A common thread in the histories of the winners of the Langer prize, by Anna BravoThe friends of the Foundation have asked me for a brief note that would highlight the common thread in the histories of all the winners of the Langer prize, going beyond shared roots in the engagement for peace, liberty, and the protection of the environment and living species.
If we look back over the eight years that have passed since the Foundation established the prize, we encounter people who could have been (and in some cases were) ‘travelling companions’ of Alex, people who have the talent, and ability to travel with his agility, to construct bridges between opposing realities, to deal with conflicts in a spirit of non-violence, to look lovingly at the non-human sentient world. But we are considering people who are, on the other hand, very different as regards political and religious inclinations, social position, profession, personal vicissitudes, and family roles: an Algerian woman writer and politician, a Kosovan woman paediatrician, a Belgrade woman sociologist, a worker from the Porto Marghera petrochemical complex, a young peasant woman and a nurse from Rwanda (the first a Hutu and the second a Tutsi), three university teachers (an Israeli from Beer Sheva University, a Palestinian from Bethlehem University), a Chinese woman from Peking university, a Ecuadorean woman biologist, and a Polish cultural foundation.
Below, in the description of the reasons for awarding the prizes, you can read about their lives and their struggles. This heterogeneity is not surprising. When trying to interpret behaviour - in particular reactions to the watershed represented by the Shoah - sociology, psychology, political science, and to a lesser extent, history, have vied with one another. But they have not made much progress in the attempts to bring into focus an authoritarian personality, or, in contrast, an altruistic one, or to isolate social, professional or political groups, characterised by a stronger presence of the one or the other type of human being.
It has turned out to be almost impossible to establish affinities on the basis of the past life and orientations among those who choose to act for the Good, or find themselves doing so even before deciding to. Among the great saviours of the Jews in the years 1939-1945 we find Giorgio Perlasca, a tradesman and ex-Franco volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, Wallemberg, a Swedish aristocrat, Schindler, an unscrupulous, luxury-loving businessman, and André Trocmè, a Protestant pastor and spiritual leader of the French village, Le Chambon, where many Jewish families remained hidden for four years.
Often, it was not people particularly distinguished by morality or culture who understood that the old codes of behaviour were inadequate in a situation in which the moral action of helping was illegal, and immoral action was legal. They were men and women who were distinguished by the strength of their individuality, in some cases by a certain scepticism towards the established powers - very valuable (but equally rare) attributes for preserving one’s independent judgement and sense of personal responsibility.
In Germany (and also in the occupied countries) the majority of citizens avoided exposing themselves to risk, and with various degrees of compromise and acquiescence they adapted to the Nazi system. In reality, it turns out (as Hannah Arendt wrote) that saying you were acting under compulsion, or that you were obeying orders, is an empty argument because obedience applies exclusively to children. Adults are, rather, led into temptation.
However, with all their differences, I think that there are some common traits amongst our prize-winners. First of all, they are individuals, not members of collectives, apart from one exception. They are people who originally did not have official roles in NGOs, in charitable or peace organisations, administrative or religious responsibilities, sometimes did not even have a precise political standpoint or a history of militancy. They are people who reacted to violence, injustice, and to forgetfulness towards the crimes of the past, starting from the reality right in front of them, and as a result they often gave their lives a new course.
I am thinking of Ding Zilin, philosophy lecturer, communist party member, mother of a seventeen year old killed in the Tiananmen Square massacres, who has been working for fourteen years to restore a face and a name to the victims, drawing up one catalogue of the dead, and another of the mutilated and invalids among the survivors. At the time of the Langer prize she was little known. Today, throughout the world, she is considered the most significant figure among the Chinese dissenters.
I am thinking of Jacqueline Mukansonera, a young woman from a peasant family, an ethnic Hutu, a Christian, who, when she found herself face to face with the Tutsi Yolande Mukagasana, saved her, at the risk of her own life, hiding her in her own house – and she hardly knew her.
I am thinking of Gabriele Bortolozzo, who in 1973, a time long before there was ecological awareness, got to know that CVM is carcinogenic to human beings, as well as devastating for the environment. He started a genuine investigation on the spot, drawing up lists of the names of the dead and the sick, turned himself into an expert capable of providing the judiciary with the first dossier on the petrochemical works.
