Hermine “Miep” Gies (nee Santrouschitz) (1909-2010) is best known as the hero of the Anne Frank story and for preserving Anne’s diary, which has become an iconic work of world literature and is the world’s best-selling non-fiction work – after the Bible.
Suffering in post-World War I Vienna from tuberculosis and malnutrition, Miep’s impoverished family sent their 11-year-old daughter to live with a Dutch family in Amsterdam as part of an initiative to take in Austrian children to help them recover from the ravages of the war, and her parents decided to permit her to continue to live with her Dutch foster parents because she was doing so well there. She worked as a typist in an embroidery and pleating workshop after graduating high school and, in 1933, she commenced work as a secretary for Otto Frank (1933), a Jewish businessman who had fled Hitler and left Frankfort for Amsterdam, where he was the managing director of the Dutch branch of an expanding German spice manufacturing company.
After she refused to join a Nazi women’s association, the Nazi occupiers of the Netherlands invalidated her passport and ordered her deportation back to Austria within 90 days, but she was able to avoid expulsion through her marriage in 1941 to Jan Gies, a Dutch citizen who, by dint of the Nazi annexation of the Netherlands, was considered a German citizen. Miep’s fluency in both Dutch and German helped the Frank family assimilate into Dutch society; she and Jan (Anne called him “Henk” in her diary) were regular guests at the Franks’ home and the couple became close and trusted friends of the entire Frank family.
Miep and Jan, a social worker with Amsterdam Social Services who was also an active member in the Dutch resistance, were renting a room near the Franks from a Jewish woman but, when the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Netherlands, the landlord went into hiding and the couple continued to live in the apartment. Their rescue work was not limited to the Frank family; when the landlord’s grandchildren suddenly appeared seeking help because their parents had been caught, Miep and Jan arranged to find hiding places for them. Moreover, the Gieses also hid an anti-Nazi university student at their apartment who had refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Nazis.
They hid the Frank family – Anne, father Otto, mother Edith, and older sister Margo – and four other Dutch Jews in a secret annex above Otto’s business premises at Prinsengracht 263, where they remained from July 6, 1942, until their betrayal on August 4, 1944, and the ensuing raid led by SS Staff Sergeant Karl Josef Silberbauer. The rest of the story is well known: The Frank family was transferred to Westerbork, from which they were forced onto the last train to leave the Netherlands for Auschwitz. Anne arrived in Bergen-Belsen in December 1944 and was murdered there in March 1945, less than a month before the British liberated the camp. Her mother died in Birkenau just after January 1, 1945; her sister died at Bergen-Belsen; and Otto, the only survivor of the Frank family, was liberated from Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.
Gies, who was working in the building at the time of the raid, faced certain summary execution for hiding Jews, but she came to no harm through an amazing stroke of fate; quickly recognizing the accent of the officer interrogating her as being from her native Vienna, she told him that they shared a common hometown and he did not pursue the matter. She then jumped from the frying pan into the fire by daring to accept a dangerous mission on behalf of Otto’s employer to offer the Germans money for the release of the Frank family. She entered Nazi headquarters, where her offer was rebuffed first by the Austrian SS officer who had directed the raid on the annex and then, after she took the risky initiative to go over his head, by the officer’s supervisor.
Miep immediately returned to Prinsengracht 263 where, in violation of strict Nazi orders which again could have led to her execution, she risked her life by entering the annex, where she collected all of Anne’s diaries and the many pages that had been strewn about during the raid, hoping to protect the material and to return it to Anne after the war. Otto was liberated from Auschwitz by Soviet troops in January 1945 and, after the liberation of the Netherlands in May 1945, he returned to Amsterdam in June, where Miep invited him to stay with her and Jan (and where he lived with them for seven years). When Otto received confirmation in mid-July 1945 that Anne had died in Bergen-Belsen, she delivered Anne’s papers to him, saying, “This is the legacy of your daughter.”
