Louis Brandeis

On this day in 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish person to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would serve until 1939.

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Born to immigrants fleeing antisemitism from what was then the Austrian Empire, he graduated Harvard Law at only 20 years old, with what is rumored to be the highest GPA in the school’s history.

As early as 1890, he helped develop the concept of a “right to privacy” and rallied against big banks, powerful corporations, monopolies, political corruption, and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were anathema to American values. As an attorney, he devoted most of his time to public causes, earning the moniker of the “People’s Lawyer” for his insistence on working pro bono in order to take on the most important issues of the day. He was also dubbed the “Robin Hood of the law” for his fight against railroad monopolies, defense of workers’ rights, and the conceptualization of the newly created Federal Trade Commission, which protected consumers from unfair business practices. He was also recognized for developing the “Brandeis Brief,” which relied on expert testimony from people in other professions to support his case, setting a new precedent in evidence presentation.

Brandeis’ nomination to the Court was so fraught that, for the first time in its history, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on it. According to fellow Justice William O. Douglas, it was controversial because Brandeis was a “militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible… [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.” Indeed, opponents regarded him as an anti business “radical” and “agitator” who lacked the “dispassionate temperament” needed to be a judge. Blatant anti semitism was, of course, also a factor. But enough people came to his defense that he won the nomination 47 to 22.

Ultimately, Brandeis became one of the most influential figures ever to serve on the Court, his opinions recognized by legal scholars as some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a Justice. Throughout my first year of law school, I came across many of his brilliant opinions, many of them lonely dissents in the face of familiar uphill battles against privacy violations — see his prescient dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928):

The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

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Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

Khassan Baiev

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Khassan Baiev is a Russian-born doctor, now living in the U.S., who risked his life to indiscriminately help those in need in the midst of a bloody warzone. As a sickly and frail Chechen youth growing up in the Soviet Union, he spent years building up his mind and body, eventually becoming both a pro athlete and a surgeon (at around fifty years old, I recall him looking more fit than some people my age). He held strongly to the ideals of humanism, altruism, and the Hippocratic oath. As a Muslim and non-Russian, he faced discrimination along the way, but ultimately made a promising career in Moscow.

In 1994, when Chechnya attempted to break from the Russian Federation, the response was horrific. The Russian Army leveled almost every building in the capital, Grozny, and was virtually indiscriminate about the places it bombed and shelled. Perhaps 200,000 were killed in the course of the conflict, and many more psychologically and physically disabled. Dr. Baiev left the safety of distant Russian capital and went where he was needed; he was perhaps the only surgeon in the entire region. At great risk to his life, he adhered to his duty as a doctor and treated everyone and anyone he could, including Chechen militants and Russian soldiers. He explained how his Hippocratic oath, as a doctor, adhered him to helping whoever needed it, regardless of their allegiances.

It was enough dealing with hundreds of patients in the middle of a war zone, but given the circumstances, Dr. Baiev was soon forced to make due with few resources. When his hospital in Grozny was destroyed by Russian shelling, he moved his operations to an abandoned clinic in his hometown of Alkan Kala, restoring it with the help of locals and his own funds. Anesthesia was handmade; running water, electricity, and gas were typically unavailable. Wounds had to be dressed with sour cream or egg yolks. Baiev relied on household tools for his procedures, including a power drill for brain surgery and a hacksaw for amputations; he did 67 amputations and eight brain procedures in the span of just three days. He and his nurses, some of whom were killed, even donated their own blood for patients. This went on for six years of almost constant warfare.

Given the overwhelming demand for his services, Baiev would go days without sleeping, taking in an average of 40 to 50 patients. He never asked questions of those in need — he simply did his job and moved on to the next patient. He and the village elders kept the peace between the soldiers on both sides, who were sometimes in the same hospital, giving them equal medical treatment. But his willingness to help anyone put him on bad terms with both sides of the war, each of whom regarded him as a traitor. Bounties and arrests were put on his head. He was kidnapped several times and almost killed several more. He remained to do his job anyway, and only after an official warrant for his arrest did he reluctantly leave to America for the sake of his family.

He has returned to Chechnya several times since the war, even organizing a group dedicated to providing affordable medical care and to raising awareness of the brutality of the conflict. He had all his procedures recorded as evidence of Russian atrocities, which the Russian government denied (allegedly going so far as to kill some of his patients as a cover up). I saw some of the horrific footage myself; I still can’t imagine how someone could take all that trauma daily for several years.

Unfortunately, there is still much for him to do, as rates of birth defects, psychological trauma, and cancer remain high from the effects of the war. As I speak he still goes to his native republic to help despite occasional threats on his life.

