For the past 7 months we’ve had the privilege of having a hero living in our midst. Last year we had a famous English author and in 2010 we shared our space with an international fashion designer. No, this isn’t the Ritz, it isn’t even the Betty Ford Center. Our daughter, Marjorie, has been a Young Chautauquan for the past five years.
In the late 1870s through 1920s, Chautauqua (She-taw-kwa) was the adult education movement in the U.S. taking its name from the shores of Chautauqua Lake in upstate New York where it was born. The format “hit the circuit” with performers raising a tent under which to perform music, provide religious education, give political speeches. The backbone of the presentations were lectures. The tradition died off for some 70 years as radio and television became the pervasive form of entertainment in America. However, in the 1990s, Humanities programs across the US re-introduced this concept with a twist: a Chautauquan today is a scholar who portrays a significant figure in history by delivering a dramatic monologue in costume and in character. Following the presentation and while still in character, the Chautauquan answers audience questions about the life and time of his or her own character. This allows the audience to have a conversation with, say, George Washington or Louisa May Alcott. Then the Chautauquan steps out of character to take additional questions from the audience creating a unique learning experience for both the audience and the scholar.
Marjorie’s group, the Silver State Young Chautauqua Program chose the theme Heroes in History for 2012. For her, this meant one person – a hero to her mind – Miep Gies. The Dutch citizen (Austrian by birth) who was raised as a foster child in the Netherlands applied for the post of temporary secretary for the company Opekta in Amsterdam. The company sold a pectin preparation used for making jams. She initially ran the complaints and information desk and became a close friend of the owner, Otto Frank. In 1935, after refusing to join a Nazi women’s association, she was nearly deported but avoided that uncertain fate by marrying her longtime fiancé Jan Gies. The two became the trusted protectors of Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne Frank and the van Pell Family. Miep became a close friend of the family and was a great support to them during the two years they spent in hiding. She retrieved Anne Frank’s diary after the family was arrested and kept the papers safe until Otto Frank returned from Auschwitz. She gave Otto the diary that has helped millions worldwide to identify one person – Anne — one family – the Franks — with the 6 million who died in the holocaust.
Bringing history to life and giving life to history, is all of these things: fun, educational, personal, fulfilling, challenging. For Marjorie the research is at least ¾ of the fun. Because of her love of books, she thrills in going to the library, finding resources, talking to librarians, making of mission of finding first-person resources and fleshing out the stories. The main source to her work this year was “Anne Frank Remembered,” a memoir by Gies. Workshops for five months help the young people create the characters and prepare them for question and answer time. The performance piece takes Marjorie into new realms and this year, because Anne Frank (played by special friend Jade) is onstage with Miep, the process has been cooperative and instructive.
As for us, the heroine will live on in our hearts. Getting to know this character has brought home Miep’s notion that “even an ordinary secretary or housewife or teenager can, with their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”
Thank you Miep for making a safe haven, for shielding the persecuted, for comforting the hidden, for preserving the memory and for serving as a caring example of how to be.