By Shannon Owens, Reference Department
What constitutes a hero? Slaying dragons? Pulling children from burning buildings? Wheeling and dealing like James Bond to save the world from certain disaster? Certainly such dynamic situations come to mind immediately. There’s a particular brand of heroism, though, that is far less talked about and sadly, nearly always underrated: The quiet kind. The type of heroism that involves doing the right thing when nobody is watching. The type of heroism that may never be recognized and rarely offers the hero any personal benefit. The type of heroism that, if discovered, would spell certain death for the perpetrator.
Eight years ago on this day, we saw the final light extinguished from one such individual. At 100 years old, Miep Gies, the last living member of a small group that hid Anne Frank, passed away in the Netherlands. It’s difficult to overstate the courage it took this group (including Johannes Kleinman, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl, Jan Gies and Johan Voskuijl) who risked their lives every day for over two years while the Franks were in hiding. The Frank family, along with Otto Frank’s business associate and his wife and son, and Gies’ dentist, were hidden in the Secret Annex.
Miep Gies was born on February 15, 1909 in Vienna, Austria to a working-class, Catholic family. At the age of eleven, several factors (recovery from tuberculosis, poor nutrition, rising costs of food due to shortages related to the fallout of World War I) led to Gies being sent to live in Amsterdam with a foster family. Despite the family’s modest income, coupled with five other children, Gies was loved and treated with unending compassion. In fact, she loved the Netherlands with absolute ferocity; she vowed to make Holland her permanent home. In 1933, Miep went to work as secretary for Otto Frank, who ran a company that produced a substance used to make jam.
In May 1940, German forces invaded the Netherlands, making daily life exceedingly dangerous for the Jewish population. In early July, the Frank family went into hiding in the attic apartment behind Otto’s business (accessible by a stairway hidden behind a bookcase). Miep’s moral integrity was the reason, when asked by Otto Frank if she was prepared to be responsible for a family in hiding, she was able to respond with a resounding affirmative. At a lecture in 1994, Gies addressed the audience: “I myself am just an ordinary woman. I simply had no choice…it is our human duty to help those who are in trouble…I could foresee many, many sleepless nights and a miserable life if I had refused to help the Franks. Yes, I have wept countless times when I thought of my dear friends. But still, I am happy that these are not tears of remorse for refusing to assist those in trouble.”
Over two years, Miep provided food, clothing, books, supplies, and news from the outside world to the Frank family (this included procuring additional ration cards, at great personal risk). On August 4, 1944, Miep Gies was working at her desk, and looked up to suddenly find a Gestapo officer in front of her, with information verifying the hideout. Gies realized the arresting officer was Austrian, like herself, and she pointed this out, which very likely saved her life. The officer arrested the Franks, the Van Pels, Dr. Pfeffer, Johannes Kleinman, and Victor Kugler. After a time, Miep and Bep returned to the Annex to collect the loose papers and the contents of Anne’s diary (they hid these away for safekeeping without reading them).
Acting with surefire moxie, Miep hatched a plan to negotiate for the release of the Franks. She collected money from the employees of the company and went to the headquarters of Security Service to offer a bribe. At the office, she met the Austrian who had arrested those at the Annex and he waved her upstairs. She reached the landing, found a half open door, and walked in to a startling sight: a group of high ranking Nazi officers were surrounding a radio, listening to a BBC broadcast. Likely, they were too shocked to see her standing there to react, giving her time to hightail it out of Dodge before they could arrest her (and likely execute her as well).
After the war, Miep was devastated to learn that all of her friends, excepting Otto, had perished. She gave Anne’s diary to her father, telling him that it was the lasting legacy of his youngest daughter. To this point, Miep had not read the contents of the diary, and was relieved. If she had read the diary, she surely would have had to destroy it since it implicated all of the conspirators who safeguarded the Franks and their friends for years. Miep received several awards late in life, including the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Yad Vashem Medal and the Wallenberg Medal. In 1987, Gies published her memoir: “Anne Frank Remembered”. Here, she makes several comments referencing her legacy as a hero, maintaining that she only did what any decent human would: “I am not a hero. I stand at the end of the long, long line of good Dutch people who did what I did and more- much more- during those dark and terrible times years ago, but always like yesterday in the heart of those who bear witness. Never a day goes by that I do not think of what happened then.”
