Behind the Book­case: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hid­ing Place

Bar­bara Low­ell, Valenti­na Toro (illus.)

  • Review
By – October 19, 2020

The sto­ry of how Miep Gies, along with oth­er busi­ness asso­ciates and friends of Anne Frank’s father, coura­geous­ly hid his fam­i­ly from the Nazis is well known. After World War II end­ed, Gies returned to the Secret Annex and found the diary in which Anne had record­ed her expe­ri­ences and feel­ings. Gies pre­sent­ed Anne’s father, Otto, with the diary, which he pub­lished in an edit­ed form. In Behind the Book­case, Bar­bara Low­ell and Valenti­na Toro approach Gies’s sto­ry as one of per­son­al moral con­vic­tion and empa­thy, one with great sig­nif­i­cance for young read­ers today. The book’s shared focus is on both Gies and Anne, defin­ing their sto­ry as one of friend­ship and shared suf­fer­ing. Author and illus­tra­tor do not deny Miep Gies’s extra­or­di­nary hero­ism but frame it as a nat­ur­al response to the events of her life and the depth of her emo­tion­al involve­ment in her Jew­ish com­pa­tri­ots’ tragedy.

Using spare and under­stat­ed lan­guage, Low­ell intro­duces back­ground infor­ma­tion about the Nazi occu­pa­tion of the Nether­lands and of Anne’s time in hid­ing, before her fam­i­ly is betrayed and arrest­ed. The author refers to the ways in which Jew­ish lives had become unpre­dictable and dan­ger­ous,” and how, in spite of great per­son­al risk, Miep Gies agrees to help the Franks and sev­er­al of their acquain­tances with­out hes­i­tat­ing.” Gies’s par­ents had sent her from their home in Vien­na to Hol­land after World War I to escape pover­ty; the phys­i­cal depri­va­tion and lone­li­ness of her child­hood, and the wel­come she found with her Dutch fos­ter fam­i­ly, were a pro­found influ­ence on her choic­es as an adult. This nat­ur­al tran­si­tion from vul­ner­a­ble child to adult pro­tec­tor is a cen­tral part of Gies’s path in life.

Lowell’s details con­vey the har­row­ing bal­ance in Anne’s life, as she tries to main­tain ele­ments of a nor­mal ado­les­cence under gross­ly dis­tort­ed con­di­tions. As a young woman, Gies is able to relate to Anne’s emo­tion­al needs. In addi­tion to bring­ing news of the war, Gies admires Anne’s col­lec­tion of movie star pho­tos and even brings her a pair of used red high heel shoes, rec­og­niz­ing the teen’s need for beau­ty even under impos­si­ble con­di­tions. Gies and her hus­band even spend a night in the Secret Annex, as they need to inter­nal­ize emo­tion­al­ly the impris­oned Jews’ adap­ta­tion to ter­ri­ble cir­cum­stances. Through­out the book, Gies strives to shel­ter Anne phys­i­cal­ly, but also to pre­serve for her, as far as pos­si­ble, a sem­blance of her for­mer freedom.

Valenti­na Toro’s images are pow­er­ful. Her lim­it­ed col­or palette of blue, grey, and brown shades, along with her use of angles and space, are rem­i­nis­cent of expres­sion­ist the­ater. Pic­tures cap­ture the claus­tro­pho­bic con­di­tions of the Secret Annex. In one scene, Anne is seat­ed on the floor with her diary in the same cramped area where oth­ers read a news­pa­per while stand­ing, pre­pare food at a small counter, or hud­dle in a cor­ner. After the Jews have been betrayed by an infor­mant, anoth­er pic­ture depicts their legs descend­ing a stair­case to leave their sanc­tu­ary for­ev­er. There is a ghost­ly qual­i­ty to Toro’s char­ac­ters, whose min­i­mal­ly sketched fea­tures are a fore­shad­ow­ing of their fate. The illus­tra­tions have a sym­bol­ic dimen­sion, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing his­tor­i­cal real­ism. Anne Frank, Miep Gies, and the oth­er Jews and their pro­tec­tors are trapped by the hor­rors of their time, but Low­ell and Toro grant them indi­vid­ual dig­ni­ty and meaning.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes a detailed Author’s Note,” and sug­ges­tions for fur­ther reading.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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