Sunday, 5 December 2010

A Few Heroes

I first heard about Donaldina Cameron in a Chinese history class. The last week of the class was devoted to the topic of overseas Chinese, particularly in San Francisco, and we learned how the Chinese Exclusion Act signed by Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prevented Chinese immigrant workers in the U.S. from sending for their wives and families back in China. It also led to human trafficking, as girls and women were smuggled into the States from China by the thousands, many recruited as domestic servants, but in reality sold to work in brothels. Some of the girls were bought outright from poor families, but many were kidnapped.

In 1895, Cameron went to work as a sewing teacher at San Francisco Chinatown's Occidental Mission Home for Girls, a charitable institution run by the Presbyterian Church. While working there, she began to expand her duties, helping the police rescue women and girls who had been sold into slavery. She had a reputation for fearlessness: she took an axe with her on nighttime raids at cribs and brothels, and she wasn't shy about using it. When she became superintendent of the home in 1900, the girls she rescued began to call her 'Lo Mo', or Old Mother; the people she rescued them from called her 'Fahn Quai', or White Devil. Over the decades she was active, she is credited with saving almost three thousand girls and women, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

Our professor became very emotional talking about her. "Her life was not easy," she told us. "For many years, there was a price on her head." A week after hearing about Cameron, I happened to talk to a woman I knew who had grown up in Chinatown. When I asked her if she'd ever heard of Donaldina Cameron, she laughed and rolled her eyes. "Everybody's heard about Donaldina Cameron!" She assured me that you could walk down a street in Chinatown and find half a dozen people with an ancestor she had liberated.

I learned about Saburo Ienaga when I was studying Japanese in Tokyo. Professor Ienaga was a Japanese historian and former high school history teacher who tirelessly campaigned against the Japanese government's censorship of high school history textbooks. Over the course of thirty years, he filed a number of suits against the Japanese government, arguing that their censorship of his history book was unconstitutional. His books covered subjects that the government hoped would be forgotten: atrocities such as the 1937 Nanjing massacre, in which imperial army troops brutally slaughtered 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and the horrendous medical experiments carried out by Unit 731, the Japanese army's germ warfare unit, on mainly Chinese prisoners. During the war, Ienaga had been a high school history teacher himself. Although personally against the war, he still toed the party line, teaching imperial divinity myths to students who would soon become soldiers. Like many people in Japan, he did not dare to publicly oppose the war. It is easy to judge him now, but during the war, people could be imprisoned simply for owning books in foreign languages. Habeas corpus had been suspended, and civilians arrested by the Tokko, or 'thought police', might not even know why they were being detained. After the war, Ienaga greatly regretted the role he might have played in sending boys to their deaths. His tireless pursuit of justice helped him appease his sense of guilt. He didn't win all of his legal battles, but he never gave up.

I first heard about Chiune Sugihara from a Japanese friend who lives in Edinburgh. She gave me a biography about him in Japanese, which it took me ages to read. But it was worth it.

In early 1939, Sugihara was sent to Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania, to serve as Consul General. He had barely arrived there when the German army invaded Poland and waves of Jewish refugees surged into Lithuania, bringing terrifying tales of German atrocities against Jews. Many of them had escaped with no possessions, money, or official documents. After the Soviets invaded Lithuania in June, 1940, they asked all foreign embassies to leave. Sugihara managed to get an extension. During that time, he and the Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, worked out a plan. Zwartendijk would stamp Jewish refugees' passports with entrance permits for two Dutch colonial islands; Sugihara would issue them with Japanese transit visas. Over the next three weeks, Sugihara and his wife worked feverishly, writing and signing visas by hand. In those days before word processors, they worked all hours, managing a month's work in one day. They were still throwing visas from the windows of their train when they finally left in September 1940. Sugihara and his wife are credited with saving the lives of six thousand Jews.

I first read about Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish in the Guardian Weekly. Dr. Abu al-Aish is a peace advocate, a Palestinian gynecologist trained in Israel who lived with his family in the Gaza Strip. Having worked at Beersheba's Soroka University Medical Center, Dr. Abu al-Aish had many Jewish friends, acquaintances, and patients, and speaks fluent Hebrew. On January 16, 2009, his house was shelled by the Israeli Defense Force and three of his daughters and a niece were killed instantly; two other daughters were seriously injured. Dr. Abu al-Aish, who regularly reported on the medical crisis on Israel's Channel 10, was able to call an Israeli journalist friend to report what had happened, prompting a huge response from many people who knew and liked him. You might imagine that anyone who had been through such an experience would be filled with thoughts of revenge, but Dr. Abu al-Aish continues to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. "I had two options," he has said, "the path of darkness or the path of light. The path of darkness is like choosing all the complications with disease and depression, but the path of light is to focus on the future and my children."

You may have watched the television program Heroes, about a group of people who all have special skills such as the ability to fly, to bend time, to start fires by flicking their fingertips. Although skills like that are wonderful to imagine and entertaining to see performed, what I find far more heroic are the sorts of things these four people managed to accomplish. Bravery, dogged persistence through defeat after defeat, the moral courage to break the law and do the right thing, and finding the strength to forgive a terrible wrong -- those are more incredible to me than the ability to lift great weights or soar through the air.

People like that might not make it into a popular television series, but they are the sort of heroes I'm happy to have in my world.


Vijaya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vijaya said...

I feel so dumb ... post has been removed by author because she is impetuous ...

Great stories, Mary. Actually, I have a preference for so-called "ordinary" heroes. Of course, when you lift the curtain, there is nothing ordinary about them. I think my mother quite extraordinary, but on the outside, she was just an ordinary, not even 5-feet-tall simple, hardly educated woman.

