Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Phenomenal Women: Miep Gies

Originally, I thought to make Maya Angelou my first Phenomenal Woman post, but the passing this week of Miep Gies helped change my mind.

Miep Gies was the best kind of phenomenal woman. She selflessly risked her own life to help hide eight Jewish people during the Nazi reign of terror in the 1940s. One of the people she hid was, of course, Anne Frank, famous after her death for her diaries.

Gies, through the Nazi occupation, proved to be a loyal employee and friend to the Frank family, smuggling food rations to them, and news of the world from which they had to hide.

The big heroine in this amazing store is usually Anne, the lively young woman whose thoughts and writings have captivated millions of readers the world over. But Gies' role in the story is just as important: without her, the Frank family certainly would have died sooner.

To write this post, I turned to Google (as I always do) to find out more about Miep Gies. I admit, I knew very little of her, except that she acted courageously in the face of Nazi terror. My search yielded a most enlightening interview, in which she answers the questions of young students.

Her answers to the many questions posed about Hitler, World War Two, the Nazis, the Frank family, and in her part in saving Anne's diary, in the simple hope of being able to return it to the young author at a later time, show a woman of true good character, unwilling to sacrifice people she admired and cared for to make things safer for herself.

I don't have words of my own to accurately describe this incredible woman, so I will let some sample questions and answers from the interview do the talking.

I am a nine-year-old Jew. I am very interested in learning about the Holocaust. How could you be so heroic if you were so afraid? Did the Nazis ever find you?
Even if you are afraid, you can still find it more important to do your human duty, and that is to assist people who need more help. I don't consider myself heroic. To tell you, I was more afraid of the many sleepless nights and the unhappy life I would have afterward had I refused to help.

How does it feel to be a hero?
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 nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary.

If you had to hide the Franks again, would you do it?
Yes, I would help again. Although, some people (rightfully) state that I could have not saved Anne's life, I still helped her to live another two years. During these years she wrote her wonderful diary, touching the heart of millions of people and inspiring them. Because I could rescue this diary, it was not a lost effort. From this we learn that it is always better to try. Sure failure results from not trying. My decision to help Otto was because I saw no alternative. I could foresee many sleepless nights and an unhappy life if I would refuse. And that was not the kind of future I wanted to for myself. Permanent remorse about failing to do your human duty, in my opinion, can be worse than losing your life.

The full interview can be found here; I encourage you to read it.

Gies' thoughts on prejudice were especially strong. She remained adamant, until the end of her life, that no one should have to die, or suffer persecution for being a different religion or race.

The message to take from Anne's story is to stop prejudice and discrimination right at its beginning. Prejudice starts when we speak about THE Jews, THE Arabs, THE Asians, THE Mexicans, THE Blacks, THE Whites. This leads to the feeling that all members of each such group think and act the same. That results in prejudice. Lumping entire groups of people together is RACISM, because it denies the fact that everyone is an individual. Even our own brothers and sisters or parents are not exactly like we are. So how do we dare to lump entire groups of people together? If any German had ever asked Anne to tell something about herself, I think she would be still with us today. However, nobody asked: she was just a Jew! Therefore, never base your opinion about anybody else on the color of that person's skin, or on the passport that a person carries, or on the family that person comes from, but only on what the person says and does and on NOTHING ELSE.

Gies passed away yesterday, having lived 101 years. Her loyalty and her willingness to help when so many wouldn't, make her a Phenomenal Woman.


Nefarious Newt said...

Having had the opportunity to visit the Anne Frank House and see it for my own eyes, and hear the stories, and see the conditions, I was filled with awe for what this woman did. Her thoughts on "our human duty" have touched me, because I have often felt that we perpetuate our societal troubles by trying to keep people divided into groups, rather than seeing people as individuals, part of the greater family of humanity.

I hope the lesson of what she did is not lost to future generations. Perhaps the current generation, mesmerized by their iPods, texting incessantly about the trivial and mundane, worried about popularity and beauty, could be turned in they were to discover Miep Gies and all she represented.

alana said...

This is a great idea. I was thinking about doing something like this in my paintings (instead of people I know) but I'm not sure how I want to go about it yet.

Woohoo for phenomenal women!