I subsequently purchased his book, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, and had the honor of having him autograph it. When I saw him up close, I was struck by how large and strong he looked; the man was in damn good shape. Yet he had a really somber and weathered look to him, and I could feel that presence as well. He had a firm handshake and a force of personality, but at the same time maintained a quiet and humble demeanor, fitting for a man who risked certain death for simply doing his job without any want of attention or money. He is exactly the kind of man I hope to be, and exactly the sort of person who stays with you years later, inspiring you to be the best damn person you can be.

The U.N. Official Who Quietly Saved the World From Nuclear Annihilation

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Though they are in charge of an organization that represents virtually all of humanity, Secretary-Generals of the United Nations — described variably as the “world’s moderators” and the “chief administrative officers” of the U.N. — have never been household names. Not many could name or recognize the current officeholder, António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, let alone any of his eight predecessors.

Yet one of these men, a self effacing and bespectacled diplomat from Burma named U Thant* not only served with distinction as a capable administrator — of what was then a young, bold, and largely untested institution — but true to his role as the “world’s mediator”, he saved humanity from one of its closest calls with armageddon: the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Continue reading

Slain Hero of El Salvador’s Poor and Oppressed to Be Made Catholic Saint

As a thoroughly secular person, I do not put much stock into things like sainthood. But if anyone deserves to be given accorded a status revered by over a billion people worldwide, it is Archbishop Oscar Romero, who died on this day in 1980 for standing up against a murderous (and U.S. backed) regime.

When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador in 1977, the country was embroiled in bloody civil unrest resulting from decades of military misrule; the subsequent conflict would claim over 75,000 lives in a country of just 4.6 million.  Continue reading

The Great Jamaican Slave Revolt

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An artistic impression of Samuel Sharpe. Courtesy of the Jamaican Information Service

On this day in 1831, an enslaved Baptist preacher named Samuel Sharpe led the largest slave rebellion in Jamaica, and one of the largest in history.

Known variously as the Baptist War, the Christmas Uprising and the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt, it mobilized as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slaves. It was initially begun as a peaceful protest, with slaves refusing to work during the crucial and often brutal surar harvest until they were treated better and paid at least half the average wage. Sharpe and his followers believed that a general strike alone would achieve their goals, envisioning violence only as a last, defensive resort.

Unfortunately, like slave owners across time, Jamaican landowners were not forgiving of this challenge, and immediately used violence to end the strike. The subsequent eleven-day conflict resulted in the deaths of fourteen whites and over 200 black slaves. Hundreds more were killed after the rebellion ended in “various extrajudicial killings”, often over minor or trumped up offenses.

Just before Sharpe was hanged for his role, he said in his last words: “I would rather die among yonder gallows, than live in slavery.” Though he and many of his followers did not live to see their goals achieved, the scale of the rebellion and the subsequently severe reprisals afterward are believed to have spurred Parliament to pass the Slavery Abolition Act a year later, with the final abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1838.

Samuel Sharpe was officially proclaimed a National Hero of Jamaica in 1975, and is featured on the $50 of the Jamaican dollar.

 

 

The Former Italian Fascist Who Teamed Up With a Franco-Era Spanish Diplomat to Save Thousands of Jews During WWII

Giorgio Perlasca (pictured left, some time before his death in 1992) was an Italian businessman and ex-fascist who cleverly used international law and bold impersonations to save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Perlasca was once a committed fascist who had fought for Italy in its brutal war against Ethiopia, as well as for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the Second World War, however, he had grown disillusioned with fascism, especially following Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the implementation of Italian racial laws in 1938.

While serving as an Italian delegate in Hungary (another Nazi ally), his country had surrendered to the Allies, forcing citizens to choose between remaining loyal to the fascists or joining the Allied cause; at great personal risk, Perlasca chose the latter, and he was subsequently arrested by Hungarian authorities.

Using a medical pass that allowed him to travel in the country, he fled to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest, where he requested political status. Fortunately, his service to the victorious Spanish Nationalists endeared them to his request, and he was subsequently given protection, since Spain was neutral. Perlasca then took full advantage of his diplomatic cover to save people of a completely different faith and nationality.

Lucky for him, Angel Sanz Briz (pictured right, in 1969) was stationed there with the same idea in mind.

Continue reading

Happy 86th Birthday Anne Frank

Anne FrankOn this day in 1929, Anne Frank was born. Had her life not been cruelly cut short, she would be 86 today, and probably one of the foremost writers of our time.

