by Barry Edelson

The Paradox of Heroism


"I am not a 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 who bear witness. Never a day goes by that I do not think of what happened then.

"More than twenty thousand Dutch people helped to hide Jews and others in need of hiding during those years. I willingly did what I could to help. My husband did as well. It was not enough.

"There is nothing special about me. I have never wanted special attention. I was only willing to do what was asked of me and what seemed necessary at the time."
—Miep Gies


If there was ever an individual who personified the ideal of the hero it was Miep Gies, who died last week at the well-earned age of 100. The only right-thinking person who did not think that she deserved the many tributes and honors bestowed upon her was Gies herself, as these opening lines of her 1987 memoir, "Anne Frank Remembered", makes only too plain.

In interviews, she used to say that she did not want to be thought of as special because it would lead other people to conclude that only special individuals were capable of exceptional action in difficult circumstances. It was important to her that helping people in need be considered an ordinary, routine activity, something done without hesitation, no matter the danger to one's own person, because it was simply the right thing to do. If people believed that, and acted upon that belief, it would provide the best possible insurance against a repetition of Nazi-like atrocities.

Gies' self-effacement embodies the deep paradox of heroism. We interpret her modesty as a sign of her exceptional nature, as though her belief in her own unexceptional character is precisely what makes her unique and worthy of distinction. In so doing, we thoroughly ignore the lesson that she was so determined to teach us, and reaffirm instead our own blighted view of man's fallen state. If moral rectitude is not an inherent human quality, or one capable of being imbued in each of us by common example, then Miep Gies is indeed a lone figure of veneration. But if her vision of compassion and empathy, as forces equal to the threat of fear and self-preservation, is merely the dream of a naive and trusting soul, then how is it that the vicious Third Reich lasted a mere 12 years, and that virtually all of Western Europe has for the last 65 years reaped the rewards of decency?

I recall two trivial incidents from childhood that elucidate this paradox, and have long haunted my thinking on the subject. A classmate in my elementary school found a wallet, and turned it in, intact, to the school office. The boy was conspicuously praised, and trotted out before the entire student body as a hero. Even at the tender age of 10, I felt as though something was terribly wrong with this picture. Day in and day out, we were taught to be honest and upright, not for the sake of rewards or accolades, but because it was the bare minimum expected of us. And yet the message implicit in the sudden celebrity of someone just like ourselves was only too clear: doing the right thing is actually a rare event, so rare in fact that the powers that be (in this case, the principal and teachers) could not pass up a golden opportunity to hammer a moral lesson into the heads of what they must have viewed as a bunch of budding reprobates and derelicts. It also demonstrated that the primary consequence of failing to perform simple acts of goodness was to dispense with the limelight. By that age, it was already only too clear to me that most of my fellow creatures were only too happy to wallow in the anonymity of wickedness.

The second incident happened a decade later, when, as a college student, I found a wallet behind a shelf of books in the university library. It had apparently been stolen and emptied of its valuable contents before being tucked away in the depths of the endless stacks, where it was unlikely to be detected for some time. I dutifully turned in the wallet to the security officers, who dutifully proceeded to question me as though I were the prime suspect. The dim-witted security staff, to whom it did not occur that the thief would have no motive whatsoever in turning in a wallet that he had stolen himself, unwittingly helped to shine a light on the moral question at hand. While I by no means profess to a life of ethical and moral purity, in this particular instance I had no other interest than in returning the wallet to its owner. That my trifling act of altruism was met with suspicion rendered the earlier lesson all the more troubling. In a world in which the social bonds that tie humanity together are in constant battle against self-serving interests that threaten to rip us apart, doing the right thing is seldom a simple or risk-free proposition.

The Failure of Moral Teaching

The very concept of heroism has such a long history, with so many and varied examplars, that it has come to mean very different things to different people. In the original Greek, a hero was literally a protector or defender. Unfortunately, as is the case of many misused and overused terms, the definition of a hero has been diluted almost beyond recognition. In the modern American parlance, a hero can be anyone admired for nearly any reason, or for practically no reason at all. Implicit in the phrase, "He's my hero", is a desire to emulate the admired person, to stand in his place, share in his glory, live his life. Regrettably, this high degree of adulation is no longer reserved for the few who demonstrate extraordinary fortitude, courage or skill. Successful athletes, movie stars, rock musicians and all manner of lesser celebrities are often singled out as worthy role models for children by their largely undiscerning parents. Indeed, "sports hero" is so common a phrase in our lexicon that we no longer notice the inherent contradiction of holding individuals in such high regard for their physical skills without giving a thought to their underlying characters. We no longer call someone a hero solely because he has done something exceptional; we call anyone a hero simply because we admire him.

Still, there is something deep within us that knows the difference between the true act of heroism and the everyday achievements of people who just happen to be talented. How else do we explain the praise showered upon Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed a jet plane on the Hudson River a year ago, saving the lives of everyone on board? Captain Sullenberger is in the Miep Gies mold of a hero, one whose grace and modesty and, most of all, his insistence that he only did what he was called to do under the circumstances, are central to his appeal. Who would begrudge him his moment in the sun? It would be as unseemly as suggesting that Miep Gies didn't deserve the world's admiration for her actions. At the same time, these and other similar instances bring us back to the same vexing question: if geniunely heroic behavior is so unusual that it elicits a torrent of praise, then aren't all of our moral teachings for naught? Let us not forget that Gies was not Dutch at all, but was born in Vienna and raised as a Catholic, and came to live in the Netherlands after World War I as her family escaped the poverty and hunger of post-war Austria. How is it that her moral convictions led her to act without hesitation to save her friends, while the country of her birth welcomed Nazism with an ardent embrace? Were they not all taught the same Bible, the same catechism? A visit to the Resistance Museums in Copenhagen and Oslo makes one wonder how the same austere Protestantism that prompted Danes and Norwegians en masse to risk their lives to save others, had no such impact on most others across occupied Europe, who didn't lift a finger to help, or, worse, willingly collaborated in the deportations. How is it that Miep Gies could chastise herself to her dying day for not doing more, while millions of others, ingrained in the same religious and moral traditions, felt perfectly justified in being accomplices to mass murder?

We would all like to believe that we would do the right thing if faced with such life-and-death decisions, but if we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that we do not know how we would behave if our own lives were at stake. What is without question is that most of us would behave badly, because history has proven it time and again. Peter Bielenberg, an opponent of Nazism who was involved in the bomb plot against Hitler, said that what he learned from the war is that there are no limits to man's inhumanity unless limits are imposed. If the extraordinary life of Miep Gies teaches us anything, it is that faith and morality are insufficient to correct the selfish tendencies of human nature, and are more often than not corrupted into defenses of indefensible acts. The sad truth is that the sympathy we profess to hold for our fellow human beings is a fragile commodity, and is at the continuous mercy of our own needs and ambitions.

Regrettably, Miep Gies was wrong: it does take an exceptional person to defy the rampaging mob and overcome our baser tendencies. She was such a person. At the end of her book, she describes how each year she and her husband observed the 4th of May, the official Dutch day of mourning, and the 4th of August, the day of the Franks' arrest:

"[We] stay at home all day. We act as though the day were not happening. Neither of us will look at a clock all day. I stand at the window all through the day, and Henk, on purpose, sits with his back to the window. When we sense that it's about five o'clock, that the day has passed, we experience a sense of relief that the day is finished."

Would that all of us were so ordinary, and so human.

January 21, 2010

Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.