Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Meip Gies: What We Can Learn

Meip Gies died yesterday.

If the name is unfamiliar to you, don’t worry: it was to me as well. Yet the woman played perhaps the largest role in preserving the life experience of someone who, 35 years later, played a huge role in my life: Anne Frank. And I am talking, of course, about the one of the widest read non-fiction books of all time: "Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.”

A Real Girl's Diary

I was 10 when I read the book for the first time, and it changed me at a fundamental level. Until then, I’d been pretty much unaware of the sheer brutality with which people can treat each other (minus, of course, certain experiences with schoolyard bullies). At first, I didn’t believe my mom when she said it was a real girl’s real diary. How could that be? I wondered. How could people kidnap and kill other just because they were a certain religion? It just seemed so wrong. I’d been fortunate to be raised in a mixed neighborhood with parents who taught that we judge people on who they are, rather than what we fear about them. I literally couldn’t get my mind around the concept that other people didn’t believe the same thing—and were willing to kill because of it.

I strongly identified with Anne. Like me, she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. I tried to put myself in the position of this girl, just a few years older than me, who was forced to hide out for two years in the attic of the very business her dad had worked in. Never leaving, rarely even moving around. Relying on others for food, protection, and simple human kindness.

An Ordinary Woman Faced an Extraordinary Test

And that’s where Meip Gies came in. For the two years the Frank family secluded themselves in the attic, she brought them food, blankets, books to read, and news of the outside world. A young woman herself, only in her 30s, and a Christian (so apparently “safe” from the German’s hunt for “undesirables”) she quite literally risked her life to protect the family. And we know how the story ends: the Frank family was eventually betrayed and rounded up by the German SS. Meip was nearly killed when they were discovered; it was only through the pity of a German soldier that she was allowed to escape punishment.

The death of Meip Gies saddened me, even though I was unfamiliar with her (I vaguely remember reading about her years ago and I know she is hailed as a hero in throughout the Netherlands and in Jewish community). I pictured myself in her position: what would I have done, if faced with the same choice she was: either help this family, let them try to manage on their own, or turn them in. One article I read about her quotes her as saying it was a simple choice. Had she not helped them, she would have faced a lifetime of regret and sleepless nights. And that, to her, was worse than the risk of death she faced.

Helping Others is Simple in a Civilized Society

We all like to think of ourselves as “good people.” I know I certainly feel good when I donate to charity, go to church, organize a fundraiser or help out a friend. I think (not exactly in words, but you know what I mean) “I’m a good person; I’ve made a change in the world today.” And then I can live with other things I do that are perhaps not so “good” (like arguing with my husband, yelling at the kids, or deliberately not letting in the car in front of me because I’m in a bad mood.)

But I propose that, even under the economic strain our society has been in since December 2007, it is relatively easy for us to be “good.” The majority of us have the necessities we need to get by—and often, more than the necessities. America is, by and large, a civil society. Not always, but much of the time. We don’t bludgeon our neighbor over the head because we want the steak he’s grilling on the BBQ. We don’t punch the server who is taking forever to take our order. Generally, we help each other out. We like to think that, even in extreme situations, we would stand up for others. Fight for them. And some do—certainly the members of the military do. Police officers and firefighters regularly take risks to help others that the rest of us find unimaginable.

A Uncivilized Scenario: Helping Others at the Cost of Your Own Life

But there is nothing civil about the scenario faced by Meip Gies in the spring of 1942: An invading army has captured your country. The officers of the law you relied on for protection have been murdered or have surrendered. All around you people are being rounded up—because of their religion or some other aspect that makes them “undesirable”—and taken away, never to be seen again. There are enemy soldiers everywhere. People all around you are turning in their Jewish neighbors for fear of being considered a sympathizer and having their own families kidnapped. You are literally at risk of imprisonment and death for even protesting against the treatment of your fellow human beings. And your boss—a man you admire and respect—comes to you for help.

You are put in the position of literally laying your life—and the lives of your family—on the line for others. This is not like donating a hundred dollars to the Fred Jordan Mission so the hungry can be fed. This isn’t delivering groceries to homebound seniors. Those are wonderful things, good things, and not to be discounted, but they’re not the same as actually risking death for another.

What Would I Have Done?

So when I put myself in the scenario Meip faced, it becomes more difficult to “be good.” Some people will instantly and righteously claim: “Oh, no doubt, I’d help them out.” And some of them likely really would say “yes” immediately. But others might not—they’d fear for their lives, the lives of their children, they’d fear for their livelihoods. They’d need time to think it over and access the risks. As I walked the dog this morning I thought about what I would do, if the situation in the Netherlands in 1942 suddenly became the situation of Orange County in 2010. If someone I knew came to me for protection from being hauled off God-knows-where, would I help him or her? I like to think—and I do believe—that the answer is yes.

But what if it was someone I didn’t know who desperately needed my help, in that situation? Again, after some thought, my answer is yes. What if it was someone I deeply disliked? Again, yes (perhaps with some reservations...). But of course, in real life we often act differently than we do in our heads.

She Couldn't Save Anne, But She Saved Anne's Experience for Us

Meip Gies was an ordinary woman, a secretary. She acted in real life the way most of us hope we would act if faced with that situation. In the end, two years of effort couldn’t save the family—Anne and her sister died of typhoid, their mother of starvation (she intentionally stopped eating after her beloved daughters died) in the camps. But what Meip did manage to save was Anne Frank’s life experience. A terrible experience, to be sure, but one millions of people all over the world have learned from and made changes because of. After the SS soldiers took Anne and her family (and two others who had taken refuge in the attic) away, Meip went upstairs and gathered what was not torn apart by the Germans. Among the papers strewn about was Anne's diary. When Otto Frank returned years later after being liberated from the concentration camp, Meip presented the diary to him as a memento of his little girl. Evenutally, Otto had it published, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Meip herself put it in a Washington Post interview many years later, she was “glad that (I) could help fulfill Anne’s lifelong ambition of being immortalized through her writing.”

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