Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On the Death of Miep Gies

I found myself very moved by the news the other week of the death at age 100 of Miep Gies, one of the principals responsible for hiding Anne Frank and her family for as long as they remained hidden, and also the individual who found and preserved Anne’s diary after the Franks were arrested and deported.

Her story is interesting in a lot of different ways. With a name like Miep she sounds as Dutch as anyone could possibly be, but she wasn’t actually Dutch at all but Viennese (and her original name, Hermine Santrouschitz, sounds as Austrian to my ear as Miep Gies sounds Dutch). As true heroes really almost never are, she wasn’t born to greatness. Indeed, her story up until the war years isn’t that atypical of people born in her time and place. To evade the food shortages that plagued central Europe after the end of the First World War—Miep was born in 1909—she was sent by her parents to live with a foster family in Holland and they were the ones who gave her the Dutch nickname Miep. Eventually met and married a Dutch social worker named Jan Gies and took his name, thus completing her transformation from Austrian girl to Dutch woman. But she retained her sense of herself as a Viennese her whole life and that is whence my slight personal connection to her, such as it is, derives: when Miep was a child in Vienna, she was the next door neighbor and playmate of the little Jewish girl who grew up eventually to become my parents’ next door neighbor in Forest Hills when I myself was growing up there. (I should write to you eventually about our neighbor, a woman named Erna Neuhauser. She was the first person I know well as a boy whose experience of Nazi anti-Semitism was based on personal experience and the stories she told of her pre-war experiences in Vienna shaped—and to a certain extent probably continue to shape—my own thinking about the Shoah in many profound ways. But today I want to talk about Miep Gies, the woman Erna played with as a girl and who later risked her life daily to save the Franks from deportation for as long as she was able.)

The actual story of the Franks, I suppose everybody knows. When the Frank family, the van Pels family, and the dentist Fritz Pfeffer went into hiding in July of 1942 in the secret annex—called the Achterhuis in Dutch—over the Franks’ spice business on the Prinsengracht in central Amsterdam, they became dependent totally on the support they received from outside helpers. In providing that support, Miep was not alone. Nor was she the only one to survive. (Victor Kugler—called Mr. Kraler in the diary—died in Toronto in 1981, Johannes Kleiman—called Mr. Koophuis in the diary—died in Amsterdam in 1959, and Bep Voskkuijl died in 1983 also in Amsterdam.) But because it was she who found the diary after the Franks and the others were arrested, it was Miep who became the most well-known and celebrated of them all.

As she regularly noted, a good deal of the story regarding the diary rests on happenstance. It was amazing enough that Anne had the presence of mind and the literary skill to produce such a remarkable document under such unbelievable circumstances. It was even more amazing that it survived the raid on the Achterhuis and that Miep was able both to sneak into the building after the Nazis had sealed it and then to find the diary in the mess the Gestapo left behind after searching the place. She herself said on more than one occasion that it was a stroke of amazing good fortune that she didn’t read the diary when she found it, because if she had she would also have destroyed it once she saw that Anne made reference to all the people who helped the Franks in hiding. (The Gestapo arrested two of them, Kleiman and Kugler, and would surely have arrested the others as well if their identities had become known.) Later, of course, when it became all too clear that Anne was never coming home, Miep gave the diary to Otto Frank, the sole member of the family to survive. Eventually, it was published and became one of most enduring documents connected both with the annihilation of the Dutch Jews, of whom only five thousand of the 107,000 deportees survived, and even more famously with the fate of children during the Shoah.

I grew up with these stories in my ear. I read the diary when I was in high school, as I’m sure did so many of you reading this, and identified not so much with Anne herself but with Peter van Pels, the boy in the story who later died at Mauthausen at age eighteen exactly three days before the camp was liberated by the U.S. Third Army on May 5, 1945. Something about the story got under my skin. I saw the movie with Millie Perkins as Anne and Dodie Heath as Miep and found it wanting, mostly because the Jewish angle—which for me was the whole point—was so dramatically and, I thought, unnecessarily played down. I went with my parents to see the play on which the movie was based when it was revived in some summer stock theater near where we were spending part of one summer and found it similarly dissatisfying. But I never found the book anything but mesmerizing and I returned to it many times, reading it most recently in 2002 after a final edition containing some previously suppressed material was published. (The suppressed pages contained some comments Anne made about her parents’ marriage and her feelings towards her mother which her father did not wish to be made public.) And, of course, there was also the personal link, tenuous though it was, that put me at only three degrees of separation from Anne Frank and the others in the story in that Anne knew Miep and Miep knew Erna and Erna knew me.

