Miep Gies doesn’t want you to think of her as a hero. She wants you to believe that you would have done what she and her husband, Jan, did during the Holocaust: that you would have smuggled food to eight Jewish friends hiding from the Nazis for two years, that you would have risked your life for justice.
Thousands of other Europeans did the same things, Gies repeats often. But one of her friends in hiding was Anne Frank, teenage author of the famous diary. And thus was Miep Gies thrust into the international spotlight, a reluctant celebrity but a passionate advocate for peace.
Gies, who still lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands, is 86 now, and if anything, her convictions have grown stronger with age. Where once she shunned publicity, she now gives at least 50 speeches each year around the world, from large European capitals to small U.S. towns such as Weatherford, where she spoke last month.
But she was no hero, Gies said during her visit to Texas, and to think of her as such is to let yourself off the hook, to give yourself an excuse not to help others.
“It is extremely dangerous if people, and particularly children, think that you have to be a hero to help other people. Who is a hero? I am not,” Gies says.
“I feel very strongly that we must not wait for political leaders to make this world a better place.”
For years, Gies resisted telling her own story of the Holocaust, protesting that she didn’t want to be singled out for her actions. But in 1987, after a writer persuaded her the world needed to know what people endured to help friends in hiding, she finally wrote the critically acclaimed “Anne Frank Remembered.”
The book told how Gies and her husband, Jan, aided by two friends, risked their lives to obtain extra food, made scarce by wartime. Every day, they delivered new rations to the Frank family and four others, all of whom hid in extra rooms secreted in the Franks’ office building, where Gies worked as a secretary. In their own apartment, Gies and her husband also hid a Dutch student who refused to support the Nazis.
“For me, it would have required more courage not to help than to do what I did,” Gies says. “I could foresee many sleepless nights and a miserable life if I had refused to help the Franks.”
Gies, who receives far more speaking invitations each year than she can accept, came to Texas largely because of correspondence that began with Weatherford schoolchildren about six years ago.
Jan Bruton, who teaches gifted eighth-graders in Weatherford, discovered through a magazine article that Gies was still alive. With the help of Weatherford middle school librarian Pat Bowers, she and about 15 students tracked Gies and wrote to her and sent a videotape the students had made. Touched by the tape, Gies wrote to each student individually.
Then, in 1989, Bowers and her family traveled to Europe after the Berlin Wall fell, and they went to Amsterdam to visit Gies and her husband. (Jan Gies died in 1993.)
The two families became friends and continued corresponding. Over the years, Bowers began dreaming of having Gies visit Weatherford. She began enlisting others to help pull off the visit. Finally, the Bowers’ invitation was accepted.
Bowers “is a very persistent lady,” says Cornelis Suijk, international director of the Anne Frank Center USA. Suijk, a Christian who was interred in a Nazi concentration camp because of his efforts to aid Jews, frequently accompanies Gies on her speaking engagements and helps interpret for her in interviews.
In Weatherford, Gies spoke to 3,500 elementary and high school students.
“It’s so important for children just to be in her presence,” Pat Bowers says. “Her message is so important. She’s one of the few people I’ve ever met who actually lives what she speaks.”
A crucial lesson: For her part, Gies places special importance on meeting children, because they will be responsible for ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself. And even good, well-intentioned parents may inadvertently be sending some wrong messages to their children, she says.
“We tell our children that if they behave all right, they will have everything turn out OK,” Gies says. “So, children, when they grow up, tend to blame people for their own misery. … They think people in trouble must have done something wrong, so they don’t want to help them.”
Gies, who was born in Vienna, Austria, learned the failings of this lesson at an early age. When she was 11, her parents sent her to the Netherlands to live with a foster family because World War I had decimated Vienna, and she and thousands of other children were sick and hungry. She never returned to live with her biological family.
“I still remember the shock of leaving home to go to Holland,” she says. “Did I deserve that? No. I was innocent. So, very young, I discovered that you can be in trouble without being to blame.”
The Dutch family who took her in did more than save her life: They taught her the value of thinking for herself and sharing with others. The parents were of modest means and already were supporting five children, but they believed that where seven could eat, so could eight - a philosophy that Gies embraced when helping those in hiding.
“Her foster parents encouraged her not to only mind her own business but to reach out to other people,” Suijk says. “But we tend to tell our children, mind your own business only.”
Again, this teaches children not to come forward when others are being persecuted, Gies says. And it encourages them to follow the crowd, to make decisions without thinking them through.
Finally, because the parents were willing to reach out to her, a foreigner, Gies learned firsthand the importance of looking at people as individuals. Lumping people together is racism, and we need look no further than the Holocaust to see where unchecked racism can lead, she says.
This is a lesson she also learned from Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who survived the Holocaust and lived with the Gies family for several years after the war.
If anyone had reason to hate, he did, Gies says. Yet he taught her one of her most important lessons in forgiveness.
After the war, Gies found it impossible to forgive the Nazis and harbored a deep rage against Germans. One day, after Anne’s diary had been published, a group of German tourists came by to see the hiding place. Gies happened upon them, and determining their nationality, began shouting at them, her years of pent-up anger finally bursting forth. Later, however, she learned that these Germans had also been imprisoned in concentration camps for opposing Hitler. In her shame, she remembered what Otto Frank had so often told her:
Looking at people as groups, not individuals, is what permitted the Holocaust to happen, and it still destroys many lives. If you don’t make distinctions between individuals, you could make the same mistakes as the Nazis.