In thinking about whom to place alongside Bernstein, Lincoln, Presley, Princess Di, Lennon and King this morning … the answer appeared in a radical second, as I read of Miep Gies’ death this morning. Although noisy homages have been given the last few days to internationally-lauded, famous men and women, I thought it fitting the final day should be dedicated to the spirit of those whose deeds were no less Great, but were quiet heroes … perhaps not as known to the world stage. That being said — let us not overuse the following words: “Hero”, “Mother”, or “Genius.” All of the aforementioned may be used loosely at any given time.
Miep Gies, the Dutch office secretary — who was brave enough to put her life, her husbands life, and the life of her children at risk in order to save others, hiding Anne Frank & her family for two long & stressful years —- died at the age of 100, yesterday January 11th.
Her courageous rescuing activities have become known upon the world stage; due to the phenomenal global popularity of “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” : the Second-highest selling piece of non-fiction (only to the Bible.) For every great man and woman who became known for their rescuing activities, there were thousands more unknowns whose risks defied malevolent forces sometimes even knowingly jeopardizing their own children’s lives. Such an inclination is unimaginable today — and equally as rare, as men, women, mothers & fathers, become increasingly interested in themselves: Me, Myself & I …
Unfortunately, in such cases where evil appears like a giant black tumor on the world stage, sacrifices of equal value must be made to combat them. It could be argued that any man of good conscience, simply did not have a choice in fighting against such barbarism; still, the choices made by men and women such as Miep Gies to risk and protect those in danger in a climate of sheer madness and brutality cannot go unnoticed. In a time when two-thirds of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe was wiped out, most had done nothing to stop it. These are the facts — and precisely why such courageous acts should be honored, remembered and (at least noticed)…whenever possible as such acts were rare, are rare, and continue to be rare, and stand in great relief to the silence of many.
These are prime examples of the greatest moments of humanity: How would we respond to a nightmare of terror that we did not provoke or invite? Would we cower in fear protecting our own self-interests and isolating ourselves and our families? Or would we do what was required of us to restore the balance of light and dark, the only antidote to such evil being absolute fearlessness, conviction and the action required to make our convictions authentic and legitimate?
For two years Miep Gies and her husband Jan sheltered eight Jews in their home, smuggling food from the outside and staying abreast of news to stay a few steps ahead of “surprise” appearances from the Gestapo. Miep formed a bond with the 14-year old Anne Frank becoming her confidant and encouraging her to write in her diary. While the family was betrayed by someone who has never been identified, Anne and her sister Margot were taken to Bergen-Belsen and they perished one tragic month before the Brits liberated the camp. Miep devoted her life to Anne’s legacy which was the only proactive thing remaining for her to do after using all of the wits, resources and will at her disposal to save her life. Upon Otto Frank’s release from the liberation of his camp, he wondered if his two daughters Margot and Anne might still be alive. Miep felt helpless as she had to deliver the news to her father, but remembered the diary and gave it to her father as the only comfort she could give him.
“I am not a hero. I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did and more – much more – during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the heart of those of us who bear witness.” — Miep Gies
When I was a sophomore in college I chanced upon a book that had a huge impact on me and which I read again for the second time about a year ago. It is called “Conscience & Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust” by Eva Fogelman. Fogelman, a psychotherapist and descendant of Holocaust survivors, sought out and interviewed more than 300 rescuers over the course of ten years – many of them extremely difficult to find and several of whom did not want to talk or remember – and dedicated a significant portion of her life to telling these stories. The book is a collection of some of the most moving and unimaginable risks taken by witnesses to a relentless and seemingly endless nightmare. It is a must-read for those who wish to travel through the pain and darkness to get to the side of light and for those occasions when we, for one reason or another, have begun to lose faith in humanity. You cannot read this book and not be moved to tears by the profound goodness of which the human spirit is capable. It will leave an indelible mark on your heart.
Miep Gies and the hundreds of other underground rescuers may not be commemorated with huge parades, thousands of mourners … or given a national holiday, but their movement in navigating dark forces and the willingness to bravely put another human life in front of their own (through direct actions) will never be any less significant than the legacy of the most celebrated martyrs.