The new eight-part miniseries, “A Small Light,” that begins streaming May 1 on Hulu and Disney+, relates the iconic story of Anne Frank from a different perspective. It is a distinct departure from the successful Broadway production and the Hollywood film of the 1950s, which confines the story to the crowded secret annex where Anne, her family, and the Jewish Van Pels and Pfeffer families hide from the Nazis.
Unlike “The Diary of Anne Frank,” this new miniseries is largely set in the world outside the annex. Much of the action takes place in wartime Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. It tells its suspenseful tale not through the innocent eyes of a teenager just coming to maturity but through the experienced eyes of Mies Giep, who works for Anne’s father, Otto.
Giep, who was born Hermine Santrouschitz, in Vienna, was adopted by a Dutch family when she was 11. She began working for Otto Frank, when he moved from Germany in 1933 to The Netherlands to escape Nazi persecution. By the time Frank, his wife and two daughters decided to go into hiding in what had been the laboratory for his food products business, Giep was in her early 30s and married to her husband, Jan. He was an active participant in the Dutch resistance.
According to the director of the first three episodes of the eight-part series, Susanna Fogel, the title came from the belief that Giep held that it was her moral duty to save the lives of the Jews.
“It comes from a quotation from Miep herself, who said anyone can turn on a small light in a dark room. So, she really rejected the idea that she was a hero to be mythologized, she thought everyone has the capacity to do something like this. The idea of a small light is really just how each one of us can contribute in some meaningful way by making small choices from a place of empathy and community just the way that she did.”
Giep, who lived to be 100, wrote a book about her experiences in 1987 entitled, “Anne Frank Remembered.” It became the basis for a British documentary of the same name that won an Academy Award in 1996. She went to Los Angeles where she got a standing ovation during the awards. Director Fogel watched a recording of that ceremony where Giep spoke with characteristic modesty.
“Interestingly, she said, I am not a hero. I’m not a special person.” Fogel relates. “But in this production, she is really the central focus. She is a special person. She is a hero.”
For 24 months, as the series so dramatically portrays, Giep, with the help of her husband, risked everything and miraculously managed to survive, although both had some close calls.
Although the British actress, Bel Powley, who portrays the gentile, 30-something Giep, spent an exhausting six months in front of the camera, with each episode she found herself increasingly impressed by the day-to-day heroism of her character.
“Episode by episode, every time I would get a new script, I was totally astounded and in awe of the bravery that this woman displayed. And she always did it unwaveringly. You get a sense of this also from reading her book where she just did it because she had to. I mean, I’m completely in awe of her. She’s an inspiration, really,”
Ironically, Powley, who plays a non-Jewish characters who risks her life saving the Franks, is, herself, Jewish. She and her sister were raised in a Jewish home in West London, and she remembers, with fondness, the Jewish holidays she spent with her grandmother, who passed away during the COVID pandemic. Living with the production during its long shooting schedule on location in Prague and Amsterdam caused her to reflect on the similarities between what is happening in the world today and what was happening 80 years ago in Europe.
“With the rise of antisemitism right now, I think that it’s a very good time for this project to be coming out. I think, sadly, there are a lot of similarities between the project that I was filming and what’s actually happening in the world right now. So, I felt really connected to it.”
The project is an ABC Signature production with Israel’s Keshet Studios, which has a production office in Hollywood. The Israelis have expanded their co-production partnerships in Hollywood and other major international markets over the past two decades. For them, “A Small Light” is an important step forward.