Many of us believe that if we found ourselves in a similar situation, we would act as Miep did. The reality is probably a little more complicated than that. Miep Gies stated over and over that she was no hero. I disagree emphatically: her actions gave hope where there was little, showed humanity in a time when humanity was utterly depleted, and showed strength, will, and belief in all that is good and that connects us to others. It is hard to find more heroism than that.
Originally published January 11, 2019.
By Shannon Owens, Reference Department
June 28, 1914…a date which will live in infamy? Well, something like that, at any rate. For those left in the dark, June 28th signifies the anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke and heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Most casual observers believe this incident was the cause of The Great War (WWI.) It should go without saying that this grossly oversimplifies the situation. The late 1800s saw a shift in the fairly equal balance of powers that had previously dominated the political landscape of Europe. Several causes led to this, but suffice to say, the continent was braced for a fight. By 1914, Europe was simply a ticking time bomb, ready to explode. Many thought war was inevitable (this begs the chicken vs the egg question: did war break out simply because enough important people didn’t see another recourse? Depressing to consider.) At any rate, a Serbian national shot Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on a state visit in Sarajevo…and the rest, as they say, is history.
What is less often mused over is how unlikely it was that this situation would come to fruition in the first place. Heck, Franz Ferdinand wasn’t even supposed to be the heir to the great Habsburg line in the first place. His cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, was the son of Emperor Franz Josef. However, he died suddenly, in a sordid fog of mystery, that wouldn’t be out of place in a 21st century soap opera. Rudolf was not a man known for fidelity, the number of affairs he conducted were countless. Cue the Mayerling Incident. In 1887, he bought Mayerling and turned it into a hunting lodge of sorts. The following year, Crown Prince Rudolf (then 30 years old) met Baroness Marie Vetsera, a young woman of 17. Simply put, the baroness was utterly besotted, she worshiped him fully. For his part, it’s hard to imagine that he returned the young girl’s ardor, but he probably cared for her. At the very least, he was a vain man, and likely loved to be the center of a lovely young woman’s world. On the morning of January 30th, 1889, a valet broke his way into a Mayerling bedroom after hearing two pistol shots. Once inside, he found a gruesome scene. The prince’s skull had been partially blown away, his body slumped on the bed next to the body of his young mistress.
The official report stated that Rudolf had shot his mistress then proceeded to kill himself (he had also been declared “mentally unbalanced”.) This is likely the truth. Other conspiracies have been suggested over the years but none really stick. Crown Prince Rudolf (despite his womanizing and carousing) was a more liberal figure than his father and other European heads of state at that time. He was resolutely against unnecessary military conflict and intervention. He was constantly at odds with his overbearing father and may very well have been a deeply unhappy man.
With Rudolf’s death, Archduke Karl Ludwig (the emperor’ eldest surviving brother) became the heir presumptive. After Karl Ludwig’s death, his son, Franz Ferdinand, became the heir presumptive. Had Crown Prince Rudolf lived (and if his father abdicated in the tradition of his father before him) Austria would have had a leader with a far more pacifist outlook than his father. He may very well have been against the military alliance with Germany that was instrumental in the outbreak of World War I. Unfortunately, that was not the way history played out. The Great War was one of the most brutal wars of all time, resulting in the deaths of roughly 40 million souls.
By Shannon Owens, Reference Department
On March 1st, 1692, three women were charged with practicing witchcraft by their neighbors in Salem Village, located in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The charges stemmed from an occurrence in the previous month in which two young girls (9 year old Elizabeth Parris and 11 year old Abigail Williams) were afflicted with strange fits and other odd maladies. A local doctor suggested the girls were suffering the effects of witchcraft and the children corroborated this claim. Mysteriously, this affliction spread to other children in the village, resulting in the madness and fear we know today as the Salem Witch Trials. In the end, 19 innocent people were executed on the basis of these flimsy claims.
