Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Miep Gies

Back when this blog was simply a "twinkle in my eye"*, I brainstormed a list of women I could potentially write about.  That primitive list included such feminist heavy weights as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hilary Clinton**. I knew right away that that wasn't the direction I wanted to take because I have a harder time connecting to them given their already established historical clout.  What could I say about them that would be new or insightful?  I knew I wanted to shine light on the "lesser knowns" or at least people who aren't as readily identified in popular feminism.  So I set the list aside and have pieced together this blog from simple "in the moment" inspiration.  After my first few posts, I started to panic that I wouldn't continue writing if I didn't have a solid plan, so I went back to the list to see if there was anyone that I felt fit in with my blog's mission now that it was a reality.  The only person that I couldn't part with was Miep Gies.  I have known about her for as long as I can remember because The Diary of Anne Frank was one of the first books that I ever truly loved.

Ms. Gies was one of the people who helped the Frank family and the rest of the annex dwellers evade arrest for two years in Holland before they were eventually discovered and deported to the death camps.  She found Anne's diary after the raid and saved it until Otto Frank returned after the war.  He had it published shortly thereafter.

While I knew I wanted to write about Miep, I wasn't sure what direction I wanted to go in.  How had she inspired me?  It has been so long since I first heard of her and while I always felt like she was obviously a person to emulate I didn't know how I connected to her now. 

Last week, when I was reading, I came across an article about Miep passing away.  She died at the age of 100 and was in generally good health.  While the information in the article wasn't new to me, I was struck by Miep in an entirely new way.  As a young woman myself, I can identify with her youth and her position in society during World War II more than I could have when I learned about her as a little girl.  She was "just" a secretary when she made decisions that would eventually affect not only the lives of those she tried to save but millions of people who have since been exposed to Anne Frank's beautiful outlook on life.

Samantha looking like she's about to wiggle it.
When introduced to the horrors of the Holocaust as a child, we tend to think along the lines of, "I would never do that to people. I would have helped 'them' escape no matter what."  If I remember correctly, my exact thought as a fourth grader was that I would have just twitched my nose like Samantha from Bewitched to save the people from the Nazis.  As we age, these ideas of "doing the right thing" become crowded out by "logic", IE. "We can't help 'them' because we need to worry about 'us'".  Just this morning I was listening to a radio report from Haiti where a Haitian-American woman was reassuring other potential medical volunteers that the threat from violence and rioting was not too great and that they would be safe if they came to help.  We, as rational adults, have a common understanding that we must look out for our own best interests first and foremost.  It's advertised to us that you should be thinking about your future and your family's well being and if there is time for others then that is just bonus good will. 

Miep and her husband, Jan Gies.
Anyone who is able to live without these restraints seems incredible to me.  Upon reading the story about Miep's death and her legacy I was able to see how truly unique she was.  She was in her early 30's and newly married when she agreed to help the Frank's.  While she did this without hesitation, she had basically everything to lose.  If she and her husband, who also helped with the resistance, had been caught, they would have been shot or sent to the death camps themselves.  They easily could have chosen to do what most of the people in Europe did at the time and pretend to not see their friends and neighbors disappearing in order to continue on with their own lives.  I feel that I am so held back by what I don't have yet (children, husband, career, stuff) and the selfish idea of giving up even the potential of having these things is so crippling it keeps me from helping others.  I certainly haven't tried to book a flight to Haiti. 

Miep, however, put everything on the line.  She had to shop around the city for groceries and other necessities and had to do so in a way that did not draw suspicion from other people in town.  She provided outside interaction for the annex dwellers that, from Anne's description, was vital to keeping their spirits up.  Abandoning them was simply not an option and even the fact that she saved the diary was an act of heroics.  Miep says that she did not read the diary until after it was published and realized that had she read it, she would have had to destroy it because Anne named all of the people involved in keeping them hidden.  If it had gotten into the wrong hands, they surely would have been arrested.

Miep at her desk.
While much of her support for the Frank's was done in necessary secrecy, Miep was very bold in her anti-Nazi sentiments.  She openly resisted joining a Women's Nazi group at the risk of deportation to Austria and her simple employment at Mr. Frank's spice company was enough to threaten her safety.  She was resolute in her stance against the oppressive regime. 
I like to think that Miep Gies and the way she behaved during the war is what most of us would do.  I like to think that she is the norm.  Unfortunately, it's quite clear, given the state of our world, that she is unusual.  Her bravery transcends gender into a deeper place of simple humanity.  To quote her from her NPR obituary:

"I don't want to be considered a hero.  Imagine, young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty.  I am afraid no one would ever help other people, because who is a hero?  I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary."

Hopefully, people will remember her as a regular person who did what needed to be done.  Maybe we will then be able to look into our own lives and transcend the idea that it takes a special person to do something that is for the good of others instead of just for ourselves.

*When we were younger my dad would tell us stories and if they happened before my youngest sister was alive he would say to her "When you were just a twinkle in your Dad's eye".  When she was a little bit older she used to ask him if things happened when she was just a twinkle in his eye.  I love remembering her when she was that little person so I slipped the reference into this entry. :)

**I eventually did write about Hillary and it's one of my favorite posts!