Miep Gies: an ordinary heroine

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Reading about Miep Gies’ death this morning in the New York Times caused me to pause and reflect on the story of this ordinary Dutch woman who selflessly hid Anne Frank’s family and friends over 60 years ago. Anne Frank’s story is one that we’re all more than familiar with, and it bears no repeating here. Over the years, Miep stated in various contexts that she did not consider herself a hero – that she was simply one of many Dutch civilians who did the right thing. True as it is that she was one of many who stepped forward to help their Jewish friends and neighbors during the 1930s and 1940s in Europe, there has always been something about Miep that spoke to me.

From a young age I remember being fascinated not so much by Anne’s story but by thinking about what it meant to hide and help Jews during the Holocaust. As I’ve grown older and learned to think critically about Anne Frank as a sanitized and popularized representation of the Holocaust, Miep’s story has grown in importance. I will admit that my interest in the Holocaust has its origin in my identity as the granddaughter of a German Jew from Berlin. But more important, I think, are my experiences living in Germany and how thinking about the Holocaust within that context has shaped how I view history, and how I think about someone like Miep Gies.

While I was living in Berlin for two years I met people whose family histories spanned the entire experience of Germany between 1933 and 1945. There was my roommate Peter who told me, with intense shame, that his grandfather had been in the SS and died on the Eastern Front, and my friend Carola, whose grandmother had escaped the bombing of Dresden at the age of fifteen and then walked for two weeks to reach Hamburg. But there was also my friend Alex, whose Jewish grandparents had gone to Palestine and whose non-Jewish grandparents had been socialist anti-fascist fighters during the Nazi regime.

What I mean to say through the stories of my friends is that while Miep Gies was an exception, both because of what she did and who she tried to save, her death also reminds me that we are firmly within another period of history: that in which the last survivors, perpetrators, and everyone in between, are dying. For years I’ve read about Miep in the news and always wondered at the back of my mind what it would mean when she passed away. Now that it’s happened I wonder what the larger implications are for how future generations learn about and view the Holocaust. But I also hope that Miep continues to go down in history as a young woman who, by simply doing what she knew to be right, became exceptional.

Nora Pittis is the Development Associate at the Jewish Women's Archive.

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