Later, the world couldn’t praise Miep extravagantly enough. Yad Vashem recognized her as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Germany offered the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic. In Holland, she was knighted by Queen Beatrix. Austria offered her the Grand Decoration of Honor. A huge asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter was named 9949 Miepgies in her honor. But for all the world couldn’t admire her enough, Miep herself invariably refused to refer to herself in heroic terms. Indeed, she never wavered from her insistence that what she did was normal, not abnormal, and that she was merely following the dictates of her own conscience, something human beings should hardly be celebrated endlessly for doing. In the introduction to her book, Anne Frank Remembered, which she wrote with Allison Gold, Miep wrote these words:

There is nothing special about me. I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.

To me, those are exceptional words by an exceptional woman distinguished not by well-earned pride in the role she played in helping innocents facing deportation and death, but by humility. I read her book years ago but it was just recently that I came across the website Miep maintained in her later years. You can visit it too at and I think you will find it just as moving as I did.

There’s a lot in Miep Gies’ story to consider, but the part that keeps coming back to haunt me has to do with her refusal to see herself in heroic terms. The quote cited above gives you the general idea, but she also tackled the issue in more specific terms, for example in this answer she gave to a question that specifically referenced her courage and her bravery: "I am afraid,” she wrote, “that if people feel that I am a very special person, a sort of heroine, they may doubt that they could do the same things I once did. Not considering themselves very talented or courageous, they would refrain from helping endangered people. This is the reason that I want everyone to know that I am a very common and cautious woman and definitely not a genius or dare-devil. I did help like so many others who ran the same or more risk than me. It was necessary so I helped." (There’s a whole FAQ section consisting of 100 questions and answers on the website. All are fascinating. I started to look for a quote relating to her sense of her own bravery and ended up reading the whole thing from beginning to end. You will too!)

And so that brings me to the real question that I find myself pondering in the wake of Miep Gies’ death on January 11. Was she a hero? She denied it, of course. But what do I think really? If I agree with her that part of the basic framework for moral living has to include a simple willingness to do good in the world, then I suppose I’d have also to agree with her assertion that she herself was not a hero at all but simply a moral human being who saw people in dire straits and exerted herself to save them. But how far am I willing to take that thought? Miep cannot have been under any illusion about what her fate was going to be if the Nazis caught her providing shelter to Jews in hiding, yet she did what she felt she had to do. Does that mean simply that she was behaving as a moral human being? Or is it more reasonable to say that her readiness to risk her life (and her husband’s life) to save innocents is by definition a heroic act and should be celebrated as such? I suppose that if I’ve been thinking about Miep Gies for all these years and admiring her bravery, then it can only be because I do think of her in heroic terms. But underneath the unambiguous admiration I surely do hold for her rests the question that her humility brings to the fore. At what point do people lose the right to think of themselves as moral human beings merely because they decline to put their own lives on the line to do, to use Miep’s own expression, what is necessary? And where exactly is the line to be drawn between reasonably looking after your own wellbeing and callously disregarding the wellbeing of others? These are complicated questions, but also endlessly engaging ones. And within the warp and woof of these issues her life provokes me to consider lies the most precious part of Miep Gies’ legacy to us all, a legacy for which I feel profoundly grateful as I take note of her passing and pray that she rest in peace and that her memory always be a blessing for us all.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Middle-East Avatars

When Joan and I were in Toronto last week, we went to see James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar. You’ve surely heard of it. Many of you have probably seen it. It’s a huge hit, both at home and abroad. But it set me thinking in an unusual direction about a topic that I doubt occurred to the director or to any of the people appearing in the movie and that is what I’d like to write to you about this week.

The story—a kind of Dances With Wolves set in outer space—unfolds in the year 2154. It’s a strange new world in many different ways, but Cameron avoids any dramatic paradigm shifts and the future is imagined merely as an intensified version of the present. We have machines, for example, but they have even faster ones and better ones. We send astronauts to the moon, but they send travelers to distant planets (including the moon of the planet Polyphemus called Pandora on which the action in Avatar takes place). We have computers, but they have really, really cool ones that do all sorts of stuff we think of as theoretically possible but which no one now actually knows how really to accomplish. We have sophisticated weapons, but they have even more devastating, more accurate ones. We have fantasy movies about toy Transformers magically made real, but they really do have robots the size of buildings that do whatever the controllers strapped into their metallic laps wish them to do. It’s like our world on steroids.

