A new series on Disney+ and Hulu tells the story of Miep Gies, a secretary who helped Anne Frank and others hide in Amsterdam during World War II.
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By Claire Moses
Reporting from London
Two days after the Gestapo’s 1944 raid on the annex where Anne Frank and others were hiding, Miep Gies, a seemingly ordinary secretary, and her colleague walked into the hiding place and encountered a chaotic scene left behind by the Nazis.
Years later, Gies described what she saw that day as a mess of books, newspapers and other everyday items. “And then we started searching. For what, I don’t know, but we were looking for something,” she said in a 1958 interview. Among the items, she found a red plaid diary. Gies grabbed it and put it in a drawer in her office.
She had just saved one of the Holocaust’s most famous accounts: Anne Frank’s diary.
That moment, and much more about Gies’s life and heroism, is at the center of “A Small Light,” a new eight-part series that tells the story of Gies (Bel Powley), her husband, Jan (Joe Cole), and their involvement in Dutch resistance efforts during World War II. The show premieres Monday on National Geographic, and comes to Disney+ and Hulu the following day.
Work on “A Small Light” began six years ago, after its showrunners Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, a married couple who used to be producers and screenwriters for “Grey’s Anatomy,” visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Walking around the museum and listening to tour guides, they learned that many people don’t really know the story of the Frank family anymore, let alone the story of the people who helped them, Rater and Phelan said in a recent video interview.
Since then, they said, the moral question at the heart of Gies’s story — whether to do the right thing, the wrong thing or nothing at all — has only become more important, given how war, nationalism and antisemitism have once again been spreading across Europe.
“When we started this project,” Phelan said, “it certainly didn’t feel as relevant as it feels now.”
While the show opens with Gies, who wasn’t Jewish, trying to dodge a Nazi checkpoint, the first episode quickly takes the viewer back to 1934, when Gies was single and living with her adopted Dutch family. She finds employment with Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber) — a stern, fellow German-speaking immigrant — and meets her future husband, a social worker. Much of the first episode follows Gies living life as a modern young woman, meeting friends and going out dancing.
Rater and Phelan wanted to give the show a contemporary feel by focusing “A Small Light” not just around war, but also around ordinary people’s ordinary lives being suddenly interrupted.
“Period pieces for me sometimes feel a bit sepia-toned, and that makes you feel distanced from them,” Powley said. But “A Small Light” didn’t feel that way. “It didn’t feel like I was wearing a costume,” she added.
“These people, they had washing machines and toasters. They were living in a modern world and they couldn’t believe, in this modern world that they were living, that these things could happen,” Rater said.
While the story of Anne Frank and what happened to her is well known, Gies — who died in 2010 at 100 — largely stayed out of the limelight. She published a memoir, “Anne Frank Remembered,” in 1987 and was involved with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, but much of her story stayed private.
“When we started digging, we started putting together these pieces that I don’t know that anybody had ever put together before,” Phelan said. In the course of their research, with the help of a local researcher in the Netherlands, Rater and Phelan discovered that Gies and her husband also helped people hide in their own home, including two nurses.
In the show, we see nurses help save babies from being killed by the Nazis, and instead sending them to live in the Dutch countryside. One memorable scene shows how nurses swapped babies for dolls, telling Jewish mothers to lose the dolls on their way to concentration camps.
“It is such a fascinating, heartbreaking, hard to believe story at times,” Cole, who plays Gies’s husband, said in a video interview.
When in 1942, Otto Frank asked Gies to help hide him, his daughters, Anne and Margot, and his wife, Edith, in an annex at their office, Gies didn’t hesitate before saying yes.
“She had no idea what she was saying yes to,” Rater said. “And then she had to keep saying yes for two years.”
This was until a warm day in August 1944 when Nazis raided the office and found the eight people — the Frank family and four others — hiding in the annex.
In “A Small Light,” Gies’s decision to help despite the dangers and disruption this posed to her life (she kept the secret, brought food and books and more), her unwavering spirit and her reluctance to be seen as a hero makes the viewer ask: What would I have done in that situation? The show’s title is taken from a quote by Gies: “Even a regular secretary, a housewife or a teenager can turn on a small light in a dark room.”
The show “is about your personal dynamics that are interrupted by the war,” said Schreiber who recently spent time in Ukraine raising money for humanitarian aid. “That’s part of what I saw in Ukraine. These people’s lives have been interrupted and they try to continue.”
“A Small Light” was shot in the Netherlands — in Amsterdam and Harlem — and Prague, where the interior scenes were filmed in a three-story replica of Otto Frank’s Amsterdam office, where the annex was hidden behind a bookcase. (The original building, on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, is now the Anne Frank House.)
While “A Small Light” has moments of levity and snippets of life’s mundanity despite the war raging outside, the episodes gradually become more intense, leading up to the inevitable betrayal that doomed all the people in the annex except for Otto Frank, Anne’s father.
Schreiber, who is Jewish, said he was often asked to play roles in Holocaust films. “I hate the narrative that we went like lambs to the slaughter,” which is common in such movies, he said.
“But this felt different,” he added.
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