And, indeed, it was. Many people are unaware that Miep never actually read the diaries before giving them to Otto; she later commented that had she done so, she surely would have destroyed them to protect all the people who had assisted and supplied the Frank family. (At Otto’s insistence, she finally read the diary when its second edition came out in December 1947.) In collaboration with Alison Leslie Gold, an American author who characterizes herself as “a salvager of other people’s stories,” Gies later told her story in Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family (1987).
Only toward the end of the two years that the Franks hid in the attic did Miep learn that Anne was keeping a diary; when she interrupted Anne’s writing one day, Anne told her, “Yes, and I’m writing about you, too.” (Interestingly, although Anne purposely used pseudonyms for all her fellow attic-dwellers in her diary, she retained Miep’s name.) As it turns out, what Anne was writing was a heartfelt appreciation for the dedication, loyalty, perseverance and heroism of her benefactors; as she writes in her diary (January 28, 1944):
The best example of this is our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so far and will hopefully bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they’ll find themselves sharing the fate of those they’re trying to protect. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be, never have they complained that we’re too much trouble. They come upstairs every day and talk to the men about food and wartime difficulties and to the children about books and newspapers. They put on their most cheerful expressions, bring flowers and gifts for birthdays and are always ready to do what they can. That’s something we should never forget. While others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.
Miep has so much to carry; she looks like a pack mule. She goes forth nearly every day, scrounging for vegetables, and then bicycles back with her purchases in large shopping bags.
One measure of Miep’s greatness was her modesty and her bristly reaction to being called a hero. A lovely example of her humility is her May 1, 2009, correspondence from my collection exhibited here:
I really appreciate your admiring words. However, they cause me some concern too. Let me explain. If people consider me a kind of heroin[e], they may doubt whether they would do what I once did. Not many consider themself brave and therefore might refrain from helping endangered people. This is why I want everyone to know that I am just a common, cautious woman and surely not a daredevil. However, I knew that if I would not help, my conscience later in life would torture me, causing many sleepless nights. Such a future I did not want, because that can be worse than losing your life. Therefore, I helped, hoping that everyone meeting such dilemma, understands and accepts my reasoning, and will reach out too!
Miep said that she knew of many Dutch people who, like her, had hidden Jews during the Holocaust and that she earned international fame “only because I had an Anne.” Yad Vashem apparently disagreed; in 1995, it declared her to be a Righteous Among the Nations.
After the war, Gies dedicated herself to educating younger generations about the Holocaust. Later in her life, she campaigned against the neo-Nazis, who denied the authenticity of the diary, but her greater concern was apathy. As she commented in her characteristic style, “My biggest problem isn’t the neo-Nazis or the skinheads. It is the millions of people who are bystanders and look the other way.”
When, shortly before her death in 2010, Miep was asked about how the Nazis found the secret annex, she answered:
Someone must have betrayed them to the Nazis. We never found out. Don’t forget that many people lived in that neighborhood and possibly noticed something by day or heard something at night. It could have been one of the burglars that came to that place. It could have also been one of the people working in the building. We will never know. The Austrian policeman was interviewed afterward, but he did not know who had called the police with the information. The Nazi who took the call died. So they could not ask him who had called. No one knows. Twice, after the war, the Dutch police made an extensive effort to find the person who turned my friends in. Without success! There were suspicions. Some people were pointing at the man working in the warehouse, but the Court decided there was no evidence. Also, in my opinion, I don’t think this man has done it. So, we don’t know!
Turning fellow Dutchmen in to the Nazis was a criminal offense in the Netherlands, and Dutch police conducted investigations in 1948 and later again in 1963 to ascertain the identity of the collaborator who had directed the Nazis to the hidden annex, but they failed, as did several subsequent independent investigators. As such, one of the great mysteries underlying the Anne Frank story for over 75 years has been the identity of the traitor; as Miep suggested, the prevailing belief was always that the Nazis received an anonymous tip from a neighbor or someone in Otto’s factory but, even if true, the question always remained: an anonymous tip from whom?
