Miep Gies about helping the people in hiding

Miep Gies is mainly known as the woman who saved Anne Frank's diary. She is one of the best-known helpers from World War II. She received countless letters from all over the world, with questions about Anne Frank and the period in hiding in the Secret Annex. These are the most frequently asked questions in an interview from 1992.

Door Menno Metselaar

When did you learn that the Frank family was planning to go into hiding?

'That must have been in the spring of 1942. Otto Frank, my boss, called me and said, "Miep, would you come in for a minute?" I went in. He said, "Sit down. Miep, I have to tell you something very important. It's really a sort of secret. We're planning on going into hiding here. In this building. Are you prepared to help us, to bring us food?" I answered, "Yes, of course".'

Why 'of course'?

'It seemed perfectly natural to me. I could help these people. They were powerless, they didn't know where to turn. I always emphasize that we were not heroes. We did our duty as human beings: helping people in need. Lots of people didn't help, some because they were afraid. If someone is afraid, you shouldn't hold that against him or her. If he or she honestly admits it, as a friend of mine did, I think that takes courage.'

There were heavy penalties for helping people go into hiding. Were you afraid?

'No. Especially not in the beginning. Later on I sat stewing about it and I said to myself, "what are we going to do now…?" But caring for those people was the main thing. Sometimes I lay awake at night and thought, "Oh those poor people, hidden up there, how awful. How would I feel?" So I spent a night up there, and found out! It was cramped, incredibly cramped! Mostly it was knowing that you were shut in, that fact that you couldn't go outside.

We, the helpers were aware that occasionally there were difficult moments for each one of us, but we didn't talk about it. Everything just had to take its course, because if you talked about it you'd begin to feel a certain pressure. You'd spend the day thinking about the people in hiding, and that couldn't happen. We had to appear as relaxed as possible to the rest of the world, otherwise people would become suspicious.'

What was your job? And what were the jobs of the other helpers?

'Bep took care of bread and milk. Kugler and Kleiman kept the business going and brought books and magazines along with them for the people in hiding. And my job was fetching vegetables and meat. I stilll have a shoppinglist that Mr. van Pels wrote for the butcher. Usually I threw them away, but I found this after the war in one of my coat pockets. And I'll tell you, I'm very glad I did.'

How did the people in hiding know what was happening in the outside world?

'We kept the people informed about what was going on in the outside world, and it wasn't very pleasant. There were roundups. People were being taken away… 'Jan, my husband, said, "Miep, you don't always have to tell them everything. You have to keep in mind that these people are locked up. They can't go outside. Bad news depresses them more than it does us. Limit yourself to sort of half and half."'

'So I did. But Anne was dissatisfied. She thought that I knew more. And when I had said all I was going to say and was about to leave, she would take me aside, pretending to want to chat. And she'd say, "Miep, what's going on…". She'd ask me so much! Finally I couldn't hold out any more, and I'd tell her everything. That was Anne.

I had no idea she was writing it all down. I mean, a child keeping a diary… You just don't imagine that she's writing about such things… that people were being gassed and murdered, for instance – she wrote that in her diary. While they were in hiding they talked about what was happening and what they had heard on the radio. But speaking for myself, I just couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that people were doing such things. Anne could.'

How did Anne develop during the years in hiding?

'Anne became more and more adult while they were in hiding. I never noticed that she and Peter were in love. Anne was interested in what was going on in the world. When I spoke to her I had the feeling that I was speaking to an adult. I could tell her everything, including my own opinion. I wasn't far removed from that age, so it really amazed me. And I'd say to myself. "My goodness, child, so young and talking like that already."

She always had questions for everybody. When I came downstairs, Kleiman would ask, "Did she smother you with questions, too?" And then I'd defend her again. I'd say, "Yes, so many I could barely breathe. But let's be happy that she asks so many. Just imagine Anne saying, I can't take it any more. I can see it all now: a crying Anne, a screaming Anne! How would we handle that?" "Yes," said Kleiman, "you’re right."'

Did you know that Anne was writing?

