The Hero of Two Worlds

On this day in 1777, after offering to serve the United States without pay, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution allowing French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette to join American revolutionary forces as a major general.

Barely two years before, when he was only 18, Lafayette professed that his “heart was dedicated” to the American cause of liberty—hence his willingness to fight for the Patriots for free, and to even purchase his own ship to cross the Atlantic.

While Congress was overwhelmed with French volunteers, Lafayette was by far among the most promising. He learned English within a year of his arrival, had won over Benjamin Franklin, and bounded well with George Washington, to whom he was a close advisor.

During the Battle of Brandywine against a superior British force, he was wounded in action but still managed to organize an orderly retreat, for which Washington commended him and recommended he be given command of American troops. He served with distinction in several more battles in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (some of which bear his name) before sailing back home in 1779 to lobby more French support.

Lafayette returned a year later to a hero’s welcome in Boston, having secured thousands of French troops as well as naval forces and supplies. He was given senior positions in the Continental Army, and was so popular among Americans that Washington and Hamilton had him write letters to state officials urging them to send troops.

In 1781, Lafayette played a pivotal role in the decisive Siege of Yorktown, where troops under his command in Virginia blocked forces led by Cornwallis until other American and French forces could position themselves to strike. This victory—which involved almost as many French as Americans—is credited with ending the war.

After the war, Lafayette remained committed to the cause of liberty for the rest of his life. He played a pivotal role in the French Revolution, with Jefferson’s help contributing to the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the earliest republican and civil rights documents in history. He was opposed to slavery, the murderous excesses of the revolution, and the subsequent autocracy of Napoleon. He was invited by James Madison to visit all 24 states of the Union—to which he still received popular praise and love—and he turned down calls to be the head of France.

Because he was foreign. did not live in the U.S., and fought across all regions out of ideology rather than money, Lafayette was seen as a unifying figure and American icon to the fragmented colonies. His legacy in both sides of the Atlantic earned him the moniker of “The Hero of Two Worlds.”

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

khaled_al-asaad_2012

Wikimedia Commons

 

The Swiss Diplomat Who Saved Half of Budapest’s Jews

27750429_10160036100995472_5332513517901320498_n

Photo: Yad Vashem

Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who, as Vice Consul in Budapest, Hungary, saved over 62,000 Jews – nearly half the Jewish population of the city – in one of the largest rescue operations of Jews in the Second World War.
Shortly after being appointed Vice Consul in the Hungarian capital in 1942, Lutz wasted no time in trying to save as many Jews as he could. Taking full advantage of his country’s famously neutral diplomatic status, he issued safe-conduct documents that allowed nearly 10,000 Jewish children to leave Axis-aligned Hungary.

Continue reading

The Greek Prelate Who Stood Up to the Nazis and Saved Thousands

Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece

Wikimedia Commons

Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou was the leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece during the Second World War, credited with saving the lives of thousands of Greek Jews. His actions were characteristic of the Greek resistance, which was among the fiercest and most stubborn in Europe; indeed, the Greeks are credited with inflicting the first major loss to Axis forces, when they turned back a numerically superior Italian invasion, which ultimately required Germany to divert precious manpower to overpower them.

Although conquered, Greeks like Damaskinos continued to make life difficult for the occupiers. He frequently clashed with both the collaborationist government and Nazi officials, often against repeated threats to this life. In 1943, when the Germans began rounding up and deporting Greek Jews, Damaskinos officially protested in a manner unique in Europe: he published a letter condemning the Nazis and calling on his people to protect their Jewish neighbors. Part of it read:

In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion… Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race…

Today we are… deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism…”

The local SS commander, Jürgen Stroop — a nasty character who would be executed for war crimes after the war — threatened to execute the Archbishop if he published the letter. Yet not only did Damaskinos proceed with publishing the letter, but he dared to reply sarcastically:

According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions!

This is in reference to past Greek Orthodox leaders and martyrs being lynched historically. Miraculously, Stroop never followed up on his threat, perhaps because he was intimidated by the man’s lack of fear, or knew of his influence and esteem among an already riotous populace.

In addition to this bold and high profile act of resistance, Damaskinos ordered churches to distribute Christian baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing the Nazis, thus saving thousands of Jews.

For these actions, Damaskinos is named among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Sources: RaoulWallenberg.net;  www.db.yadvashem.org

The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and Survived

Vesna Vulovic was a Serbian flight attendant who holds the Guiness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: 33,330 feet (10,160 meters). Her fall occurred in 1972 after an explosion brought down a Yugoslav airliner, killing everyone else on board.

20914300_10159177853425472_4850833641719141709_n

Although she broke multiple bones (including a totally crushed vertebra), sustained severe brain damage, and was in a coma for ten days, she suffered only partial and temporary paralysis, and made an almost full recovery within a year (she continued to walk with a limp for the rest of her life, owing to the spinal damage). Vulovic attributed her recovery to her “Serbian stubbornness” and “a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil”. Continue reading

The Woman Who Curbed An Ebola Outbreak In Africa’s Largest Country

Nigeria had never had a case of Ebola before, so when Dr. Adadevoh, a UK-trained consultant endocrinologist, ordered he be tested for the disease and placed in quarantine, she had to stand firm against those who disagreed.

