Reading about defenders of justice and freedom inspires us. Humanity’s inherent sense of fairness is embedded in us and passed on to the young. The exceptions are people born or forced into horrid conditions where survival is the only goal. But even then, a few rise to the challenge. Looking at myself from an outside the forest perspective, I admit that my boldness could use a shot of B12.
Our admiration of courage (and children’s love of superheroes) explains why historical fiction, such as The Ragged Edge, are popular book club selections. Stories of gutsy gals buff my budding aspiration to be braver and kinder. Of course, for that to happen, I need to know my values and live by them, not just when I know people will agree with me, but when they don’t. So when my ego jumps in front yelling, “Look at me! I’m right,” my inner-authentic self sends up flares of warning–remember your values.
Throughout human history women have spoken truth to power even when the price was burning at the stake. They were steadfast to their values against aggression and for justice. These women are unsung heroes. They had no interest in being made a character study of heroism; for them, it was enough to stand up for those whose voices were suppressed by evil forces. They were not women who threw up their hands, “It’s just the way it is.” World War II’s lesser-known history is dotted with women who resisted oppression, not by talking but walking, exhibiting courage I can only dream of.
Take Hermine Santrouschitz, who was born to an impoverished Catholic family in 1909 in Austria. At age 11, with food shortages in Austria following World War I, she was sent to a foster family in the Netherlands who nicknamed her Miep. At 24, she went to work as a secretary for Otto Frank, an owner of a small Amsterdam company that made a substance used to make jam. Refusing to join a Nazi organization, she avoided deportation by marrying her boyfriend, Jan Gies. As the Nazi’s ramped up the arrests of Jewish people, Otto asked Miep for help. She said, “Yes, of course. It seemed perfectly natural to me. I could help these people. They were powerless, they didn’t know where to turn.” Miep’s decision is why millions of children can read Ann Frank’s Diary and visit The Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam, where Miep hid them.
What would I say if I was asked to hide an immigrant in time of war? Would I offer her the guest room? Or would I say, I’m sorry, but I don’t want to get involved? Miep’s decision was not like un-friending a hostile Facebook comrade or unfollowing a Twitter chum. If we value justice, we don’t throw up our hands and say, “there have always been poor people. It’s always been this way.” Values matter if you live them. Otherwise, they are empty words.
Around that same time, Emma Reik from the Slovakian village of Radvan joined the pre-state of Israel’s Palmach fighting group in 1942. She enlisted in a paratroopers’ unit with the intent of returning to her country to help rescue Jews from the hands of the Nazis. In 1944, she was dropped into what was then the center of the Slovakian Rebellion to establish contact with the leaders of the “Working Group.” There she fed starving Jewish residents, helping some to escape. “Every day I am alive,” Reik wrote, “is a gift from the heavens.” On her sixth day, she was arrested, executed, and buried in a mass grave in Kremnicka.
Sometimes we don’t appreciate what women have accomplished until years later. An example is Colorado passing legislation this year (2020) to “replace Columbus Day with Cabrini Day to honor Frances Zavier Cabrini, who was responsible for creating 67 schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the United States and South and Central America throughout her lifetime.”
Who are our Emmas and Mieps? What is worth fighting for? Our democracy? Healthcare and opportunities to earn an education? Will the sea of women elected to the US Congress in 2018 be the 21st Century’s fighters for justice and freedom? Three movements in this country’s history where women took leading roles are the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and LGBT.
Jannetje Johanna Schaft, known as the girl with the red hair, was a Dutch communist resistance fighter. Her secret name was Hannie. She was a law student in Amsterdam when Holland surrendered to the Germans in 1940. Her acts of resistance against the Germans began with Hannie going to swimming baths to steal the Germans’ identity cards she gave to her Jewish friends. Emboldened, she shifted to stealing the Germans’ weapons and distributing pamphlets. When the students were required to sign their loyalty to the Third Reich to stay in school, Hannie quit and moved home. In 1943, she’d joined the communist resistance group Raad van Verzet. Her reputation grew as someone willing to take on missions others wouldn’t. She learned German and took part in weapon transports and sabotage. With the Gestapo looking for her, she dyed her hair black and took to wearing big glasses. When arrested in 1945, the Germans didn’t know they’d captured the girl with the red hair until her red roots started showing. A few weeks before the end of the war, Hannie was executed.
It’s tempting to explain these young women’s bravery as the foolishness of youth. They lack a healthy sense of danger, we may say. It’s like a motorcyclist without a helmet flying by at 80 mph. He’s out of his mind! Most of us can recall adolescent pranks that could have turned bad but somehow we got away with it. But Emma’s, Miep’s, and Jannetje’s bravery belong in a league of their own. There are young women today in a league of their own, such as Malala Yousafzai, born in 1997, a human rights advocate, especially for children and women. “I raise up my voice—not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard… We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
The root of the word courage is “cor” – the Latin word for heart. Women with hearts and courage value human rights and reject gross inequalities. The foe is no longer the Germans, but those without a heart who govern us. Yesterday and today, women will ride the wave of compassion, doing what they can to keep those who need help from drowning.