Friday, October 24, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: 1994 lecture by Miep Gies, Anne Frank's protector

I'm in Amsterdam today for the autumn conference of the European Speechwriter Network. I'm excited about the conference, and eager to see the Anne Frank house for the first time. As I do, I'll be thinking about Miep Gies, an adopted daughter of Holland.

She died at the age of 100 in 2010, and her obituary in the New York Times notes something unusual about this woman speaker: She didn't begin her speaking career until she was in her 80s, after the publication of her memoir Anne Frank Remembered. The book shared her role in hiding the Frank family from the Nazis, as well as in saving the journals and papers that became The Diary of a Young Girl, as she describes in this gripping passage from her 1994 lecture:
People sometimes call me a hero. I do not want that because I told you already that those in hiding were the bravest people. I also 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 an innocent woman, I simply had no choice. 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 think of my dear friends, but still I am happy that these are no tears of remorse for refusing to assist those who were in trouble. Even if help might fail, it is better to try than to do nothing....I'm grateful that I could save Anne's diary. When I found it, scattered all over the floor, I stole it. I decided to store it away in order to give it back to Anne when I should, when she should return. I wanted to see her smile, receiving the diary. I wanted to hear her say, 'Oh, Miep! My diary, wonderful!' But after a terrible time of waiting and hoping, word came that Anne had died. At that moment, I went to Otto Frank, Anne's father, the only one of the family who had survived. With the words, 'this is what Anne has left.' Can you understand how this man looked at me? Lost his wife, lost his two children...he had a diary. I pushed him out of my office. 'Please, go to your private office.' After an hour he phoned me, 'Miep, I don't want to see anyone.' My answer was, 'I have taken care of it.' Otto in turn gave the diary of Anne to the world and I feel that this was the right decision.
If you don't know Gies's story, here's an attempt to recreate the day when Frank's family was discovered and taken to the concentration camps. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Women speakers can contribute at any age: I don't know many women who'd start speaking in their eighties, but I'm glad that Gies did. It gave her a 20-year career as a speaker, something I'm sure you aren't considering when you say "it's too late to start." 
  • Find and share a different perspective: Throughout the speech, Gies talks about the perspectives of children, citing what Frank said and what she herself experienced as a child growing up in Austria and Holland--all to put the lie to some of the things parents commonly tell their children about who deserves help or blame. Similarly, she speaks frankly about being an Austrian ashamed of the atrocities committed by Germans and Austrians, and how those feelings were challenged by others. If you've got a perspective that's not among the usual suspects, it will add contrast, drama and perhaps surprise to your speech. Put it in!
  • Sometimes, speaking in your second language is a bonus: Gies delivers the lecture, which took place in America, in English, sometimes seeking help from a colleague and using simple language. She doesn't need complex sentences to describe this complex situation. The power of what happened propels this speech, no embellishments needed.
You can see the video and read the transcript here or watch the video below. Because it took place on the occasion of Gies being awarded the Wallenberg Prize, there are several introductions before her remarks begin at about the 19-minute mark. Don't miss the gem of this particular lecture: A question-and-answer session with Gies follows her remarks. What do you think of this famous speech?