Writer Sandi Wisenberg Reflects on the Generosity of Miep Gies
Miep Gies was a secretary for Otto Frank. One day he told her he and his family were going to hide above their office. Otto asked if Miep would keep their secret and bring them food. She said, “Of course.” “It was perfectly natural,” she told an interviewer. This was Amsterdam 1942. The Franks were Jewish and powerless. Miep could help. Perhaps we like to imagine ourselves as Miep. Or that we'd be the person who throws the grenade into Nazi gathering places, who smuggles children out of the ghetto, who camps out in the maquis or the forest and sabotages trains at night. We have not been tested so it's easy to cast ourselves as heroes.
Miep's recent death made me think back.
Many years ago I was interning at a newspaper in Houston. I was writing about plans to coordinate care for Vietnamese refugees. Someone asked what I was doing to help. I told her I couldn't. I had just finished my freshman year in college, I was home for the summer, I couldn't fit anyone into my dorm room. Besides, it was 800 miles away anyway, in a cold climate. She said she lived alone in a small apartment that had no room for anyone else. We were both in the clear.
One summer about a dozen years ago I was with other academics in France studying fascism during the war. We had a conversation along these lines. It may have been after we'd visited the Resistance museum in Lyon. One of the exhibits pointed out that so many French people had claimed, after Liberation, that they'd been fighting the Nazis. One professor said that if we wanted to know what we would have done back then, we should ask ourselves what we did in 1968.
In 1968, I was technically absolved because I was too young. I was allegedly below the age of activism, studying for my bat mitzvah. But I knew what he meant.
A friend called a few autumns ago and said he figured that I'd have some Katrina refugees from New Orleans living in my condo. He was wrong.
We want to be good people. We tote up our donations at the end of the year. I drink coffee grown by small co-ops, support local businesses, have knocked on doors (for votes, for signatures), protested wars. I give to charities and NPR.
But hey, I had cancer three years ago; don't I get a pass?
When someone like Miep Gies dies, I think of others. Like the late Lisa Fittko, who wrote in the book Solidarity and Treason about what she and other activists did in Berlin after Hitler's election. They started by delivering flyers that stated “DEATH TO FASCISMâ€”THE STRUGGLE GOES ON.” Soon she was in France, helping refugees cross the Pyrenees into Spain. This very minute the economy, personal and global, is awry, and people are suffering. A pandemic of greed has infected our planet. And Nature continues to wreak havoc. Tsunamis. Hurricanes. Earthquake. Earthquake.
Look at the world. What is it asking us?
Music Button: Four Tet, "Circling", from the CD There Is Love In You, (Domino records)