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.

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