Miep Gies, the remarkable Dutch woman who hid Anne Frank and her family in a secret warehouse annex for two years, died on Monday at the age of 100. After the Gestapo raided the annex (which came to be known as the attic), Miep Gies saved the papers she found there, including Anne Frank's diary. She kept them locked in a desk drawer until after the war, when she returned them to Otto Frank, the only person in his family to survive the death camps. Miep Gies never read the diary while it was in her possession. She said it would have been an insult to Anne's privacy. And in spite of the risks to herself and her family, Miep Gies never considered herself a hero. She said she was only doing her human duty.
In 1988, Miep Gies made a trip to America. The trip was arranged by Nita Lee, my childhood friend. Nita, 36, had recently been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and was given less than a year to live. Her daughters, Alyson and Jennifer, were in middle and high school at the time, and Alyson was studying the history of World War II. Nita was surprised to learn that Alyson's textbook contained only a few short paragraphs about the Holocaust. Nita, a traditional but not an especially religious Jew, decided to use the time she had left creating a Holocaust resource center so that her daughters and other local children could learn about what the textbooks had left out.
Nita's children had been moved by reading The Diary of Anne Frank, so Nita decided she would have Miep Gies come to America to speak about Anne Frank. She believed that Miep Gies' presence would be of historical importance to the community, a signifier to the county governments and local corporations she would have to go to for funds for her project.
Nita wrote to Miep Gies, who politely declined. She did not like to travel, she said. She had been to the United States only once since the war, to support a television movie based on her book about the secret annex, and although she appreciated Nita's invitation, she would not come.
Nita wrote Miep Gies again, explaining that, although American children read Anne Frank's diary, many did not believe it was a work of non-fiction. Miep Gies was the only person living who could cement the reality of what had happened in the attic and, by extension, what had happened all over Europe. Miep Gies once again refused.
Nita would not give up. She contacted the Anne Frank Foundation. She contacted the director of the television movie, asking for his help. Finally, Miep Gies wrote Nita a letter, wryly commenting on her determination, and agreeing to come to Long Island. But she had a pre-requisite: before she spoke to the general community, she wanted time to meet individually with the children.
Miep Gies appeared at Temple Judea in Manhasset, Long Island in the autumn of 1988. She discussed Anne Frank with each religious school class and described her own experience of living through the Holocaust as a non-Jew.
The evening she was to give her speech, a thousand people filled the temple sanctuary to more than overflowing. Before the speech, Nita took her daughters, me and my daughter, Mariah, who was eleven at the time, to meet Miep Gies.
Miep Gies sat in an armchair wearing a dark skirt and cardigan and a white silk blouse with a grandmotherly scalloped collar. Her large eyeglasses were thin-framed and brown. She asked Mariah in accented English, if she knew about Anne Frank. Mariah said yes. She told Mariah that with her large, dark eyes, Mariah looked just like Anne Frank.
She said that children Mariah's age would be the last generation to meet people who had lived through the Holocaust, people who had witnessed it first-hand. That is why she had wanted to speak to the children, she said. She worried that people might someday say that the Holocaust had never happened. She said if someone told that to Mariah, Mariah was to say, "These things did happen. I know it. I talked to a woman who was there." She made Mariah promise, which Mariah did. Then Miep Gies shook Mariah's hand and as we walked on, I saw her talking to another child.
The Holocaust Resource Center opened in 1995. It still serves the Long Island community. Nita Lee did not live to see the center completed. She died in 1989 at the age of 40. There is a Nita Lee Memorial Art Project at the Center that brings children together with Holocaust Survivors. There are fewer and fewer Survivors for the children to talk to these days.
That the life of Nita Lee, a suburban housewife from Roslyn, NY, and the life of Mies Gies, a Dutch hero who preserved the story of Anne Frank for eternity, could intersect for even a short moment, still astonishes me. The impact of that intersection in the lives of those of us who met Miep Gies and in the lives of those who use the Holocaust Resource Center, continues to be profound. Tanuach beshalom al mishkava, Miep Gies. Tanuach beshalom al mishkava, Nita Lee. Two righteous women. May they rest in peace.