Miep Gies lived a long, long life whose message is timeless: standing up to evil is an ordinary act of which anyone is capable. The last of Anne Frank's four Dutch protectors, she did not wish to be considered a hero. "Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty. I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary." She died this week at 100, the last known witness to Anne's life, diary and heart-rending capture.
After the Holocaust, the philosopher Hannah Arendt used the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe how law-abiding citizens may serve the machinery of mass killing out of moral indifference, a lack of moral agency or autonomy. They may become cogs in the slaughter for reasons of careerism or duty to the state.
If that were all human beings are, the Earth would be a more frightening place than it is. The rational answer would be to live in terror. But the ordinariness of good, as exemplified by Ms. Gies, is an antidote to such terror.
Perhaps Ms. Gies had some extra reason to feel empathy when Anne's father, Otto Frank, asked if she would help hide him and his family and friends, eight in total, in an annex to his office in Amsterdam. ("Yes, of course," she said.) As an 11-year-old suffering from hunger in Austria after the First World War, she had been brought to the Netherlands, and adopted by a Dutch family. "Kindness, in my depleted condition, was very important to me. It was medicine as much as the bread, the marmalade, the good Dutch milk and butter and cheese, the toasty temperature of the warm rooms." As the witnesses to the Holocaust grew old and died, Ms. Gies wrote her own book, Anne Frank Remembered, in 1987, and in her 80s travelled widely to condemn intolerance.
She was not the only one who risked her life to hide Jews in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation; 24,000 of the 140,000 Jews went into hiding. Of those, 8,000 were discovered. (In Anne's group of eight, her father was the only survivor. The group was in hiding for just over two years.) "I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did and more," Ms. Gies said.
Anne Frank's diary, among the world's best-known books outside of the Bible, expressed the resiliency of the human spirit. Ms. Gies fed Anne's spirit with her kindness and courage, and showed the capacity of ordinary people to resist evil.
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