"If you can’t be a candle," the saying goes, "be the mirror that reflects the candle." So can we sum up the biography of Miep Gies, the Dutch woman whose best-known accomplishment is preserving for the world the writings of Anne Frank. Miep, who died yesterday at 100 years old, has already been memorialized across the world, and most of the headlines mention that Miep is the woman responsible for saving Anne Frank’s diary and giving it to her father, Otto, after the war. While that statement is true – and worthy of great praise and respect – Miep is more than a mirror, she’s a candle as well.
Miep, along with three other people, helped keep the Frank family hidden during World War II. In addition, she brought food, clothing, newspapers, and other supplies that kept the family alive and gave them ways to pass the time. Though Miep was a Christian and could thus go about her life as normally as any citizen in a war-torn country could, she risked her life to help keep the residents of the "secret annex" – the Franks, the Van Pelses, and Fritz Pfeffer – safe. She and her husband Jan were among many brave people throughout Holland and the rest of Europe who risked their own lives to help, hide, and rescue Jews. There are many of them lost to history, because they may not have sheltered someone who became famous. Miep stands for them, just as Anne came to represent millions of faceless Jews who lost their lives to Hitler’s regime.
As Jewish people, it is usually the stories of those who went through the Holocaust who we identify with – after all, many of them are our relatives. As a Jewish girl growing up in a predominantly non-Jewish area, I poured myself into Anne Frank’s diary. I identified not only with her adolescent struggles and revelations but with her very Jewishness. Though I read Anne’s descriptions of the family’s four helpers, I did not identify with Miep the same way. I admired her, and wished I had a friend like her, but I did not see my Jewish self in her Dutch one. But, ultimately, Miep is a heroine as much as Anne is. How many of us, if in a position like hers, would choose to do the easy thing and keep our heads down? The day after the secret annex residents were arrested, Miep went down to the local police station and tried to offer bribes in exchange for the lives of her friends. How many of us would so publicly attempt to save people, when the cost of doing so might be jail, or a sentence in a work camp, or death? She did so not because the Franks and company were from the same ethnic or religious group as her, but because they were not, and because no one else would speak up for them. Simply put, she did what she did because it was right. "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," she once wrote.
Yes, six million Jews perished in the Holocaust, but who knows how many more people might have lost their lives if not for the bravery and selflessness of people like Miep? Even though Miep recieved praise and many honors for her work during the war, she once said, "I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more – much more – during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bear witness."
So, today, let’s not honor Miep Gies for giving Anne Frank’s diary to the world. Let’s honor for her for having been Miep Gies.