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Book Review : Anne Frank's Lifeline, as Seen Through a Tunnel of Memory

June 12, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of Miep Gies by Miep Gies with Alison Leslie Gold (Simon & Schuster: $17.95)

When the television writer Alison Gold heard that Miep and Jan Gies, who had helped Anne Frank's family survive in Amsterdam, were still living in the Netherlands, she wrote to them asking for an interview, hoping the result might become a magazine article. Instead, her conversations with the couple stretched into this affecting book, a matter-of-fact chronicle of courage, self-sacrifice and human goodness under the most difficult conditions imaginable.

The memoir begins disarmingly, with Miep Gies' flat statement "I am not a hero. I stand at the end of a long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more. . . . My story is of very ordinary people during extraordinarily terrible times." Could there by anything left to say? Miep Gies was doubtful. She'd been told that every night of the year, on a stage somewhere in the world, the curtain rises on a production of "The Diary of Anne Frank." Millions more have seen the movie; the book itself is required reading in schools all over the globe. Eventually Gold convinced Miep and Jan Gies that the events outside the four crowded storerooms where the Franks and their daughters; the dentist Dr. Dussel; the Van Daan family and their son Peter were hidden might become a kind of counter-drama to the well known facts.

Avoids Many Pitfalls

"Anne Frank Remembered" avoids many of the pitfalls that seem inevitable in a work of this kind. Not one word of the celebrated diary is quoted. Miep's voice is clear and distinctive; her recollections and style entirely those of the shy young woman who became Otto Frank's office assistant in 1933, then manager of his spice importing business, and finally, from 1942 until the end, the Frank family's lifeline to the world. In a curious way, the book's shortcomings become its strengths. Gies' uninflected, artless prose makes no attempt to compete with the familiar diary, but instead supplies a sort of commentary upon it; filing in gaps, providing background, explaining the logistics.

Occasionally at Odds

In this memoir, the Franks become life-size people again--sometimes in despair, occasionally at odds, often terrified, bored and restless. The three-hour play was crammed with tension and emotion; the two-year reality was dreary beyond belief. Where Anne Frank's diary was the remarkable work of a precocious young girl, this journal represents the diligent effort of a 78-year-old woman looking back through a tunnel of memory.

For 25 months, Miep Gies led a double life. To her neighbors, she was an energetic young married woman working at a routine job, commuting by bicycle to the small office where she saw to the details of Otto Frank's importing company; returning at night to cramped rented rooms and her role of model housewife. Before, between and after these ordinary duties, she shopped for the families concealed in the factory, and later, as the food shortages grew desperate, she scrounged, foraged and walked far into the countryside to plead for carrots, beets, potatoes; anything edible. She was perpetually in danger, always suspect, solely responsible for keeping 10 or 11 people alive on starvation allotments. Miep and Jan not only brought the physical necessities of life to those walled up in the attic, but also companionship, hope and affection.

500 Calories a Day

By the winter of 1945, the Dutch ration had been reduced to 500 calories a day; those in hiding had nothing. Death notices said people had died of diphtheria, typhoid and influenza, but these diseases were merely euphemisms for hunger. There was no heat, light or transportation. Railroad ties were chopped into firewood, abandoned coal yards ransacked for lumps buried in the frozen ground, bicycles confiscated by the Nazis.

Miep Gies lit her apartment by igniting a thread floating in a dish of oil and water. The spice company managed to stay in business by selling sausage filler made of nut shells and synthetic seasonings produced in a chemical factory. Soap had disappeared--the Dutch tried to clean their clothes by boiling them, a shift which merely reduced them to rags even sooner. As a last resort in that frightful winter, they stewed their tulip bulbs into soup.

Though "Anne Frank Remembered" begins with a highly personal recollection of the refugee family, ultimately the book becomes a precise, explicit, day-by-day chronicle of the impact of war upon the Dutch, told with complete candor and engaging modesty.

Miep Gies was uniquely placed to experience the horror of the occupation to the utmost, suffering not only the full Dutch measure of misery but also the anguish of the refugees. Now, almost half a century later, she says quietly, "I willingly did what I could to help. My husband did as well. It was not enough." In another few months, it would have been.

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