A Small Light Tells a Powerful True Story of Courage in the Face of Fascism

5 minute read

Miep Gies did not realize, when she started working as a secretary for pectin manufacturer Opekta, that she was destined for heroism. Twenty-four and directionless, the Austrian-born Gies still lived with the Dutch family that had adopted her as a sick child. In an early scene from Nat Geo’s historical drama A Small Light, Miep’s (Bel Powley) parents urge her to wed her brother Cas (Laurie Kynaston), who isn’t a blood relative but does happen to be gay. “The worst thing about it,” she reflects, “is that’s all they think I’m capable of—marrying my brother.”

How wrong they were. The man who hired Gies to be his secretary, in 1933, was Otto Frank, who had just moved his family from Germany to Amsterdam to escape Hitler. Nearly a decade later, when the Nazis marched into the city and started rounding up Jews, she helped the Franks hide, for more than two years, in a secret annex above the Opekta offices. When the Nazis finally raided the place and deported the eight people living there to concentration camps, Gies saved Anne Frank’s diary. A Small Light, premiering May 1, tells her story—a bracing, emotional but not excessively sentimental account of a regular woman’s resistance to fascism.

Liev Schreiber in A Small LightDusan Martincek—Disney

Created by Grey’s Anatomy alums Tony Phelan and Joan Rater, the miniseries spans more than a decade in the lives of Miep, her husband Jan (Joe Cole), and the Franks. For most of its eight episodes, Otto (played with decency and gravitas by Liev Schreiber), his wife Edith (Amira Casar), and their daughters Anne (Billie Boullet of The Worst Witch, perfectly cast) and Margot (Ashley Brooke) are confined to close quarters with the family of Otto’s employee Hermann Van Pels (Andy Nyman). Miep’s Jewish dentist, Dr. Pfeffer (Noah Taylor), moves in early on, after she makes a passionate case to Otto that they can’t in good conscience turn him away. Miep is the group’s sole conduit to the outside world. They rely on her, not just for food—a constant headache at a time when groceries are rationed and seeking out extra rice or potatoes raises Nazi hackles—but also for news of the war and a connection to life beyond the annex’s walls.

This might sound like the setup for the kind of harrowing slog that we associate with Holocaust stories. After all, we know how Anne’s tragically short life ended. Yet A Small Light is true to its title. By centering the Gieses, Phelan and Rater illuminate the quotidian realities of the Nazi occupation—and particularly the courageous risks that regular Dutch people took to thwart the Reich’s genocidal mission. Although she’s also helping to keep Opekta afloat in Otto’s absence, hiding the Franks becomes a full-time job for Miep; she charms butchers into stretching rations, mediates conflicts between her cooped-up friends, plays dumb with German soldiers convinced that Otto is still in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Jan joins a Dutch Resistance cell headquartered at a gay bar. Through the Gieses’ eyes, we see Jewish children smuggled into rural hiding with hair dyed blonde and underground plots to bomb buildings that house information of vital importance to the Nazis. The couple takes in a fugitive student who refused to comply with the new regime.

Billie Boullet, left, and Bel Powley, in A Small LightDusan Martincek—Disney

But if A Small Light isn’t misery porn, neither is it inspiration porn. From episode to episode, the creators filter the characters’ extreme circumstances through such universal human experiences as religious tradition and romantic love. Miep and Jan’s relationship struggles under the stress of their secrets. And while they rearrange their lives around saving as many people as possible from the camps, they’re constantly confronted with friends and neighbors who can’t be bothered. Some profess to “stay out of politics.” Others become passive sympathizers or even full-on Nazis. Resistance work isn’t all feel-good fellowship, either. Most of the time, it requires separating husbands and wives, parents and children, in hopes of ensuring their survival.

The series is not without stagy monologues or dialogue that presses harder than it needs to on the moral imperatives at play. But since the credits rolled on the finale, it’s been the quieter ways in which A Small Light fleshes out the difficulties and dangers of being a good person in horrific times that have lingered in my mind. Key to this subtlety is the exquisite lead performance from Powley, a versatile English actor who broke through in the U.S. with an equally memorable turn as the title character of 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and has since gone on to roles in The Morning Show and the under-appreciated British import Everything I Know About Love. Here, she balances bravery, kindness, ingenuity, and an infectious liveliness with moments of sanctimony and echoes of childhood trauma. Miep is a hero, but before that a human—which also makes her an ideal embodiment of the cause for which her antifascist cohort is fighting.

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