Posted by: justawriter | February 15, 2010

Far Afield – What would you have done?

I was saddened to hear of the passing this week of Miep Gies at the age of 100. If you don’t recognize the name, maybe you’ll recognize the name she will be forever associated with, Anne Frank.
Gies came to Amsterdam as a child after leaving Austria because of the massive food shortages there that followed World War I. She worked for Anne’s father Otto in his spice company starting in the 1930s. The shadows of war returned to Europe and Hitler’s storm troopers marched through the Netherlands and conquered the small country.
At the time, about 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands, including the Franks. Like everywhere else, they were put under increasingly harsh restrictions and finally rounded up and put on trains to the extermination camps in Germany and Poland. More than 100,000 were taken from their homes and delivered to their fate. Fewer than 6,000 survived.
It is one of the most compelling stories of the war that across Europe, brave men and women resisted the Nazi war machine and hid Jews even though it would mean a trip to the death camps for themselves. It’s estimated that the Dutch helped hide 24,000 Jews during the war. About one in three of those hidden were found by the Nazis. Gies and her husband Jan were among those brave souls who hid Otto Frank, his wife, two daughters and several others in a hidden room in Frank’s warehouse for more than two years.
During that time, Gies, her husband and several other Dutch people helped the Franks by illegally gathering food for them. Miep helped keep the young Anne’s spirits up by bringing her newspapers and other reading material, and small gifts, including a notebook. Anne used that notebook as a journal, assembling the document that became known as the Diary of Anne Frank. That book became a classic because of the honesty and bravery Anne exhibited in the face of unbearable conditions.
For 25 months Miep and Jan smuggled food and other necessary materials into the secret room, but eventually the Franks were betrayed. They were sent to the camps where Anne died from typhus, at the age of 15, just three weeks before the camp was liberated by American troops. Otto Frank survived the war and returned to Amsterdam. Miep had preserved some of the papers left behind, including Anne’s diary. That act saved a cornerstone of world literature and in a way, made sure that Anne would live forever.
Gies downplayed her role in the story for the rest of her long life. She said Jan and other members of the resistance took many more risks than she did. I think, in part, her attitude came from a desire to make sure nothing overshadowed the story of Anne and the others, so they would not be forgotten.
Gies said in 1997, “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.”
How many of us today would risk our lives in the face of such a monstrous enemy? How many would do so not because they want to be heroes, but because it was simply their “human duty.” I remember a short story in which a group of people mobilize to help a fellow in trouble. The fellow said “But people don’t act this way.” The main character replied, “Upright apes don’t, people do.”
You never know until you are put into an extreme situation how you will respond to it. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had lived during the days when jackboots marched through the streets rounding up my neighbors and marking them for death. I would be afraid, certainly, because that is only natural. I just hope if the time ever comes I have the moral fiber to push the fear aside and act like a person, and do my human duty.

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