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Miep Gies: An Example For All Activists

January 12, 2010

Image by Bettina Flitner (June 2001)

On Monday night, Miep Gies died at the age of 100. Gies is best remembered for sheltering eight Jewish people — including Anne Frank and her family — in her home for over two years during World War II. Gies is also responsible for working with Otto Frank, Anne’s father, to publish Anne’s diary in 1947. After Gies published her memoir in 1987, she spent the rest of her life educating young people and speaking out against intolerance around the world.

Most people would call her actions and life “brave” and “heroic.” Except, of course, for Gies herself, who had no ego about her incredible legacy. As she wrote in her memoir:

More than twenty thousand Dutch people helped to hide Jews and others in need of hiding during those years. I willingly did what I could to help. My husband did as well. It was not enough.

There is nothing special about me. I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time.

Though she is primarily remembered for her actions, it is that example of her beliefs and view of herself that I believe will — and should — truly be her legacy. Gies never set out to be an activist; prior to the war, she worked as Otto Frank’s office assistant. She protected the Frank family and others simply because she believed it was the right thing to do. She had no other motive, no concrete political agenda — only a sense of right and wrong. Instead of congratulating herself for the critical role she played in history, she spoke about her actions as only what she was capable of doing at the time and wished she had been capable of doing even more.

I wonder how the world would respond to Gies’ actions today. Much has changed in the way social justice advocates promote their causes. Today, activism is loud and intentional. Often, activism is misguided and misses the point. And though there are countless activists engaging in critical social justice work — work that they truly care about — activism today isn’t necessarily challenging. One can organize marches, distribute petitions, facilitate dialogues, and even blog about justice and oppression — all of these things are valuable to activism. But all of these things can also be put away at the end of the day, or forgotten about during a week when other life stresses take priority. Hiding families in one’s attic can never be ignored. If Miep Gies had set aside her activist efforts for even a moment, the people she was protecting would have been placed in immediate danger.

Of course, it isn’t quite fair of me to compare activism in the United States in the 21st century to activism in Europe during the Holocaust. The stakes are far different, the situations far different, and it’s not fair to assume that today’s social justice advocates wouldn’t do what Gies did if they were placed in her shoes. I’m also not saying that the types of activism common today aren’t valuable, because they are. But the legacy of Miep Gies makes me question my own life and choices. As much as I care about social justice, would I do what she did if I was in her situation? I can blog about issues I care about, and I can work (both professionally and otherwise) in movements that matter to me, but am I ever placing my life on the line? Am I ever really doing all I can? I want to believe that I would be capable of acting as heroically as Gies, but I don’t know that I can. I don’t know how many of us can. So if we take anything away from the life of Miep Gies, I hope we take away the true meaning of activism. I hope we appreciate the value of the small daily actions in which we engage, things that I do believe make a difference, but I hope that we also appreciate the value of larger, necessary acts, and that we become willing to engage in them as well, as they arise.

Rest in peace, Miep Gies. May your life be an example for all who are passionate about social justice.

10 Comments
  1. January 12, 2010 11:22 am

    Great post, Carrie! Thanks for drawing our attention to this heroic woman.

    • alicia permalink
      January 12, 2010 8:36 pm

      Great post. Thanks.

      Your post also makes me think about how so much of activism today is focused on causes. It is easy to forget that ultimately these causes are about individual people and their lives. Today’s activism assumes that if we fight for cause we will impact an individual (the most well-intentioned activists and organizations even sometimes harness this line of reasoning as a marketing tool). Miep Gies seemed to have the opposite approach – she connected with and fought for individual lives and through that took a stand for a cause…
      I try to raise awareness about homelessness, I buy dinner for the homeless man outside of my office but would I welcome him to stay in my apartment on bitterly cold nights??

      • Carrie Polansky permalink
        January 13, 2010 8:27 am

        Alicia, I love your point about focusing on “the cause” vs. focusing on “the individual.” I hadn’t thought about it in exactly those terms, but you’re definitely on to something. And I suppose the key to being a successful activist is finding the balance between the two.

        Which then raises the question: When should activism be focused on broader causes, and when should it be focused on the immediate needs of the individual?

      • alicia permalink
        January 13, 2010 7:49 pm

        You raise a good question… which I certainly don’t have the answer to! Broader causes are clearly crucial – both because they address macro issues and because they mobilize broad support.

        I think part of the reason we focus so much on “the cause” is that this is easier than engaging with “the individual.” Causes are much more easily framed in black and white/right and wrong terms; humans are imperfect – victims have been perpetrators, survivors can “cheat” the system, good-hearted people lie sometimes.

        I also think truly connecting with the people you are working with/on behalf of requires involving your own sense of self – calling into question your motivations/privilege/identity. This is inevitably emotionally draining. At least this is what I have struggled with. In difficult contexts I’ve wondered: how can I reconcile the fact that if war breaks out I will be evacuated from this IDP camp but tens of thousands of people I care for won’t be? It has made me wonder if sustained engagement with injustices requires quelling my sense of empathy, muting my emotions and building walls around my heart? Is it the process of building these walls or a result of not building them that produces the people I’ve witnessed who dedicate their lives to a cause yet interact with individuals with arrogance and superiority?

      • Carrie Polansky permalink
        January 14, 2010 12:20 am

        Inserting oneself into a situation like that (particularly when it makes you question your privilege, like you say) can certainly be draining. And that emotional strain makes me feel torn between thinking “My emotions are irrelevant in this situation, as this is not about me, this is about other people experiencing oppression” and also thinking “But actually, if I am this emotionally strung-out, I’m not actually in a position to support or help anyone.” I think both are valid reactions, depending on the situation. What matters is that we’re aware of such thought processes so that we can be mindful when working to help others.

        The other tricky aspect of these situations is that, while focusing activist efforts on helping individuals will likely always be the most emotional of any activism, it’s also especially challenging to help other people when you are in the same oppressed group (or even another oppressed group) as the people you are helping.

        That’s the one part about Miep Gies’ story that makes me question her authenticity — she was a Christian. Though it’s true that she put her safety and her life on the line by doing what she did, she was still privileged in that she wasn’t Jewish herself. The Nazis weren’t out looking for her. And I wonder if she would have still done what she did if she had been part of a similarly oppressed group of people. This doesn’t make her actions any less admirable or heroic in my book, but it does make me wonder how different it would have been if her identity had been different. Doesn’t remotely change the value of what she did, but it is a fact that probably shouldn’t be ignored, either.

      • alicia permalink
        January 15, 2010 8:50 pm

        That’s a good point about the different implication as “insiders” versus “outsiders” of the (or an) oppressed group.

        Thanks again for this post. It’s gotten me thinking about all of these questions and more.

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