Interestingly enough, how this madness over witchcraft became such a craze remains an utter mystery. One would think 21st century science and minds would be able to come to a more conclusive hypothesis about an affliction of this magnitude. Alas, we’re left in the dark, confounded as ever. There have been several suggestions about the cause, some more fascinating than others; some certainly more compelling than others.
According to records, witch hunts occur more frequently worldwide during cold weather periods. In her senior thesis at Harvard, economist Emily Oster pushed this theory and pointed out that the most prevalent period of witch trials in Europe coincided with a 400 year “little ice age.” Oster points out that during this time, scholars and popes believed witches were capable of controlling the weather, and since cold spells (no pun intended) led to low crop yields and general economic depression, witches made the perfect scapegoats. As a person who turns into an utter malcontent anytime the temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, I can see Oster’s point.
In a less intuitive direction, we look to Native American Wars which reached an apogee during the 17th century. The front lines of battle were a mere 70 miles from Salem; many of the citizens of the village were refugees from the war and had witnessed certain horror. It’s not hard to imagine that this would lead to a certain amount of post-traumatic stress that would keep anxieties running high. Historian Mary Beth Norton has a slightly different take. With superstitions being what they were at the time, she suggests that the accusation and subsequent execution of ex-minister George Burroughs (who led several failed campaigns against the Native Americans) of witchcraft was symptomatic of the town officials’ attempts to shift blame from their own inadequate defense of the village to something more sinister.
More commonly we see the hysteria attributed to demographics. Many suggest that since this is a situation in which the accusers are prepubescents and the accused are adults, this might simply be a case of childhood rebellion (insert eye roll here). Personally, I find it hard to believe that a 9 year old would come up with this. In my opinion, it seems far more likely that the girls were egged on by their parents who may have held personal grudges against the defendants (something to the tune of Capulets vs Montagues or Hatfields vs. McCoys). Feminist historians have always viewed the trials as patriarchal oppression, given that most of the accused were women and more particularly, women who didn’t follow societal norms of the Puritan age. This is almost certainly a contributing factor, but cannot tell the whole tale since men were also executed on charges of sorcery.
The most individual (and fascinating) theory was put forward by behavioral scientist, Linnda Caporael. She suggests that some of the events in Salem may have been caused by ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that can grow on grains and causes hallucinations and spasms, which fit the symptoms of the afflicted. More studies have found that children and females are the most susceptible to ergot poisoning. Some historians have suggested that ergot poisoning was the chief cause of the French revolution (rather insane conjecture given the massive poverty and unyielding oppression the French citizens were dealing with, but I digress).
However, the most accepted cause is the psychological disorder known as “mass hysteria syndrome.” This is defined as “rapid spread of conversion disorder, a condition involving the appearance of bodily complaints for which there is no basis…psychological distress is converted into physical symptoms.” Perhaps living in such an insular and repressed community led to the manifestation of these symptoms.
In the end, there’s probably not enough evidence to support one theory over the next, but it’s entertaining to speculate. In all likelihood, a combination of contributing factors is likely the culprit. With few reliable resources of the time (outside of physical court documents), this is liable to remain an unsolved mystery. While education, law, and enlightenment have made this situation rather unimaginable in North America or Europe, we still see prosecution of witches in Africa. Interestingly enough, a 2003 study by Berkeley economist Edward Miguel showed that extreme rainfall (whether too much or too little) coincided with increased witch killings in Tanzania (typically the oldest woman in the household and she was killed by her own family.) Does this lend itself to the weather theory? The debate may never end.
