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Rescuers

“I am not a hero Never a day goes by that I do not think about what happened then I willingly did what I could to help It was not enough.”

So begins the memoir of Miep Gies, the woman who, along with her husband, Jan, and several friends, risked her life to hide and care for the Frank family, the van Daans, and later, Albert Dussel, in the now famous “Secret Annex” on Prinsengracht Canal in Amsterdam, described by Anne Frank in her Diary.

Miep Gies’ Anne Frank Remembered stands side by side with The Diary of a Young Girl as testament to the nobility of the human spirit. But the power of these sister texts to move us lies not in an evocation of either martyrdom or sainthood, but of simple human caring.

For two harrowing years, from July 6, 1942 until August 4, 1944—when a Dutch informer tipped off the Gestapo for the usual reward of five gulden (about $1.40) per Jew—Miep and her circle protected their eight Jewish friends from the Nazis.

Miep befriended shopkeepers and acquired illegal ration cards; she traveled miles into the countryside, risking the possibility of arrest by violating curfew. Daily, she and Jan, Jo Koophuis, Victor Kraler and Eli Vossen brought food, gifts, news of the outside world, and most important—hope— to the warehouse attic.

It is estimated that 24,000 of the 140,000 Jews living in Holland during the occupation were hidden by Dutch people. Only 16,000 of these Jews survived; the rest, like the inhabitants of the “secret annex,” were caught by the Nazis, and deported.

In simple, but feeling prose, Anne frank Remembered reveals not just the actions, but the character of one woman who chose to commit herself to aiding the victims of Nazi persecution. Reading Miep’s account, I was struck by how typical she is of the 120 non-Jewish rescuers of varying backgrounds and nationalities I interviewed over the past five years for a social-psychological study of altruistic behavior during the Nazi era.

“I am not a hero…. It was not enough.” Miep’s lament is familiar to me. Not one of the rescuers I interviewed believed that the extraordinary help they had extended under the most extreme conditions in human history was “enough.” Nor did a single rescuer regret her or his involvement, even though, for many, the cost was dear.

The word “typical,” however, needs some qualifications. Rescuers are strong individualists, and it was their bold spirit and irreverence of imposed authority that in many cases enabled them to carry out their rebellious acts. Their rescue activity always mirrored their specific and highly individualized strengths, skills, and characters, and their motivations were diverse.

Basic to all rescuers, however, was a real awareness of need, a tremendous capacity to recognize the reality of the extreme situation, as well as an ability to realize their own responsibility and to admit to themselves that “these human beings will die if I do not intervene.”

Although social psychologist Carol Gilligan has observed a morality based on a “different voice” in women, no specific gender differences emerged in my study of the motivations and behavior of rescuers. In fact, more men than women in my study were emotionally motivated rescuers who gave compassion, pity, and a deep inner need as the reasons for helping Jewish victims.

While Gilligan found that women tend to make decisions based on feelings of social responsibility (men, she found, make decisions based on an abstract concept of justice), many women rescuers cited strong ideological beliefs as their primary motivation to rescue.

Both men and women who aided Jewish friends (rather than strangers) cited a deep emotional attachment to the people they saved as their motivation. In terms of their formative developmental years, a large majority of rescuers experienced common influences: an altruistic role model with whom they also performed helpful deeds while growing up; learning the value of tolerance for differentness from a parent or significant other; being encouraged by their parents to be independent and competent; and a loss in early childhood.

Miep’s childhood years played an important role in the development of her altruistic behavior. Like many other starving and sick children who survived the hardships of World War I in Vienna, she was adopted by a Dutch family whose kindness, love and humanity made a great impression on her. She writes:

“… so many hands reached out to guide me I didn’t know which one to grab first The children all adopted me. There is a children’s story in which a little child in a wooden cradle is washed away by flood and is floating on the raging waters, in danger of sinking, when a cat leaps onto the cradle and jumps from side to side of it, keeping the cradle afloat until it touches solid ground again and the child is safe. I was the child, and all these Dutch people in my life were the cats.”

At 24, Miep met and began to work for Otto Frank; they shared a common language—German—and held similar political views; slowly a friendship evolved.

Miep felt a special attachment to the Franks’ younger daughter, Anne. We learned from her book that Anne liked to be in plays at school. She talked about many school friends, speaking of them as though each were her best and only friend. She was obviously a child who liked the company of her peers. At nine, little Anne was developing quite a personality. The color in her cheeks was bright; her conversations came in a rush, writes Miep.

In 1940, the Germans invaded Holland. In the spring of 1942, the persecution of Jews intensified. The night after Margot Frank received a summons to report for forced-labor deportation to Germany, Miep and Jan transported the Franks’ clothes and belongings to the warehouse annex. The next day, in pouring rain, Miep, suppressing her terror, escorted Margot by bicycle to the hiding-place.

From the moment they mounted their bicycles, “… we’d become criminals. There we were. Christian and Jew, without the yellow star…. Suddenly we’d become two allies against the might of the German beast among us.” The next day, Otto Frank arrived at the annex with his wife, Edith, and daughter, Anne.

In response to frequent invitations from Anne during the two years of hiding, Miep and Jan once stayed overnight in the annex. ‘The quietness of the place was overwhelming.” Miep recalls, ‘The fright of these people who were locked up here was so thick I felt it pressing down on me It was so terrible it never let me close my eyes. For the first time, I knew what it was like to be a Jew in hiding.”

In August, 1944, the occupants of the secret annex were discovered and arrested by the Gestapo, In a daring effort to save her friends, Miep entered Gestapo headquarters and attempted to bribe the arresting officer.

In her final act of resistance, Miep returned to the locked and quarantined annex, removed the Franks’ most precious belongings, including Anne’s diary, and hid them as she waited for her friends to return. Out of respect for Anne’s privacy, Miep did not read her diary.

Like other rescuers who had strong emotional attachments to their charges, Miep’s relationship to the people she had helped did not end with the war. When Otto Frank returned from Auschwitz after liberation, Miep and Jan nursed him back to health.

In Miep’s presence, he received a letter that informed him that Margot and Anne had died at Bergen-Belsen.

To comfort him, Miep retrieved Anne’s diary from its hiding place in her desk. Handing it to Otto Frank, Miep said, “Here is Anne’s legacy to you.”

Not until the diary was in its second printing did Miep muster the courage to read the words of her young friend.

Miep’s response is an intensification of what all of us have felt upon first reading Anne’s words:

“Anne’s voice tumbled out of the book, so full of life, moods, curiosity, feelings. She was no longer gone and destroyed. She was alive in my mind so much had been lost, but now Anne’s voice would never be lost… But always, every day of my life, I’ve wished that things had been different That even had Anne’s diary been lost to the world, Anne and the others might somehow have been saved. Not a day goes by that I do not grieve for them.” 

Dr. Eva Fogelman is a social psychologist and psychotherapist. She is the Director of The Foundation to Sustain Righteous Christians at the International Center for Holocaust Studiesat the Anti-Defamation League.The aim. of the Foundation, which was founded by Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Encino, California, is to recognize and to lend support to those non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. Fogelman is also writer and co-producer of the award-winning documentary, “Breaking the Silence: The Generation after the Holocaust,” and is currently working on a book about rescuers.