Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Some of my heroes - Alouette Lark

Alouette Lark is a Quaker, member of Montreal Monthly Meeting.
Sculpture by Norwegian Gustav Vigeland

My Brave Hero: identity unknown

He was an unknown man in a humble position (perhaps a cleaner or porter) at one of the larger railway stations in Germany during WWII -- one of the places where the trains transporting the Jews to the camps were put on sidings, to allow military transport and freight trains to go on their way. This man heard the people in the cars calling out, begging for water – during journeys of four or more days. This man fetched water and passed it to them through the bars of the boxcars. His superiors noticed this and ordered him to stop. He disobeyed, and while still performing his duties continued for years to give water to as many Jews as he could. Many witnesses testified to this after the war. I heard of him from Jewish friends.

My Observant Hero: Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis
(see Wikipedia for more details)

This young doctor noticed, in 1847, while assisting a professor in a maternity hospital, that the ward where wealthy women were given regular physical examinations by doctors and medical students had a high death rate from puerperal fever (septicaemia aka blood poisoning, in the uterus), while poor women in the charity ward, untouched by doctors' hands, only attended by nurses during birth and recovery, rarely died. When he made the doctors and students wash their hands with chlorinated lime solution (i.e. bleach) before examining each woman, the death rate plummeted. Doctors were outraged by the young man's criticism of their methods and drove him out of the city. Yet his shrewd observation saved many women’s lives once his methods were adopted; years later, Pasteur's germ theory explained why. Semmelweis died tragically of septicaemia, when poor and persecuted by the medical establishment for his "crazy" ideas, he was locked up in an asylum and viciously beaten by guards.

My Clever Hero: Fridtjof Nansen and the Nansen passport
(see also Wikipedia)

This Polar explorer, adventurer, Norwegian diplomat and all-round amazing man became High Commissioner of the new League of Nations in 1921. Europe was full of stateless refugees who had been driven out by war, ethnic rivalries and prejudice. Without papers, they could be rejected or deported at any time. He devised a special League passport, bright yellow in colour, which was accepted by fifty-two nations, and named after him: the Nansen Passport. This enabled refugees to choose a country, settle down, work, have families, and eventually apply for citizenship. In many cases it literally saved their lives.

My Current Hero: Stephen Lewis (see the Steven Lewis Foundation)

Who else but our own Stephen Lewis who is helping the thousands of grandmothers desperately trying to raise their grandchildren after AIDS killed their children.

1 comment:

Ann Jarnet said...

Thanks for this. In 1981, Kurt Vonnegut gave a fascinating commencement address (http://www.vonnegutweb.com/vonnegutia/commencement/southampton.html) presenting the same hero, Ignaz Semmelweis. I read it somewhere (perhaps Harper's magazine) and lost it over several moves. I've been looking for this address for years!