Dale said...


Carole said...

These four people are who you would call super heroes. Very illuminating post.

Pat said...

Thank you for that. We should celebrate these people - and there are more than one would imagine. They give us hope and cheer and we don't value then enough.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- Well, impetuous might as well be my middle name; other impetuous people are always welcome here as they make me feel like I belong to a proper group.

Almost all parents are heroes, and some are more heroic than others. My mother was a hero in her own right, just like yours -- and she was little too, and would have been the last person to call herself a hero.

These people aren't glamorous and they haven't become household names; they wouldn't look good in super-hero suits. But their achievements rival derring-do any day.

Dale -- Thank you. We need more people like this, don't we?

Carole -- The sight of a person spreading his arms and flying is pretty incredible, but no more so than the story of a man who can still talk about peace when three of his children have been unjustly killed. And in this world, his skill is a lot more vital.

Pat -- I agree -- I can't hear enough about people like this.

We hear so much about people who are filled with vengeful anger or work only for their own gain. For me, finding out about people who truly forgive or who risk their lives for others is the ultimate feel-good experience, like eating a whole bar of chocolate or having my favorite food.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sometimes the good guys win.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I have often chaffed at how casually the term "heroes" is tossed about. Victims of crimes, public servants, and almost everyone who wears a military uniform.

But as one military person objected; calling everyone a hero diminishes those who are REAL heroes - people who have acted from conscience and integrity in the face of great personal risk. The term Hero should be reserved and revered for people such as you have written about.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mary, for reminding us that taking a stand IS worth it.

Robin said...

What a wonderful post! I loved hearing about these people. How wonderful and brave they were. The tale about the Palestinian doctor made me want to cry. He's a wonderful person. I'd go psycho and enact revenge as soon as possible. I guess you're never going to write a post about me.

Suelle said...

Wonderful post! Thank you so much for enlightening me about these people, I truely love hearing stories like this. It makes me feel so much better about the future!

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- Yes! And even when they don't win, we're lucky to have their example. It's so wonderful when they DO win, though -- like watching Superman lift a car off somebody or fly through the air, carrying an injured child to safety.

Robert -- 'Hero' is a word that is casually bandied about, isn't it? I definitely think that many people in the military are heroes, but I think that real conscientious objectors are heroes too. It can't be easy to go against public opinion and stand up for what you really believe in.

AnneB -- I'm usually good at recognizing heroism in others, but I wish I were better at following suit.

Robin -- I so agree. Reading about Dr. al-Aish made me want to cry too. There's a YouTube clip of him trying to tell an angry crowd of Israelis about what happened to his family. They won't listen to him and at one point he almost cries and says, "They don't want to hear the truth." He never gets angry, he never screams -- you can see that he is only sad and disappointed. If somebody walked on water before my very eyes, it wouldn't impress me much more than that. If I'd been him, I'd be incandescent with rage, tearing out my hair and frothing at the mouth. This man deserves the Nobel prize.

Suelle -- Thank you. I love to think about people like this too, especially after I've read the newspaper. It's comforting to know that the world has good and kindly people in it along with all the others.

Kim Ayres said...

Sometimes it feels like all we hear about is corruption, self interest and constant acts of evil. It's good to be reminded of the best of humanity

MG Higgins said...

Incredibly inspiring. Thank you for sharing these amazing stories. I can think of a few heros right here in my little town. These people are all around us and they're the ones--actually, *we're* the ones--who will pull us out of the abyss, not our political leaders.

A Paperback Writer said...

Well, the way you tell the stories, Mary, it'd make the stuff of a great documentary.

Nicely done. :)

Falak said...

A million thanks Mary for telling us about these remarkable people... I for one would have never known about them otherwise. Its nice to realise that we can do wonders without super powers too. It gives me hope to become a better person.

Bridgette Booth said...

Fascinating! I agree that Dr. al-Aish is deserving of a Nobel Prize, and I would like to find the You Tube video you mentioned. Thank you for highlightings these people and their stories.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- It is, isn't it? Even though we know that plenty of the other kind of people are out there too. In fact, perhaps because we know they are out there.

MG -- I agree. If people all over the world sat around waiting for the government to do everything, things would be vastly worse than they already are.

And if you ever get the urge to write about the heroes in your town, please do -- I would love to hear about them! Reading about people who make a good difference is something I find very therapeutic. It makes me want to write letters, sign petitions, and be a better citizen.

APW -- I'd love to see a documentary on all the good guys of this world who are not necessarily well known. People should know about them, just to honor them as people, but also to know that they managed to do what they did -- that such goodness and bravery exists in this world.

I suspect the world already has enough storytellers, but it's still something to aspire to, isn't it? ;o)

Falak -- Thank you! Tell other people about them too, okay? I like the thought of making good people household names.

Bridgette -- Thank you for reading this and commenting. Here is the YouTube link from Aljazeera:

What is comforting is how this tragedy has changed the opinion many Israelis have about their government's policy toward Palestinians. It's a terrible situation. People are angry and upset when they are under attack, and they're full of suspicion. Which makes it all the more wonderful to see people who channel their energies into forging peace.

Anonymous said...

I'd never even heard of the first 3 you mentioned. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thanks so much. People like this are inspiring, aren't they?

Mary Witzl said...

Elizabeth -- These people should be better known, don't you think? I could write about all the horrible people who've done unspeakable things -- we all know they're out there -- but it's so much more inspiring to think about people who've managed this sort of selfless public service.

If you know any I might not have heard of, I'd love to hear about them.