But for all that the world in the movie is different and more sophisticated than our own, it’s also very similar. We see many of the same problems that plague our world in the present no less insolubly plaguing Pandora in the future. And chief among them is the problem of how fairly to apportion resources and how to live in peace with other nations. Earthlings have come to Pandora, it turns out, not to make friends or boldly to go where no one has previously gone, but to mine for precious ore called—you have to love it—unobtainium. That in and of itself doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, but the fly in the ointment is that the richest and best deposits of unobtainium are under the part of the pandoran jungle inhabited by the Na’vi, a race of blue-skinned, yellow eyed giants who live in harmony with the flora and fauna of their planet’s ecosystem in a way that humans today can only dream someday of achieving. And they are disinclined to move off their sacred camp merely because some big, bad earthlings with really big, bad guns have blown into Dodge. The concept of there being avatars on Pandora is related to an effort to head this potential conflict off at the pass: scientists have figured out how to make model Na’vis (I almost wrote: model nevi’im) that look and smell like the locals but which are actually man-made shells inhabited solely by the psychic identity of earthlings (soldiers or scientists or whomever) safely locked up in the secure confines of the mother ship. And thus do earthlings wander Pandora looking like Pandorans on the outside, but remaining pure earth people on the inside. The slightly condescending concept is that the locals will be too stupid to notice the presence of any Stepford Pandorans in their midst and so will be susceptible to the well-timed suggestion that they move on to some other neighborhood and leave their current turf to whomever might wish to settle there once they’re gone. That, at any rate, is the plan. It doesn’t work.

The actual plot of the movie is not what I want to write about, however. The short version is that there’s this paraplegic guy, very well played by Sam Worthington, who ends up entering the avatar shell originally prepared for his lately deceased identical twin. (This sort of makes sense in the context of the movie.) When his life is saved by a real Na’vi maiden, extremely convincingly played by Zoe Saldana, he ends up going native, falling in love, and, in the end, leading the charge to save the Na’vi and their homeland from the big bad invaders who have endless fire power but no moral consciousness. I won’t give away the ending, which is as moving as it is little surprising, except to say that the audience is clearly intended to understand that the right people won, and that the day was duly saved by the one guy who had the courage to stand up to his own people and to do the right thing.

So that’s what the movie is about on its outermost level. But hiding behind the story of a paraplegic ex-marine and his twelve-foot-tall, blue-skinned girlfriend is another story, one most viewers will recognize all too clearly. Other than the hero, a handful of his friends, and some scientists (including a peculiarly cast Sigourney Weaver), the earthlings are depicted as rank imperialists. They have no respect for the natives, no interest in learning about their ways or about their culture or their faith. They are clearly mimicking those Europeans who arrived in the New World and claimed it for their European masters without regard for the fact that the land was already populated by millions of people who had no need to be discovered at all and whose civilization was, in many ways, the equivalent of the Europeans’ in terms of its complexity, its sense of social justice, and its morality.

We all know how that story ended. And, for the most part, we don’t think about it that much. We tell ourselves that times change, that history marches on. We know in some vague way that wrongs were done, but most Americans would be unable even to identify by name the Indian tribe that was living on the land on which their own houses now stand before European settlers arrived here three or four centuries ago. Being sensitive, moral people, we find the story of how the indigenous population was disenfranchised, then neatly gotten rid of, to be upsetting. But we solve that problem, mostly, by ignoring it and telling ourselves (a) that there’s nothing to do about it now and (b) that it wasn’t our people who arrived here when there were still indigenous Indian tribes in place where we live, so it’s not really our burden to bear. And besides, who knows if those tribes in place when the Europeans arrived were themselves the original indigenes? One way or the other, we tell ourselves that what’s done is done and we have no choice but to learn from the past and move forward into the future.

