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The world has lost a ‘brave soul’

Last week, one of the bravest souls who ever walked this earth died at the age of 100.

Miep Gies died Jan. 11 in the Netherlands after a short illness.

Gies was the last of the Christians who helped to hide diarist Anne Frank, her parents, her sister and four friends of the family in the Secret Annex in Frank’s father’s office in Amsterdam during World War II. Gies, her husband and a handful of other employees of Otto Frank’s spice and pectin company risked their lives and freedom to try to help the Franks and others maintain theirs.

I first became familiar with Gies when I read Anne Frank’s diary while I was in college. I soon began devouring all the Holocaust literature I could get my hands on and was astounded a few years ago when a leisurely perusal of a bookstore led me to Gies’ book, “Anne Frank Remembered,” which I had not previously known existed.

I vaguely recall staying up all night that night reading Gies’ book. I laughed at the handful of funny parts. I wept when the residents of the annex – Anne, her sister Margot and their parents Otto and Edith; Hermann and Auguste van Pels and their son, Peter, and dentist Fritz Pfeffer – were betrayed after more than two years in agonizing hiding.

I wept when Gies described picking up the papers of Anne’s diary and putting them in a drawer, to return to Anne when the war was over.

I wept again when Gies described her feelings at discovering, after the war, that Otto Frank was the only survivor of the eight people into whom she had invested immeasurable amounts of time, energy and money.

I wept when Gies described handing over Anne’s diary to Mr. Frank, only after he received confirmation Anne would not return.

I marveled at Gies’ bravery – when she agreed to help support the hiders, a crime in Nazi Germany, when she bribed shopkeepers for extra food and supplies, and when she attempted to bribe a Nazi officer to negotiate the release of the Annex residents following their arrest.

After reading the book, I placed it on my bookshelf with dozens of others. I read it once again a year or so later, when I was packing my books for a move.

Back in August 2009, I was astounded to discover – I forget how – that Gies was still alive and well. I had assumed she was long dead, like many others of her era. I found her official Web site and sent her a short message through the contact page – wishing her well, admiring her bravery, thanking her for helping to hide the Franks, thanking her for writing her book, apologizing for taking up her time and asking if she would sign my copy of “Anne Frank Remembered” if I mailed it to her.

A couple of weeks went by, and I figured Gies simply was too old or received too much mail to respond to each one. I was, however, overjoyed on Aug. 31, 2009, to find this message in my inbox:

“Dear Tracy, My ability to write has deteriorated and it causes me pain to write. I have therefore decided not to sign anymore. I hope you will understand. Thank you for your nice words. Kind regards, Miep Gies.”

I was on Cloud Nine. Never mind a typist probably entered those letters into the computer. Never mind that I wouldn’t get my book signed. Never mind that, perhaps, she never even read my message and the response I got was a form letter. At least I made my attempt to let her know how much her dedication meant to generations.

Gies and the others who hid the Franks are perhaps the most famous, but certainly not the only, people who went to extraordinary measures to preserve lives from the horror surrounding them in those times. Gies, to me, is a symbol of the efforts of thousands of others – as she said herself in her book.

“I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more – much more – during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bear witness. Never a day goes by that I do not think of what happened then.” – Miep Gies, from “Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family.”