The Real Heroine Behind “A Small Light” And The Strength Of Femininity

You’ve probably heard about Anne Frank or even read her famous diary. But do you know the story of Miep Gies, the woman who tried to save her?

By Jillian Schroeder6 min read
ASmallLight Ep101 Sc144 Day18 0037 R
National Geographic/A Small Light/2023

One of the most iconic works describing life during World War II, The Diary of Anne Frank, has given numerous generations a vivid image of the life Jewish people in hiding lived in Nazi-occupied territories. What starts as the childish thoughts of a 13-year-old girl becomes mature meditations on the meaning of life and the way beauty transforms even the darkest of times.

But there’s more to the story than Anne’s perspective, and the National Geographic miniseries A Small Light is ready to tell it. Focusing the narrative on Miep Gies, one of Otto Frank’s office workers who agreed to hide the Frank family from the Germans, the show tells the inspiring story of a small community’s rebellion against Nazi oppression and the role one woman played in preserving one of our greatest World War II source documents.

“I am not a hero. I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more – much more,” Miep says in Anne Frank Remembered, her account of the events that occurred “during those dark and terrible times.” But the recent TV series reveals the enduring appeal of her so-called ordinary heroism, and even more, our craving for stories that illustrate the strength that lies in true femininity

Who Was Miep Gies?

Though a proud Dutchwoman until her death, Hermine Gies – more commonly known by her affectionate nickname Miep – wasn’t actually Dutch by birth. Miep was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1909, where she lived through the horrors of World War I. Because of post-war food shortages, Miep was sent to live with a foster family in the Netherlands. She fell in love with the Dutch way of life and the city of Amsterdam, and was relieved when her birth family consented to her remaining with her foster family indefinitely.

Hired by Otto Frank in 1933 as a temporary office worker, she immediately developed a rapport with her employer that turned into a true friendship. Frank had recently immigrated to the Netherlands from Germany, fleeing the rise of the Nazi party. As Miep learned the tricks of Mr. Frank’s jam-making trade, the two bonded over their “common passion for politics.” When Frank’s wife and daughters joined him in Amsterdam, Miep’s knowledge of German and her effusive spirit helped the family to adjust to their new home.

National Geographic/A Small Light/2023
National Geographic/A Small Light/2023

Miep’s rebellion against the Nazi occupation started long before hiding the Frank family, and in fact, it nearly led to her expulsion from the country. Early after the invasion, Miep was invited to join a Nazi women’s group – an invitation which she vehemently refused. Her refusal was reported to the Nazi officials, who then revoked her passport and demanded she leave the country within three months.

Though she was heartbroken that she would have to leave the country, Miep was confident that she had made the right choice. Miep and her steady boyfriend Jan Gies (nicknamed Henk in Anne’s diary), however, quickly arranged to marry despite the order for Miep to leave so that she could remain in the country. This was more than a marriage of convenience, though – they were married until his death in 1993. Miep and Jan’s teamwork in overcoming the governmental obstacle to their marriage was the first of many ways they supported and depended on each other in the times to come. 

National Geographic/A Small Light/2023
National Geographic/A Small Light/2023

Though the full story reveals many counts of heroism, both from Miep and her husband Jan, it is their commitment to hide the Frank family for which they are rightfully the best known. As conditions for Jewish families worsened, Otto Frank made the decision to bring his family into hiding. Though Otto was hesitant to ask for Miep’s help, he found her willing to do so without question. “There is a look between two people once or twice in a lifetime that cannot be described by words. That look passed between us,” Miep writes in Anne Frank Remembered. “[He said] ‘Miep, for those who help Jews, the punishment is harsh; imprisonment, perhaps-’ I cut him off. ‘I said, ‘Of course.’ I meant it.”

Miep’s Story Illustrates the Heroism of True Femininity

“There is nothing special about me,” said Miep of her own actions. “I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.” But part of what makes Miep’s story remarkable is how it reveals the heroism embedded in the ordinary feminine heart. Unlike other freedom fighters of the time, who fought back against the Nazi powers by establishing underground circuits or hindering Nazi advances through sabotage, Miep fought by nurturing lives that could not have survived without her assistance. 

Both Miep and Anne relate how Miep needed to make daily trips to multiple butchers and grocers so she could keep the Frank and Van Daan families fed. She fetched whatever she could, including books and paper for writing, to bring the hidden families joy in their cramped and monotonous hideout. At one time, she had the opportunity to buy a bundle of strawberries, which she immediately brought to the Annex for a jam-making party. Rather than focusing on one large act of heroism, Miep did a different kind of courageous work: the steady care and empathy that makes difficult times truly livable.

Nor did Miep’s empathy and care stop after the family was captured on August 4, 1944. Despite having the opportunity to leave after the Naxi officers’ arrival at the Franks’ hiding place, Miep chose to remain, unable to leave her friends in their hour of need. Because of her bravery, Miep was able to find Anne’s diary when she poured over the wreckage of the Annex and kept it safe until the end of the war in hopes that she could return it to Anne. 

