Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An Extraordinary Woman

Miep Gies died yesterday at age 100.

If you have no idea who she was, I'm not surprised. She was not a celebrity by any stretch of the imagination. But there was one thing she did that may be one of the most defining literary moments of the 20th century: She saved The Diary of Anne Frank.

(I should mention at this point that my own mother died on that very date eight years ago. A coincidence, I'm sure, but a significant one to me.)

Perhaps more importantly, of course, was the fact that Miep Gies, along with a few others, hid Anne, her family, and their friends from the Nazis in a secret room for over two years.

She did not have to do this. It would have been much simpler--and safer--to do nothing. She could have, like most non-combatants of Nazi-occupied countries, simply kept her head down and gone about her daily life. But instead, she helped hide these people, brought them supplies, and kept them informed about events of the war. And, after they were discovered, she attempted to bribe the authorities to release her friends, without success.

Of course, as was typical of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, Ms. Gies did not believe herself a hero for her actions. Mostly because she believed she didn't do enough, and could have done more.

Human history is full of examples where great tragedies have occurred because otherwise good people stood by and did nothing. Miep Gies was a hero because she tried to do something to stave off one of those great tragedies. And, when she finally couldn't do anything more to hold back the tide, she made sure to preserve an important piece of evidence detailing that tragedy, perhaps in the hope that she could keep something similar from happening again.

It was an act that forever changed the world.

My mother, in her own way, was a hero too. While I know of nothing that she did in her lifetime that changed the world on a similar scale, I do know that she taught school for most of her professional career. The schools she taught in were often in some of the worst neighborhoods this city has to offer. She often fought an administration that was more concerned with politics than educating students. And, when her cancer finally progressed to the point where she had to give up teaching, she volunteered as often as she could for various charitable causes. Believe me when I say that it wasn't easy for her.

And yet, nothing my mother ever did probably changed the world on the scale of Ms. Gies' actions. And yet she was a hero to me. And I have to say this: Miep Gies, you were and are a hero, if not to yourself, then definitely to the rest of the world, even if they don't know it. I hope that somehow, somewhere, you and my mother are able to meet and spend a few hours together. If you had ever met in this world, I think you would have liked her. I know she would have liked you.

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