By Abraham Cooper
associate dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center
When a loved one passes, Jewish tradition tells us to look at the reading from the portion of the Torah read that Sabbath to help put the loss in perspective and for the family and community to find solace. It’s not always easy to shed a tear for someone who lived to be 100 years old. Yet this week, we shed tears over the loss of Miep Gies, a tiny woman–barely 5-foot tall — who during Humanity’s darkest chapter stood tall when others capitulated to evil, cowered or looked the other way.
This past Sabbath, Jews read the first chapters of the Book of Exodus. The narrative relates the story of young Moses, whose life changed forever when he decided to intervene to try to save an Israelite from the whip of an Egyptian taskmaster. The Bible says, Moses “turned this way and that way and saw that there was no man, so he struck the Egyptian”(Exodus 2, 12). Many commentators remark that it doesn’t mean that there were no witnesses to the whipping of the slave, just that the incident sparked no reaction; not from the other slaves or from oblivious passersby. This young Egyptian-bred prince was different. Casting his personal safety and security to the wind, young Moses swung into action– and the rest is history.
Which brings us to Miep Gies, a tiny lady, born a Roman Catholic in Austria, who answered the call to try to help her Jewish neighbors in Amsterdam, the family of Otto Frank and six other Jews, in Nazi-occupied Holland. On that day, in July 1942, when she and her family answered the pleas of Otto Frank, his wife and two girls and six other Jews, she knew she and her family were putting their lives in immediate and constant danger. Their decision was in stark contrast to the overwhelming majority of the Dutch people, would did aver their eyes from their Jewish neighbors and as a result, over 90% of Dutch Jewry were deported and murdered by the Nazis.
What does Miep Gies and the other Righteous Among the Nations mean to the Jewish people?
The late Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal would often tell young audiences, “I wasn’t surprised there were so many Nazis, but I was devastated that there were so few anti-Nazis.” For Jews, anti-Nazis like, Miep Gies, Wallenberg and Sugihara are cherished not only because they risked so much to try to save Jews from the Gas Chambers, but because their quiet but tenacious heroism validated the humanity of the Jewish people at a time when we were reduced to numbers, then ashes. Through her deeds, Miep validated the very core values of humanity, compassion, and kindness that the Nazis and their ilk strove to uproot from the world.
The Talmud (Menahot 43) talks about a chain. It starts with a one person seeing an event, which leads to memory; And Memory, we are told eventually brings about action. It is Miep Gies whom we have to thank in large measure to helping to keep Anne’s legacy alive.
For Miep remained loyal to Anne Frank, in death as well as life. It was she who gathered up Anne’s writings and held them until Otto Frank returned. In doing so, she helped Anne reach out beyond death to help touch tens of millions of young people.
We live in a world so devoid of real heroes, we’re donning 3-D glasses to view imaginary ones. But some of us have been lucky to be touched by true heroes. I had the honor of watching Miep Gies in action with young people at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and see how her direct, grounded Menschlichkeit cut through directly to the hearts and minds of the multitude of kids and gave them a hero they could truly believe in and emulate. Anne would have been proud.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.