Both the diary and Miep herself proved to be a necessary support to Otto Frank when he returned from the camp only to learn that every other member who had been in hiding had died in the concentration camps. Knowing that her friend needed comfort, Miep gave him the diary she had saved, and she and Jan insisted that Otto live with them, which he did for more than seven years. A desperate situation – a father who has lost all of his family – was given hope by Miep’s empathy for the suffering of others and her sensitivity to their needs.

Depictions of Miep Gies and the Frank Family

The timeless truths of Anne’s diary and the story of those who fought to keep the family hidden and alive have an enduring appeal, as can be seen by the many films and TV series that have addressed the stories before. Here are a few notable adaptations.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

20th Century Fox/The Diary of Anne Frank/1959
20th Century Fox/The Diary of Anne Frank/1959

When director George Stevens returned to Hollywood at the end of World War II, he was haunted by the sights he had seen while documenting the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp on behalf of the U.S. Army. Stevens’ experiences would eventually lead to his adapting Anne Frank’s diary into its first motion picture. Nominated for multiple Oscars, this film adaptation captures the poignancy of Anne’s hopeful young life cut short by such violence. Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank (1988)

Cabin Fever Entertainment Inc./The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank/1988
Cabin Fever Entertainment Inc./The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank/1988

The first screen story to focus on Miep’s side of the story, this made-for-TV film starring Mary Steenburgen is a very faithful adaptation of Anne Frank Remembered, lifting many scenes straight from the book’s pages. The film strives to create a historically accurate feeling, with the actors speaking in Dutch accents and speaking as many direct lines of dialogue from the book as possible. You can watch an interview of Miep and Steenburgen here, discussing Miep’s role in the Frank story. Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

My Best Friend Anne Frank (2021)

Netflix/My Best Friend Anne Frank/2021
Netflix/My Best Friend Anne Frank/2021

An adaptation of Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend, this Dutch film tells the story of Hannah Goslar, one of Frank’s friends who reunited with her in the concentration camp at Bergen-Belson. As we watch Hannah fight to keep her little sister Gabi safe, Hannah’s memories of Anne are told in flashback as she spends her final visits with her friend through a barbed wire fence. Available for streaming on Netflix.

A Small Light is a Dark Story Told with Reverence and Warmth

What struck me most when watching A Small Light was the show’s incredible warmth and vivacity. While it tells a dark story (we all know the tragic ending awaiting the Frank family), the show focuses on bringing to life the love and community between its characters. The streets of Amsterdam and the Annex do not feel like the setting of a drama – they feel like a home, and its characters are our friends.

The series is given much of its balance of warmth and gravitas by Bel Powley’s performance as Miep. Powley’s Miep is irreverent in many little ways, but she has an irresistible charm that is made all the more endearing by her powerful sense of loyalty. She feels like a perfectly normal person, which helps us to see Miep the way she saw herself: not extraordinary, but a person of good conscience.

National Geographic/A Small Light/2023
National Geographic/A Small Light/2023

Powley has a strong supporting cast of characters in A Small Light who help bring the world of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam to life. Miep’s husband Jan (Joe Cole) is manly but not macho, a man who expresses his love for his wife and his country by acting, not talking. He has great chemistry with Powley, and their ever-strengthening marriage is one of the unifying themes of the mini-series. Liev Schreiber brings the full gravitas of his lengthy career to the sole survivor of the Annex, Otto Frank, and of special note is newcomer Billie Boullet, who plays Anne with a sincerity that allows Anne to be a real teenager and not just a martyr to history. 

The effect of the show’s warmth is that the inevitable betrayal and tragedy of the Frank family’s capture feel all the more devastating. Episode 7 of the show, which is devoted almost exclusively to the event of the capture, is truly heart-rending. The audience experiences the events through Miep’s eyes, forced to watch as her beloved friends are taken to their deaths while she is powerless to stop them. 

A Small Light tells the story of Miep, Jan, and the Frank family, but it finds time to expand its scope by including several side stories, some based on historical fact and others based on stories about Nazi sympathizers. A fictitious best friend (Eleanor Tomlinson) is invented for Miep, whose acceptance of the Nazi invaders causes a rift in their relationship and reminds the audience of the evils to which many blinded themselves.

Similarly, the series also includes the true actions of gay Resistance fighter Willem Arondeus, who blew up a Dutch public records office in an attempt to hide the identity of many Dutch Jews. The show ties figures like Arondeus to the narrative through Jan Gies, who conducted other Resistance work outside his aid to the Frank family. The inclusion of these side stories fleshes out the details of the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis, but their addition to the show may prove distracting to some viewers, especially those who wish to focus on Miep and the Frank family. 

A Small Light is available for streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.

Closing Thoughts

Though Miep Gies viewed herself as an ordinary woman, her life illustrates the strength of the feminine heart even in the darkest of times. The most recent adaptation of her story, A Small Light, tells the story with a warmth that makes the true life tragedy all the more poignant, and pays respect to the lives lost and the brave men and women who tried to save them.

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