'We all knew that she was keeping a diary, because we supplied her with paper. But writing was something she did on her own. And I'm convinced that neither her father nor her mother were ever present while she was writing. Once I had the feeling that I was disturbing her while she was writing. I went into the Frank's bedroom and saw her sitting near the window, writing. I thought, uh-oh, I'm disturbing her while she's busy with her diary. It was a very uncomfortable situation. I tried to decide what to do. Should I walk away or go to her? At that moment she glanced at me, with a look that I'll never forget. This wasn't the Anne I knew, that friendly, charming child. She looked at me with anger, rage. Then Anne stood up, slammed her diary shut and glared at me with great condescension. "Yes," she said, "I'm writing about you, too".

I didn't know what to say. The only thing I could manage was, "That ought to be interesting". And I left and went back to the office. I sat down at my desk and I just went to pieces. Fortunately Bep didn’t ask what had happened, which is something that I'm glad about to this very day. Because I couldn't have talked about it, and I didn't want to talk about it. I felt so small…'

What question are you asked most often?

'Do I hate the Germans…

Not any more, but right after the war, absolutely! When German tourists visited the Secret Annexe, Otto Frank and Kleiman would always shut me up in the office. They were afraid I'd start to curse. And I would have, too, because I was furious at "the Germans". One day Kleiman said to me, "Miep, there's a group coming tomorrow from Cologne and I’m giving them a tour. But the group is very large and I can’t take them all through the Secret Annexe at once. Would you help me?" I said, "Sure." I didn't realize that it was a German group.

Then the group came and they all stood around me, and only then did it occur to me, this is the enemy, these are the Germans. But I didn't want to embarrass Mr. Frank, so I controlled myself.

Those people had all read the diary and they knew the name Miep. They pounced on me with, "Sie sind Miep, die echte Miep.." ("It's Miep, the real Miep..") But then I started to rant and rave. I really tore into them. The leader of the group came up to me and laid his hand on my arm to quiet me down. "Dear Frau Miep…"(and this on top of everything else, I thought) ".. none of these men fought in the war. They were resistance fighters and were imprisoned in concentration camps. I myself spent three years in detention centers. When I was released my daughter was three years old. I hadn't been allowed to see her all that time. I still feel a three-year gap in my life…" Then something inside me broke down. And since then my image has changed.'

How do you look back on the war years?

'I often wonder how it could have happened, and why. I've struggled with this a great deal. Once we were talking about it together and I said to Jan, "This is what I think. We've been allowed to go on living. We have to keep on going, no matter how difficult it is. We can't stand still, because those who stand still fall by the wayside." But you're just a human being. And a human being has to have something to hold on to. So I continued, "In those dark days during the war we didn't stand on the sidelines. We offered a helping hand, we committed our very lives. We couldn't have done any more than that".'

How did you save the diary of Anne Frank?

'It was August 4th, 1944. It was a quiet day in the office. We were all working, and suddenly I looked up. The door was open and a short man walked in. He pointed a revolver at me and said, "Stay seated! Don't move!" Naturally I was petrified. He closed the door again and went away. I couldn't see or hear what happened next because I had to stay seated at my desk. Later I heard the people from upstairs coming down, very slowly. I wasn't permitted to go to the window. I had to stay seated. A few hours later we went up to the Franks' bedrooms. And there Bep and I saw Anne’s diary papers lying on the floor. I said, "Pick them up!" Bep stood there staring, frozen. I said, "Pick them up! Pick them up! "We were afraid, but we did out best to collect all the papers. Then we went downstairs. And there we stood, Bep and I. I asked, "What now, Bep?" She answered, "You're the oldest. You hold on to them." So I did.'

'I didn't read Anne's diary papers, although Bep and Kleiman were eager to take a quick look. I said, "No, these may belong to a child, but even children have a right to privacy." It's a good thing I didn't because if I had read them I would have had to burn them. Some of the information in them was dangerous.'

Miep Gies died 11 January 2010, aged 100.
Read her remarkable life story