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January 12, 2010

Thank you and farewell to a hero

Miep Gies died this week at one hundred years of age. Ms Gies was an employee of Otto Frank before becoming friends with the entire family, including its youngest member, Anne Frank. For two years beginning in 1942, Gies and her husband Jan Gies hid the Franks, her dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, and the Van Pels family- eight people in all, from the Nazis in Amsterdam.

Ms. Gies, a Catholic, risked her life to keep the eight alive, bringing them fresh food, books and newspapers. In 1944 they were betrayed by an unknown informant and taken to concentration camps. Again risking her own life, Meip Gies went to Gestapo headquarters and tried in vain to secure their release by offering money.

Anne, by then 15 and her older sister Margot died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

Otto was the sole survivor of the Frank family. Ms Geis gave him Anne's diary which she had saved and which became, after the bible, the best selling non-fiction book in the world.

I had the great privilege of spending time with Miep Gies, in New York and in Amsterdam. I was eager for my children to meet her, and to try to learn what it was within her that caused her to do these extraordinary things. Why Miep Gies? Why Raul Wallenberg? Why Schindler? And most importantly, why not everyone?

Miep shed no light on her decisions. "Of course it was not easy", she told me," But what else could I do?" The profundity of her response lies in its simple ordinariness. For Miep, there were no other options. She could not have done otherwise.

I have a Rwandan friend who survived the 1994 genocide but lost most of her family and was witness to unimaginable atrocities. Based on what took place in her country, she calculates that "95% of people will pick up a machete and kill strangers and friends alike for 90 days. This we know. 3%--they don't want to kill, they will run away."

My friend's words dropped me into the bleakest silence. But eventually I thought "Two percent! That's not zero! We have something to build on."

Miep Gies always insisted, " I am not a hero. There is nothing special about me." I respectfully disagree. Ms Gies was among the "two percent" who set the bar, show us the way, and help us all feel more hopeful about being human.
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