A Sad Farewell to The Secretary Saviour

on Wednesday, January 13, 2010
I was greatly saddened this morning to learn of the death of one of literature's great saviours, Hermine "Miep" Gies. While some who rescued great works of literature have become household names (at least in the book world), Gies remained very much in the background, a testament to her immense modesty and integrity. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that the book she saved has had a greater impact in the years since its publication that anything rescued from the flames by, say, Max Brod or anyone like him.

Gies was not part of the Dutch literary clique, did not dine with authors and publishers. She didn't count the glitterati amongst her friends. No, Gies was a humble secretary at the spice firm Opekta run by Otto Frank. When the Nazis rolled into Amsterdam she did not succumb to the ease of complicity, but rather rose above the majority of her compatriots and, along with her husband Jan and colleagues Victor Kluger, Johannes Kleiman and Bep Voskuijl, helped to hide the Franks in the Achterhuis. Gies risked her life daily, cycling between grocers so as not to arouse suspicion while she collected essential supplies to keep the Franks, Van Pelses and Fritz Pepper alive. Throughout that time, young Anne Frank penned the single greatest work of contemporaneous Holocaust literature ever to surface. Heroism truly bred heroism and, in turn, literary genius. When the Nazis finally got wind of the scheme and raided the apartment above the Opekta offices, Gies once again rose to the occasion, gathering up Anne's papers and locking them in a desk drawer. She never read the diary, claiming that even a teenager's privacy was sacred, and only took it out to hand back to Otto after the war. He went on to publish it, initially butchered by the perhaps understandable editorial touch of an overprotective father, and then, later, in full. Diary of A Young Girl has been translated into countless languages, read by millions of people. As a testament to the everyday reality of Nazi oppression it has no equal.

Gies won many accolades for her actions, including recognition as a Righteous Amongst The Nations, the greatest award possible for non-Jews who risked their lives during the war to save Jewish lives. It is a shame that there is not a similar literary prize that could have been bestowed upon her. Hidden heroes of literature are few and far between, and yet it might be argued that they are almost as significant as the authors whose works they save. To think, if only there had been a Miep Gies to save Bruno Schulz's lost masterpiece The Messiah or stop Gogol from tossing his sequel to Dead Souls into the flames at the instigation of a zealous, mad monk. How much richer the world of literature might now be.


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