On January 11, Miep Gies died, aged 100. Though born in Austria, she spent most of her life in the Netherlands. After Austria joined the Third Reich, her family fled to Holland, where Miep married Dutchman Jan Gies.
She was the last survivor of five men and women who hid two Jewish families for two years and one month during the Nazi occupation of Holland. The eight hidden Jews were eventually betrayed by an informer whose identity is still unknown. They were arrested and taken to various concentration camps, where all but one perished.
This would have been a minor footnote to the Holocaust, but for the fact the lone survivor, Otto Frank, had a daughter Anne who kept a diary. Gies retrieved and hid the diary, intending to give it back to Anne after the war.
Instead she gave it to Otto Frank. Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen Konzentrationslager, aged fifteen, two weeks before the camp was liberated by the British.
Frank published his daughter's diary, as The Diary of Anne Frank, in 1947. Since then it has been translated into dozens of languages, and adapted into a play and a movie. It is consistently rated among the one hundred most important books of the 20th century. Gies later published her own book, Anne Frank Remembered.
Gies was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Yad Vashem medal given by Israel to the “Righteous among Gentiles,” and was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. But Gies always rejected the label of hero.
“I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did or more, much more , during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the hearts of those of us who bear witness,” she said.
But of course, she, her husband, and friends were heroes, in the literal sense of the word. "Hero" comes from the ancient Greek word for "protector" or "defender." They were defending eight men, women, and children, the honor of their nation, and their own humanity. They failed only in the first.
The ancients regarded heroes as demigods, the sons of gods and mortal women. Our culture wrestles with an ambiguity about heroes and heroism; two attitudes that might be called deifiers and debunkers. On the one hand are those who want and need to see heroes as larger than life, without significant flaws. On the other are those who deny there is any such thing as real heroism, who see nothing but the "feet of clay," the all-too-human faults, mixed motives, and weaknesses of people widely regarded as heroes.
In my opinion both are wrong. And wrong in the same way.
I don't have a problem admiring men and women who act heroically, despite all their flaws, orneriness, and glorious feet of clay. The Gieses and their friends were, before the Nazi occupation, remarkable only in their ordinariness.
To me it's inspiring, and sobering, to realize seemingly unremarkable men and women rose to such heights when the occasion demanded. They could have hunkered down for the duration of the war and, with luck, survived without doing anything seriously wrong. But sometimes it's not enough to do nothing wrong if you are going to live with yourself. You have to do what's right, whatever the risk, whatever the cost.
And that's where I think both the deifiers and debunkers go wrong. Because the consequence of both is to put heroism beyond our reach. Because bad times always return. And because the example of real heroes, feet of clay and all, means when they do return, you will have no excuse not to be a hero.
A different version of this column, on the occasion of Miep Gies's death, appeared as an op-ed in the Valley City Times-Record.