By Shannon Owens, Reference Department
We can all recite the poem: “In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”…I know, I know, I can see your eyes rolling from here. Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa (like the salami) Italy, is frequently credited with “discovering” the New World (aka: The Americas). This is a rather dubious claim, given that Viking explorer, Leif Erikson, landed in Newfoundland and Labrador a good 500 years before Columbus went about destroying indigenous Caribbean culture (I digress). It’s impossible to say why Columbus remains ingrained in our history books and general psyche, whilst Erikson is relegated to a footnote, but I would hazard a guess here: American culture is profoundly impacted by Western European culture, whereas Nordic culture remains a mystery. It certainly wouldn’t be the only factor, but I imagine this is not insignificant.
Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at the man who gives us parades, bank holidays, time off from work, and downright incredible retail sales (I’m eyeing a pair of gorgeous boots being sold at a fifty percent markdown as we speak, so kudos, Cristobol)! Mr. Columbus was a marine entrepreneur (read: seaman) who was obsessed with finding a western route to China, India, and the spice and gold islands of Asia. Here’s where we run into another common misconception: Lore suggests that the entire world thought the world was flat at this time and Columbus was the renegade willing to challenge this idea. Nearly all educated Europeans knew the Earth was round. This wasn’t even a recent revelation. Around the sixth century BC, Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, theorized that the Earth was round, and about two centuries later Aristotle concurred with his findings. So, no, Columbus’ crew was not terrified that they’d fall off the edge of the world (despite what Washington Irving would have you believe).
Columbus was barely successful finding anybody who would fund this venture. It took nearly a decade to find a backer (monarchies in England, Portugal, and France had all refused) and Spain was not an easy mark, either. In fact, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had once declined before changing their minds in the eleventh hour. Still, Columbus was granted his fleet and crew, comprised of three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria (two of which actually had different names…Spain was an extremely Catholic country and named all their ships after saints…Pinta was a nickname translated as “the painted one” and the Nina was actually the Santa Clara). This joint venture could prove mutually beneficial: Isabella and Ferdinand could gain power while exporting Catholicism to locals and Columbus’ contract guaranteed him ten percent of any riches he found and a noble title.
On October 12th, the expedition reached land (probably Watling Island in the Bahamas). Later that month, Columbus sighted Cuba (which he thought was China) and finally in December, the expedition landed on Hispaniola (Columbus surmised that this must be Japan). Here, he established a settlement of 39 men, and went about his business, terrorizing the locals (the Taino people, though Columbus referred to them as Indians). In March of 1493, he left the settlement and returned to Spain. Nearly six months later, he returned to Hispaniola to find the settlement destroyed. To this day, nobody knows exactly what happened. Columbus traveled island to island, and since he couldn’t seem to find the riches he had boasted of to his patrons, he sent Isabella 500 slaves instead. This was downright horrifying to the Queen, who believed these people were now Spanish citizens, and she swiftly rebuked Columbus for his monstrous actions.
In 1498, Columbus embarked on his third journey to the New World. First, he visited Trinidad and then South America before returning to the settlement in Hispaniola (which he had left his two brothers in charge of this time). Once again, it was decimated, but this time it was by the colonists themselves who had revolted against their leaders. It would seem that brutality and mismanagement run in the family. Spain sent new governorship and Columbus returned to Europe in in chains, arrested for the goings on. By 1502, Columbus had been cleared of most charges (although stripped of noble titles he had received previously) and the Spanish monarchy funded one last trip to the New World. It was an unmitigated disaster. Columbus made it all the way to Panama and then promptly abandoned four ships when they came under attack by natives. Columbus returned, bereft, to Spain, where he died in 1506.
It would seem that the man’s lasting legacy was one of abuse, brutality and ultimately, felony. He enslaved locals and introduced diseases that decimated the remaining indigenous populations. Other European countries hopped on the colonial bandwagon, which created environment change along with the borderline theft of local natural resources. He is blamed, not unfairly, for biological warfare. Interestingly, the phrase “Columbian Exchange” is used by historians to describe the exchange of plants, animals, and goods between the East and West. On the other hand, advocates could make the point that his legacy underlines the importance and history of the Age of Exploration. It’s globalization in its earliest form. Obviously, his actions cannot all be discounted as negative. Perhaps his lasting legacy is a cautionary tale on the grandest scale.