Thoughts on “Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place” by Barbara Lowell

“Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place” by Barbara Lowell

Illustrator: Valentina Toro

I suspect many people are like me: I read Anne Frank’s diary and familiar with its role in educating people around the world about the Holocaust but didn’t recall Miep Gies’ role in keeping her and family alive while they were hiding in the famous attick in Amsterdam. This book does a great job of telling some of the highlights of the life of this originally Austian woman who was not just provided food for the family but also was the person who grabbed and saved the diary that became so well-known after Anne’s Frank published it in 1947. 

It was the little, personal touches in the book I enjoyed most in the general arch of the story. Like as she didn’t speak Dutch when she first arrived in the Netherlands as a child she had a card hanging on her neck that told who she was. Or how she learned to enjoy a specific Dutch food (Buttered bread with chocolate sprinkles on top). Or how she got red high heels of Anne. These little details made not just the whole book more relatable but also told me that the author did proper research including reading Ms. Gies’ book: “Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family”.

The color palette used by the illustrator Valentine Toro for the pictures and design of this book, intended for  7 to 11 year olds, is properly subdued. In most other children’s books the colors are loud primary or very close to it. Here they are softer and close to sepia tones. The style of the drawings is also a mix of modern and old fashioned, reminds me of the books from the 1960’s. This deliberate choice has an effect that the style in itself tells the reader that this is a history book. I value its educational service while not scaring children too much.

Gies received many honors and awards from several states after World War II for her actions during the war. “She always maintained that while she appreciated the honors, they embarrassed her: ‘I am not a hero. I am not a special person. I don’t want attention. I did what any decent person would have done’.” (Wikipedia) This is a key takeaway from the book that “ordinary”, but decent people can and do turn into heroes during crises. Unfortunately the whole world is in crisis now due to the COVID19 pandemic. I already read plenty of stories of “ordinary people” going way beyond doing their job under extraordinary circumstances. I am not just thinking of the people working in the medical field, but people who work in those service industries that haven’t shut down. I am aware that often they are forced to work because of their personal financial constraints. I.e. they don’t have the reserves to sit this one out and don’t get enough help from governments to do so. I also think many of them take pride in their work and I know from personal experience too how good it feels to help others and do a good job. 

I cannot avoid thinking of the growing anti-immigrant sentiment around the world. Gies was an immigrant who was welcomed and treated by a Dutch family, already with 5 children, like one of their own. Had that Dutch family not acted with kindness we may not have ever learned about Anne Frank’s diary. The simple lesson is to be kind to everyone, if for no other reason is that you may never know when you will need kindness in your own life. Right now, the pandemic brought to the surface even more that we all depend on other people’s kindness and it literally can save our lives. My heart was touched the other day at the butcher’s, when I realized why it took so long for the woman in front of me to order the meat. She was doing the shopping for 5-6 people and each gave her their admittedly rather short shopping list. I don’t know whether she was doing the shopping for several people in her house or for residents of an institution, but when she used a blessing to say goodbye to the butcher I knew that she was a devout religious person. She was acting with integrity, predisposed to kindness, based on the tenet of her faith. The time I waited in line got filled with true meaning.

The final thought that occured to me while reading this book is a comparison in our current “shelter-at-place/stay-at-home” situation and that of Anne Frank’s in the attic. It is just part of the truth that we both stay at home for our own safety. It is also true both fear our lives if ee venture out. But that’s where the similarities end. The nature of the danger is very different. For Jews in World War II it was the deliberate actions of others–the Nazis and their sympathizers–they had to fear. “All” we need to fear is a tiny virus (and its effects on our health) that can come from anyone on the street, or even from touching any surface. It is much more impersonal and cannot directly point to a person who would want to harm us. (I am not talking about those who want to be in the economy right away. No matter how misguided their thoughts and actions are, I don’t believe their goal is harming others.) Another major difference is that in case we are sick ourselves (and we may not even know it) we don’t go out to the streets in order not to infect others. So it is a decent thing to do. Most of us are decent enough people. If given the choice to do so we opt for the right action. Or in this case inaction.

It is hard not to see and think about the world through the lense of the current situation. Even a history/story book for children brings out my contemporaneous concerns. Nevertheless “Behind the Bookcase” can and and is worthy to be read any time.

The book will be published on September 1, 2020 and you can already pre-order it at Amazon. 

Publisher’s description:

Anne Frank’s diary is a gift to the world because of Miep Gies. One of the protectors of the Frank family, Miep recovered the diary after the family was discovered by Nazis, and then returned it to Otto Frank after World War II. Displaced from her own home as a child during World War I, Miep had great empathy for Anne, and she found ways―like talking about Hollywood gossip and fashion trends―to engage her. The story of their relationship―and he impending danger to the family in hiding―unfolds in this unique perspective of Anne Frank’s widely known story.

Disclaimer: I have received an electronic copy of this book from Kar-Ben Publishing, the publisher for review.

Year first published: 2020

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