every night after dinner, she would go up and keep the woman company for like 20 minutes, have tea with her or something—visit her until the woman died. It was just the neighborly thing to do.
BRIGGS: How did they react to all the attention that came from the book? I mean, they sound like they like their lives. They like not being in the spotlight. But the book comes out and people want to know more about them.
GOLD: Well, she was sort of the spokesperson. He was very quiet. I mean, after the war, Jan had a headache for an entire year. I think his soul was really battered by that war. Not that hers wasn't, but that he was just a quiet man and a man of few words. He had a very good sense of humor, you know, very sort of wry sense of humor, but he sort of stayed in the background when the attention started really gathering steam. And her point of view that she is not a hero. I mean, this was her philosophy, her everything: that there was nothing. In fact it was one of the reasons—at first, they didn't really want to do a book because they didn't want any special attention. Because as they said to me, many people had helped other people during the war, and why should they get special attention just because it was Anne Frank and her family that they had accidentally helped? But to the end, I mean that was her thing, and I guess—hence the title of this miniseries, [A] Small Light. But she really believed it, wasn't—she wasn't being self-effacing or anything. I mean, she just meant it. It wasn't something for discussion. If your friend needs help, you help them, period.
BEL POWLEY AS MIEP GIES IN A SMALL LIGHT: This is the hiding place. But we have clients and sales people in and out of the building all day. There’s a meeting this morning. They’ll be here in 30 minutes, so you have to be quiet. You can’t walk or talk or make any noise at all. You can’t open the windows, and you can’t use the loo. I know this is a lot to take in. Your family will be here later and we’ll make this place into a home. If you need to cry, cry now. You have 30 minutes. I’ll be back later to check on you. Margot, we made it. You’re safe.
BRIGGS: That’s actress Bel Powley playing Miep Gies in the recently released limited series A Small Light, produced by National Geographic. It tells the story of Miep, Jan, and the Frank family during the years spent hiding in the Secret Annex. I’ve seen some of the show and what struck me about it was it has these moments of levity, which I didn’t expect given the overall horror of the situation. At a recent press junket, we asked the series co-creators, Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, about how they decided to include those moments in the show.
JOAN RATER (CO-CREATOR OF A SMALL LIGHT): We wanted to make the story relatable. We wanted to show what it was really like to be a young woman hiding a family. And I imagine that you're living through these moments sort of with humor, with fear, you know, with a wide range of emotions. It isn't all so reverent. You know, we have a tendency in telling historical stories to kind of put these people up on pedestals. But it's really important to us that we tell the story of an ordinary person that was just like you or me—could have been you, could have been me—that was asked to do something. And you know, she was this ordinary woman who then stepped into extraordinary circumstances, and we wanted to show what that really looked like. And I think that really looked like a regular person who cracks jokes, who's in love, who has fights with her husband, who gets angry, who wants to take a day off, who feels like, Why me, but continually does the right thing and steps into that annex and helps those people.
TONY PHELAN (CO-CREATOR OF A SMALL LIGHT): Well, I think the other thing is, is that Miep herself, there's plenty of tape of her interviews. Miep was a funny person. And I think that to take that away from the character is a real disservice to the character. We all just lived through the pandemic, and that's how I found myself getting through day by day, is to crack jokes in the face of really horrible things that you just do, because otherwise it's unbearable.
RATER: And the people in the annex also didn't know the end. They were—they had survived for two years. I think it's reasonable to assume they thought they were going to survive this. And so you have to imagine that there were moments of great joy and hope that we wanted to show. It was really important for us to show that.
BRIGGS: Joan also said that they felt like the show is relevant to our current times.
RATER: Well, anti-Semitism is on the rise. Nationalism is on the rise. I think it's relevant simply because it's so relatable to what's going on right now—frighteningly so. And the idea for us of showing what—you know, Miep never wanted to be called a hero, but she did heroic things. But they weren't, you know—sometimes it was just simply bringing people a loaf of bread. You know, taking the risk to go shopping and bring people food. To walk into the Annex and be the emotional support for the people who were hiding there. You know, so we wanted to really show that anybody can show empathy, that anybody can look outside their own self and extend a hand to another person in need. You know, sort of simple acts of human kindness.
BRIGGS: Fuel your curiosity with a free one-month trial subscription to Nat Geo Premium. You’ll have unlimited access on any device, anywhere, ad-free with our app that lets you download stories to read offline. Explore every page ever published with a century of digital archives at your fingertips. Check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore. There’s a link in the show notes.
The first episode of A Small Light is streaming now on Disney+ and Hulu. New episodes premiere Mondays on National Geographic and stream the next day. And May is Jewish-American Heritage month. You can read all of Nat Geo’s coverage online.
In addition to Anne Frank Remembered, Alison Leslie Gold wrote Memories of Anne Frank about Anne Frank’s childhood friend Hannah Goslar and A Special Fate about a Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust.
That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Khari Douglas.
Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.
The audio of Miep Gies was provided by NPR’s Morning Edition.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.
Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.
The first episode of A Small Light is streaming now on Disney+ and Hulu. New episodes premiere Mondays on National Geographic and stream the next day.
Learn more about the book Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies and Alison Leslie Gold. Gold also wrote Memories of Anne Frank about Anne Frank’s childhood friend Hannah Goslar and A Special Fate about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust.
How did the Holocaust—which murdered six million Jews and stripped millions more of their livelihoods, their families, and even their names—happen in plain sight? Learn more about the history and how Jews continue to fight anti-Semitism.
Visit natgeo.com/JewishAmerican for more National Geographic stories throughout Jewish American Heritage Month.