In 2016, a new and comprehensive investigation was undertaken by a 20-person team led by Vince Pankoke and including criminologists, historians, data specialists, war crime investigators, and computer algorithm experts. Pankoke, a former special FBI agent, approached the 75-year-old cold case (“more than cold . . . this was frozen”) as he would a criminal case, including an epic “heels on the pavement” effort assisted by computer technology. Anne Frank Huis, the museum at the site of the building where the Frank family hid, gave the team full access to its archives and files.
The team scrutinized every square inch of the annex – “the most visited crime scene in the world,” according to Pankoke; tracked and identified every resident who lived on or near Prinsengracht (although, of course, the turncoat could easily have been a passerby). They reviewed every relevant document in the meticulous Dutch archives and, aware that every Jew arrested by the Nazis was offered a less harsh punishment in exchange for exposing other Jews in hiding, they chronicled every arrest in Amsterdam prior to the annex raid. A detailed description of the investigation is presented in the just-released The Betrayal of Anne Frank, A Cold Case Investigation, by Rosemary Sullivan.
After conducting a years-long investigation, the team concluded that Arnold van den Bergh (1886-1950), a prominent Jewish businessman, a founder of the Jewish Council in Holland, and a notary for a German art dealer selling stolen Jewish art to Hermann Goering, was the most likely quisling.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis employed Judenrats (Jewish councils) to serve as their local puppet governments and, in particular, they established the Joodse Raad as the Amsterdam Judenrat to act as their agents to the Jewish community through which to carry out their orders. They put Jewish leaders in the unenviable position of having to choose between cooperating with the Nazis and having their families gassed in a concentration camp. According to the investigators, van den Bergh responded to Nazi threats against his family by agreeing to lead the Joodse Raad.
The key piece of new evidence was an unsigned typed note sent to Otto Frank after the war, which had been filed away in a dossier and which the team authenticated forensically (see exhibit):
Your hiding place in Amsterdam was reported at the time to [the Nazi-run] Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Amsterdam and A. van den Burgh was living at the time at Vondelo Park on Nassau Avenue.
At the J.A. [Central Office for Jewish Emigration] was a whole list of all the addresses delivered by him.
Dutch archives unearthed by the investigators confirmed that someone on the Joodse Raad was turning over lists of Jewish hiding places to the Nazis and that van der Bergh, as one of the leaders of the Joodse Raad, had access to a detailed list of Amsterdam addresses where Jews were known to be hiding. Although there is no “smoking gun” evidence that he, or anyone else on the Jewish Council, knew who was hiding at Prinsengracht 263, the Pankoke team concluded that, desperate to save his family, it was van der Burgh who had delivered this information to the Nazis.
Otto knew about the note and, although the reason for his suppressing it is not known (and likely never will be), the most likely scenario is that he feared that antisemitism would be increased were the public to learn that his family had been betrayed by a Jew. Indeed, even today, there are mentally deranged haters who blame the Holocaust on the Jews themselves.
Pankoke, who was always clear that there can be no absolute certainty regarding the team’s conclusion, maintained that, although van den Bergh could not be convicted in a modern court of law because of the lack of evidence to establish his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he had knowledge, motive, and opportunity and substantial circumstantial evidence speaks eloquently to his guilt. A most telling additional factor pointing to van den Burgh is that when the Nazis disbanded the Joodse Raad in September 1943, he was living openly in the middle of Amsterdam and neither he nor any member of his family were sent to the death camps.
Nonetheless, a number of scholars disparage the Pankoke team’s investigation and describe its results as sheer speculation. In fact, about a week after the January 18, 2022, publication of The Betrayal of Anne Frank, A Cold Case Investigation, its Dutch publisher suspended publication of the book on the alleged grounds that it was insufficiently critical. However, Ronald Leopold, director of the Anne Frank House Museum, characterized the team’s conclusion as “a fascinating hypothesis that merited further research,” and stated, “I think that they came up with a lot of interesting information, but I also think there are still many missing pieces of the puzzle. And those pieces need to be further investigated in order to see how we can value this new theory.”