Miep Gies and against the cult of personality

As the world came to slowly wake up to the catastrophe, that is the Haiti earthquake, another page in history was slowly flipped over and became a boot note. In the midst of all the misery in the West, Miep Gies passed away on January 11th. For the idealist in me, this was one of the hardest pieces of news to hear this year.

As every one else, I read about the Gies family in Anne Frank's diary. For the first time reader, the focal point is the teen girl who was wiped out in the Holocaust with most of her family and we treat the others in the book as scenery. That was the case with me as well. But, as time went by, my thoughts would drift to the Gieses and other ordinary people like them, who did the most extraordinary of things. My favorite two books which tackled people like these in the Second World War are 'Is Paris Burning' and 'Citizen Soldier'. The two books can't be further apart - indeed in his book, Stephen Ambrose pointedly criticizes LaPierre and Collins on their selection of heroes - but the theme is same : ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, both in uniform and out of it.

I happened to remember this in one of my conversations about 8 years ago with Hemant and Satish. The topic was Hemant's fascination with Alexander the Great and his Persian campaign. In one battle, so the story goes, Alexander was injured in a battle to capture a city on a river-bank - the details are vague. What is legend, is that the injured Alexander was rowed to the middle of the river so men on the beachhead and at the embarkation point, could see him raise his sword in a victorious, but bleeding arm which inspired them to victory.  Hemant raved at this as the epitome of leadership and achievement - how can you beat a world conquerer who led men from his death bed?

I had a very weak comeback - Frederic Joliot Curie, the Nobel Laureate mixing Molotov cocktails  for the liberation of Paris from the Nazi Occupation, while being shelled by tanks. Hemant was suitably unimpressed by my inability to justify why this seemingly mundane task merited any comparison with a leader, who with his personality changed the face of the earth. I was stumped - I knew I was right, but why? I wasn't able to explain it for almost 10 years.

Then Miep Gies died. And in all the tributes to her, was this one thing which was my epiphany: 

 " I am not a hero, People sometimes call me a hero, I don't like it.  Because people should never think that you have to be a very special person to help those who need you.  I myself am just a fairly common person.  I simply had no choice.  I could foresee many, many sleepless nights, and a life filled with regret if I would refuse to help the Franks, and this was not the kind of life I was looking forward to."

The emphasis is mine. People should never think that they have to be above ordinary to help those who need them and do the right thing. They shouldn't wait upon a leader to guide them, nor hope a "personality" will come to solve our problems. Too many times, too many things - irrelevant or otherwise - are left at the mercy of one person's thoughts and ideas. The community spirit which drives innovation and nurtures creativity is stamped out to be molded in one person's image. Every day I shudder at the idea of all those common people, who willingly assist social outcasts, stopping themselves from caring for people.

And that there is why I know Hemant was wrong and Joliot-Curie's willingness to sacrifice everything for his country makes him a bigger hero than a world conqueror, who tried to ride on the wings of his personality to godhood. Without one forceful leader, we might lose out on a victory; but without these heroes, we might as well lose our humanity.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Agree. The Mumbai deluge saw many Miep's (ordinary, unknown people) standing up and saving many an ailing Anne Franks.

    ....My memory about this chat is vague. But was an interesting discussion, as usual!

    I think what I felt at that time was that a forceful personality is often essential to mass motivate millions into focused action. Whether the end is morally, ethically justified is another matter.

    As an example, the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chih Minh was a blasphemy in the eyes of the West, but to many Vietnamese he was Uncle Ho, the Liberator who played a pivotal role in Vietnam's road to independence.

    Do keep writing in on our discussions, so we have a record of what we thought then...and how our thoughts have changed over time.

  3. @Hemant, absolutely. But my context again was slightly different. Yes, Ho Chih Minh was a great leader, but without his dedicated cadre of men and women, he was an old man with a funny beard. Speeches do not motivate anyone, it has to be the inner voice within you that drives you forward - be it to rape Tamils in Sri Lanka or to rescue people in a deluge. It is a question of choices. Miep Gies merely made that choice.