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A Pair of Ordinary Heroes Who Remember Anne Frank

April 23, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — They were only doing their duty, Miep Gies insisted. Nothing heroic, nothing superhuman.

"Every human being should have done this," said the woman who helped shelter Anne Frank and her family as the Nazis closed in on Holland and its Jewish population. With the Franks in hiding for more than two years in an unused portion of their Amsterdam office building, Miep Gies and her husband Jan risked the wrath of German collaborators to become the Franks' lifeline, supplying them with food, bringing them news of the world, offering friendship and cheer.

'Did Our Duty'

"We only did our duty, to help people who were in danger," Jan Gies muttered. But in ceremonies at the Holocaust Memorial Wall here this morning, just across the street from the United Nations, Miep and Jan Gies are to receive a special award from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, honoring those who rescued Jews during World War II.

They had no such vision when, after their friends were discovered and arrested, the victims of a still-unknown betrayer, Miep Gies returned to the building that had once housed Otto Frank's spice and jam businesses. The Germans would confiscate everything, she knew, and so, lovingly, she gathered up a few treasured possessions, vowing to keep them safe for the Franks' return.

Gathered the Writings

"On the floor," Gies writes in "Anne Frank Remembered" (with Alison Leslie Gold; Simon & Schuster, $17.95), "amidst the chaos of papers and books, my eye lit on the little red-orange checkered, cloth-bound diary that Anne had received from her father on her 13th birthday. . . . I remembered how happy Anne had been to receive this little book to write her private thoughts in. I knew how precious her diary was to Anne. My eyes scanned the rubble for more of Anne's writings, and I saw the old accounting books and many more writing papers that Elli and I had given to her when she had run out of pages in the checkered diary. Elli (another, former employee of Otto Frank), was still very scared, and looked to me for direction. I told Elli, 'Help me pick up all Anne's writings.' "

There in the warehouse-like space that Anne Frank dubbed The Annex, the constant scribbling of Otto and Edith Frank's younger daughter became a source of gentle family amusement. But with the publication three years after the war of "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," millions of readers would weep at this tale of courage and hope. In its U.S. paperback edition alone, more than 4.3-million copies of Anne Frank's diary have been published since its release here in 1953.

But Miep Gies had no such thought when she scooped up the journals of the colt-like teen-ager with the huge brown eyes. As much out of respect for Anne as in fear of the contents, Gies had not even read the manuscript when she presented it to Otto Frank, the only member of his family to survive the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Had she read the document during the Frank family's internment, Gies explained, "I probably would have burned it," to protect the people Anne had written about. Even though the youthful diarist often gave her characters pseudonyms, the names might have been recognizable by authorities.

They Remained Silent

Now the young couple described by Anne Frank as "Miep and Henk van Santen" are 78 and 82; retired and living in the same modest Amsterdam apartment they have occupied for more than 30 years. In large part they have remained silent about their role in the Resistance and the saga of the Frank family, staying home quietly together, "acting as though the day were not happening," each May 4, the official Dutch day of mourning, and Aug. 4, the day the Franks were arrested.

With firmness bordering on impatience, Miep and Jan Gies maintain their actions were no different than those of the estimated 20,000 Dutch Gentiles during World War II who helped hide and protect their Jewish compatriots.

Except, of course, as even Miep Gies will concede, "The two of us, we helped hide a girl whose diary became world famous."

But for the persistence of Santa Monica journalist/screenwriter Gold, in fact, Gies and her husband would have been content to remain comfortably obscure, familiar only to those who chose to scout out Miep van Santen through the Anne Frank House organization. "We never intended to write a book, to publish a book," Miep said, "because so many people in the Netherlands did the same work as we, and we want never to stand in front of all these people."

Gold, however, persuaded them otherwise. "I told them it was an endangered story in that they were the last witnesses, and if they didn't tell it, it would be lost," Gold said during a visit here this week.

"First there was an interview," Miep Gies remembered, "then there was talk of 'a little book,' then there was no way back."

'The Pain Stays'

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