I find myself thinking about Israel in this context as well…and I suspect that Avatar will be taken as a kind of midrash on the Israeli-Palestinian controversy by viewers all over the world. In terms of the battle for world opinion, it suddenly strikes me—after seeing the film and liking it so much—to wonder how much has turned and will turn in the future on the question of which party ultimately gets to play which role when the story of the film is transposed onto the world of Middle Eastern politics. The Palestinians have done yeoman’s work in presenting themselves as the Na’vi, after all, by depicting themselves precisely as the indigenes pushed off their space by morally obtuse Europeans who, almost arbitrarily, chose to settle in their place and then semi-amazingly got a world racked with guilt over its own genocidal tendencies to ratify its take-over of somebody else’s property. Indeed, if there’s one point upon which all Palestinian groups seem to agree, in fact, it’s precisely the concept that the fate of the Palestinians in Israel is precisely parallel to the fate of native peoples the world over. Taking the story into outer space is merely the next logical step in the effort to come to terms with the horrible heritage of racist imperialism.

I wonder why it is that Israel hasn’t devoted itself to noting more passionately and more clearly that the Jews are the real indigenes in this story and that it was the Arabs who came lately to the land, arriving first on the scene in the seventh century (the precise date is 636 C.E.) when Muslims first wrested the land from a decaying Byzantine Empire. Okay, it’s true that today’s Palestinians are not the invaders who seized the land thirteen centuries ago. And it’s surely also true that thirteen hundred years is long enough to feel rooted in a place for any people. (Consider how Americans feel about their country after only two and a quarter centuries, for example.)

But the other side of the coin, the one I see unrepresented in Palestinian comments on the conflict is a willingness to own up to the fact that they are not the indigenes, that the fact that they call themselves Palestinians does not make them historically or ethnically related to the Philistines who once lived on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. (It was the Romans who chose to insult the Jewish population by naming their subjugated province after the by-then-vanished people whom the Jews recalled as having once been their bitterest enemies. But there is no connection between today’s Palestinians and the inhabitants of ancient Philistia other than the etymological one.) It seems to me, however, that there is room for compromise on this point…and that this single idea would be an excellent way for two people at loggerheads to begin to accept each other’s presence in what is, after all, a very small place where they are destined somehow to co-exist.

The Bible stresses over and over, of course, that the Israelites came to the land from elsewhere. Abraham came from Ur, today in southern Iraq. The Israelites themselves arrived from Egypt. You could dismiss those traditions are mere red herrings because there simply are no living representatives of the earlier Canaanite nations in our world, no Girgashites or Perizites or Amorites or Edomites and Israel alone is left standing of all those nations. Or you could use the fact that the Israelites too arrived from somewhere else as the stimulus to engender a kind of humility generally lacking almost entirely from the discussion.

In the end, the competing claims of both sides have to be tempered with a sense of historical reality. For Jews, Israel will always be home, the land promised to their ancestors and in which generations upon generations of their ancestors lived not for thirteen but for thirty centuries, if not for longer than that. But that sense of rootedness in the ancestral homeland could be seasoned with the recollection that, in the end, our own traditions stress over and over that we came from somewhere else originally.

The Palestinians could do well to drink of a bit of that broth as well. They, after all, aren’t really the aborigines either…and I can’t imagine that their leadership doesn’t know that perfectly well. The history of the Muslim invasions of the seventh century CE, after all, are unknown to most Americans, but to the key players in the Middle East these details are anything but obscure. So we’re dealing here with two competing claims to be the native indigenes pushed out by the big, bad invaders neither of which is as absolutely anchored in historical reality as their most vocal proponents would like to think. What that means to me is that it should be possible to replace arrogance with humility…and to seek a kind of peace that will not only accommodate the living but also suit the memory of generations long since passed from the scene.

In the end, Avatar is about invaders stealing what they want because they can. To cast the Israelis as ruthless invaders come to take what they want merely because they somehow can is to ignore history. But to look past thirteen centuries of Muslim presence in the land and to wave it away because the first among them to arrive came as invaders from afar—that too seems just a bit overstated. Avatar is a first rate movie, one that I think all my readers will enjoy immensely. But, in the end, it’s just a gorgeous cartoon. And the lesson the film holds for those of us who daily pray for peace in Israel is that peace will never be made by people who look across the table at their counterparts from the other side and see not men and women trying to negotiate a fair and reasonable agreement but cartoon characters somehow magically, not to say sinisterly, transmogrified into avatars that only look like real human beings.