— The Independenton Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh and her quick identification of Nigeria’s patient zero.

Although it sadly ravaged three nations in West Africa, Ebola’s impact in neighboring countries like Senegal and Nigeria had been successfully minimized. As the largest country in Africa and the seventh largest in the world, Nigeria would have likely suffered even more horrific losses.

It is also worth pointing out that the number of new cases in infected countries were just one percent of what was estimated. So even though it did a lot of damage to afflicted nations, the Ebola outbreak could have been much worse — all the more remarkable considering the shortfall in funding.

The hundreds of unsung health workers who willingly put themselves on the frontlines, and in many cases lost their lives in the process, deserve an incredible amount of praise and recognition.

Hero of the Week — Maria Bashir

Maria Bashir II Maria Bashir

 

Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat Province Afghanistan (the second largest jurisdiction in the country), the only woman to hold such a position thus far. Her fifteen years of experience as a civil servant has brought her into conflict with criminals, the Taliban, and corrupt policemen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, she was barred from working and instead spent her time illegally educating girls at her home. 

She was called back into service in 2006, focusing on rooting out corruption and eradicating the oppression of women. She has handled hundreds of cases amid death threats and assassination attempts, one of which nearly killed her children; subsequently, she has a retinue of around 20 or so bodyguards while her children are in virtual hiding.

For her courage and tenacity, Bashir has received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award and been recognized among The 2011 Time 100. I recommend reading her interview with the United Nations here; unfortunately, most of the information about her is three or four years old, so I am unaware of her current efforts and predicaments. Thankfully, she seems to still be alive and working as a prosecutor, doing everything she can to better her country and its future .

Needless to say, Maria Bashir is an incredible hero and role model, to say the least. 

Happy 107th Birthday Grace Hopper

Today’s Google Doodle honors Grace Murray Hopper (December 9, 1906 – January 1, 1992), an American computer scientist and Rear Admiral in the US Navy who pioneered computer programming.

Hopper was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, one of the most advanced of its time. She also developed the first compiler, used for translating source code, for a computer programming language. She was the first to conceptualize the idea of distinct programming languages, which contributed to the development of COBOL, one of the first programming languages in modern computers.

She also popularized the term “debugging” for fixing computer glitches, due to an incident in which an actual moth got into a computer and caused it to malfunction, requiring it to be removed (whereupon she remarked they were “debugging” the system).

Hopper was awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities worldwide during her lifetime. Her remarkable accomplishments and her naval rank earned her the nickname “Amazing Grace.”

Witold Pilecki: Forgotten War Hero

Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki (May 13, 1901 – May 25, 1948) was a soldier of the Second Polish Republic who founded Poland’s first resistance groups, the Secret Polish Army, shortly after German occupation of the country in 1939. He was also a prominent member of the underground Polish Home Army, another resistance group that was one of Europe’s largest. He is best known as the author of the vital Witold’s Report, the first intelligence report on the Auschwitz concentration camp, which enabled the Polish government-in-exile to convince the Allies that the Holocaust was taking place.

He volunteered for a Polish resistance operation in order to get imprisoned at Auschwitz, gather intelligence, and escape. While in the camp, Pilecki organized a resistance movement, and as early as 1941, informed the Western Allies of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz atrocities. He escaped from the camp in 1943 after nearly 3 years of horrific imprisonment. Shortly after, Pilecki nonetheless took part in the brave but failed Warsaw Uprising in August 1944.

He remained loyal to the Polish government-in-exile, and for this was executed in 1948 by the Stalinist secret police (who had since taken over Poland) on charges of working for “foreign imperialism.” Until 1989, information on his heroism and fate was suppressed by the Polish communist regime.

As a result of his deeds, he is considered to be “one of the greatest wartime heroes” of World War II. Prominent British historian Norman wrote that “if there was an Allied hero who deserved to be remembered and celebrated, this was a person with few peers.” At the commemoration event of International Holocaust Remembrance Day held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on 27 January 2013 Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish Ambassador to the US, described Pilecki as a “diamond among Poland’s heroes” and “the highest example of Polish patriotism”

Read more about Poland’s virtuous but underappreciated exploits here.

Fazlur Rahman Khan

Fazlur Rahman Khan was a Bangladeshi structural engineer and architect who has been called the “Einstein of structural engineering” and the Greatest Structural Engineer of the 20th Century. As the “father of tubular designs”, he devised groundbreaking structural systems that still form the basis of skyscraper construction to this day. Indeed, most of the world’s tall buildings would not exist were it not for his innovations, and to this day his work is still used as a starting point for the design of any tall building.