Ethics Hero Emeritus: Miep Gies, 1909-2010

Miep Gies, the last surviving participant in the inspiring story of Anne Frank, died last week, a month short of her 101st birthday.

One of the most important objectives of thinking about ethics, and challenging ourselves to find the most ethical courses in the dilemmas and conflicts we read and hear about every day, is to be ready if and when a time comes when lives depend on our ability to determine the right thing to do, and to have the courage do it. I have no idea how much or how often Miep Gies thought about ethics. But when her time came, she was ready.

Her time arrived in 1942, in her home of Amsterdam. She was a long-time employee of Otto Frank, who knew that soon the Nazi occupiers would come to take his family away to a concentration camp, for they were Jews, and the Nazis were killing Jews.  As she told the story,  Frank came to her one day and asked, “Miep, are you willing to take on the responsibility of taking care of us if we go into hiding?” She  immediately replied, “Of course!”, and did not ask for details.  After the war, she always deflected accolades for her courage and kindness, saying that she “had no choice.” Her choice, however, was one most Europeans were afraid to make, for helping Jews elude the Gestapo often meant imprisonment or execution.

On July 5th, 1942,  the Frank family moved to the “Secret Annex,” a room in Frank’s office hidden by a sliding bookcase. With the family—Otto Frank, Edith Frank, Margot and Anne— were five others: Herman and Auguste Van Pels and their son Peter, and an elderly man named Pfeffer, Miep’s dentist. For the next two years, Mrs. Gies brought the group food, supplies, and news.

We know this story, of course, because of the diary kept by Anne Frank, who was 13 when the Franks went into hiding. It was Miep Gies who supplied Anne with notebooks and extra paper after her original diary was filled. It was also Gies who rescued the diary, in defiance of Nazi orders and at great risk, by returning to the annex after the Gestapo had captured the Frank family and ransacked their hiding place.

Much is also not in the diary, things that Anne Frank could not know. For example, the diary doesn’t tell us that Gies traveled on her bicycle to spread her food purchases among different grocers in order to avoid suspicion. Or that she made a dangerous attempt to bribe Gestapo officials to spare the lives of the eight Jews, after they were taken into custody in August of 1944. Anne Frank also never knew that she, her family and the four others were not the only Jews Miep was helping: she and her husband Jan Gies, who worked with the Dutch resistance, also hid a Jewish student in their apartment.

Mrs. Gies was one of thousands of brave and principled people who saved lives, or tried, by assisting Jews attempting to escape the Nazi extermination.  Many of their stories are unknown, and many of their names are lost to us. We do know about Miep Gies, however, and it is important to remember her courageous acts, not just for her, but for all of them.

And for us. She didn’t know that she would be called upon to do something important, something right, until the moment her time came. She did have a choice, and she made the ethical one. She was ready.

Remembering her story and her life will help us be ready too.

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