Then there is Natasa Kandic, who went as soon as possible to Pristina to save someone, during the war, taking them away with her in a taxi. Today she says - “In this way I was able to ascertain, in person, how important it would be for them that someone came from Belgrade, to see how they were living and stay with them.” Irfanka Pasagic, born in Srebrenica, after having seen and lived deportation in 1993 during one of the first waves of ethnic cleansing, in an extremely short time organised in Tuzla the NGO “Tuzlanska Amica”. Through an international sponsoring projects, Tuzlanska Amica helped about eight-hundred children and later became one of the few places where traumatized people can receive support.
These examples are confirmation that initiatives of solidarity do not depend on an unverifiable, pre-existing personality, but arise rather from an empathetic encounter with the vulnerability and need for help of a suffering person, with the effects of devastation, of injustice and the obtuse banality of evil. It is thus a transformation of one’s self, starting from a direct experience (one of the common features of our prize-winners) which engages with the impetus of caring - that everyday virtue dear to Todorov - the virtue of those who give priority to people and relationships.
Secondly, there is the special importance that memory has in their activities. Anna Segre noted this in 2002 - that she had chosen for herself the complex role as a candle of remembrance, reconstructing the story of her parents during the persecution of the Jews. The most eloquent examples are again - Ding Zilin, who is struggling to rescue her son from the oblivion to which the Chinese regime has condemned him, and the other victims of Tiananmen; the sons of Gabriele Bortolozzo, who are passing on the work of their father by means of an association; Yolande Mukagasana, engaged nowadays in the theatre production Rwanda94 against “le tentative de reparation symbolique envers les morts à l’usage des vivants”, and the Pogranicze Foundation, which is dedicated to reviving some places associated with Jewish religion and culture, gypsy traditions, and those of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian minorities.
In addition, Dan Bar On and Sami Adwan are addressing the history of their peoples, weighing up with care and affection the reasons for the various memories. Then there is Khalida Toumi Messaoudi, the “bearer of many burdens”, who, while still a young person, represents the long efforts to rescue the memory of the Algerian liberation struggle, without making an ideological myth out of it. And Esperanza Martines, who moves between community memories and landscapes threatened by the installations of the petrol industry.
The third point in common seems to me to be a conception of identity which is diametrically the opposite of those - set in stone, all embracing and totalitarian - proposed by national ethnic groups. It is an identity as a constellation of many elements, mobile and fluid, and open to transformation. It is not a new conception. The human and social sciences have taught it to us, we are verifying it in our own experience, learning to listen to it. But it is very difficult and very dangerous to remain faithful to this multiple vocation when one finds oneself in a situation of civil or ethnic war, of oppression, compulsory simplifications, and the dominance of the logic friend/enemy.
To feel one belongs to different options and worlds can be the occasion for harder confrontation with one’s own community, and with companions to whom one feels closely allied. But Khalida, condemned to death by Islamic fundamentalists and forced to live semi-clandestinely for years, has never ceased to claim her own freedom to be both Berber and Algerian, Moslem and rationalist. Vjosa Dobruna, who defines herself as “woman, paediatrician, Kosovan, someone’s daughter”, has participated in the non-violent Kosovan resistance, and was prompted by its crisis to ask herself whether, in some cases, there is an alternative to the armed struggle. She is an equally clear example of this mobile identity, of a relationship with oneself and others that adjusts to the situation, without being untrue to oneself. To suspend this direct contact with reality, to be able to choose a model of behaviour or a political line and stick to it, would perhaps be a relief for our friends who won the Langer Award, a protection from the effort of doubting - but it is a relief which they would not look for.
A final observation - the majority of the people awarded the prize are women. Obviously this does not mean that the female gender, as such, enjoys a moral superiority. It suggests, rather, that many women are more expert than men in the art of negotiating with an enemy, in not generalising inappropriately, in weighing the cost/benefit equation, in operating flexibly in the face of the unpredictable. There are forms of action and thought so prevalent in the experience of women that if a man practises them he is criticised for behaving in a feminine way, of substituting case by case evaluation for principles, of clinging to the changing nature of situations so as to fall prey to the feared “lack of objectivity”. That the Langer Foundation has looked more carefully than many other cultural entities into the history of women, is a merit we can claim. In this respect, the example of Tuzlanska Amica is very significant: in fact, it is through an international project created by women’s organisations from Bologna and former Yugoslavia that Irfanka Pasagic met Natasa Kandic and Vjosa Dobruna, who received the Alexander Langer award in 2000.
Anna Bravo, Turin, historian
Member of the Scientific and Guaranty Committee of the Foundation