It was also on this day in 1942, her thirteenth birthday, that she first began keeping her diary. Her father gave her a book that she had pointed out in a shop window a few days earlier. Although it was an autograph book, Frank decided she would use it as a diary, and began writing in it right away.

Sure enough, her father Otto Frank, the family’s only known survivor, would be the one to publish the diary he had given his daughter. When he returned to Amsterdam from Auschwitz in 1945, he sought out his protectors in the hopes of finding his family. The diary and other personal papers had been kept safe by Miep Gies, one of the family’s protectors, who resolved to give them back to Anne. Instead, they were given to Otto when the death of Anne had been confirmed.

Of all her deep and well-written insights, the following resonates with me most. It was written July 15, less than a month before she and her family had been betrayed, arrested, and deported to their deaths.

It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!

If someone hiding out from one of the most vicious regimes in history could maintain such a humanistic and compassionate spirit, I have little excuse. What better inspiration do I need? I would like to imagine that although she could not realize her ideals directly, her kindness, sincerity, and hope continue to influence others to carry it all on for her.

Congolese Gynecologist Wins Sakharov Prize

According to NPR, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in recognition of his work treating thousands of rape victims in his country.

I admit to having never heard of this amazing man prior to seeing this reported in Wikipedia’s news page today. Of course, that is not surprising given the humility that is often characteristic of these unsung heroes (not to mention the woeful lack of attention to the causes they serve).

As The New York Times reports:

Dr. Mukwege is known for his work in one of the most traumatized places in the world. In the hills above Bukavu, where for years there was little electricity or anesthetic, Dr. Mukwege has performed surgery on countless women, some a few steps away from death, who have reached his hospital.

At the same time, he has campaigned relentlessly to shine a spotlight on the plight of Congolese women, even after an assassination attempt two years ago.

“It’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” Dr. Mukwege said in an interview last year. “It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

A winner of over a dozen other humanitarian awards, and long considered a potential candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, the 69-year-old Dr. Mukwege has dedicated his entire life to delivering these desperately needed services. The third of nine children, he pursued medicine in a desire to heal the many people that his minister father would pray for, working at first in a local rural hospital.

During his time there, he witnessed many women endure painful and often fatal complications from childbirth, due largely to the lack of qualified specialists. This inspired him to pursue the study of gynecology in France, which would come to be applied for another purpose: treating the horrific consequences of gang-rape that has been rampant in many parts of war-torn Congo for decades.

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

That in itself is a valuable aim, but hopefully this prize will also bring attention to Panzi Hospital’s need for donations: initially built for 120 beds, it as now squeezed in 350, out of which more than half are devoted to survivors of sexual violence. With an average of 410 patients per month, the hospital is currently running at maximum capacity and lacks staff, supplies, and resources.

While Dr. Mukwege’s $63,600 prize money will go a long way, we should consider donating to the Panzi Foundation and the good work it has done to help restore thousands of lives — and hopefully many more that are needed until this scourge of violence  and terror is finally done with.

The doctor collects his well-deserved prize.

 

 

Forgotten Hero: Henning von Tresckow

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus [a source of misfortune from which there is no escape]. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.

Last words of Henning von Tresckow, a Generalmajor in the German Wehrmacht who organized German resistance against Adolf Hitler, most famously the Valkyrie plan to overthrow the Nazis (known as the July 20 Plot).

Born into a Prussian noble family with 300 years of military tradition, he was the youngest lieutenant in the German Army during the First World War, earning the nation’s highest military honor — the Iron Cross — for outstanding courage and independent action against the enemy.

The young Tresckow (Wikimedia Commons).

A worldly man well versed in poetry, foreign languages, economics, and law, Tresckow nonetheless remained a career soldier, rising to the General Staff after graduating best in his class in 1936. He opposed many of Hitler’s military and foreign policies, such as the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, even predicting that Germany would fall from an overly aggressive foreign policy.

Although once an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism due to its opposition to the harsh Treaty of Versailles, he became quickly disillusioned following the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when the nascent SS murdered numerous political opponents and rivals. He regarded the infamous Kristallnacht, the state-sanctioned pogrom against Jews, as personal humiliation and degradation of civilization. He immediately sought out civilians and officers who opposed Hitler, proclaiming to a loved one that “both duty and honor demand from us that we should do our best to bring about the downfall of Hitler and National Socialism to save Germany and Europe from barbarism”.

During the campaign against the Soviet Union, he became further appalled by Nazi brutality, including the treatment of Russian prisoners of war and the mass shootings of Jewish women and children. When he learned about the massacre of thousands of Jews at Borisov, Tresckow appealed passionately to a fellow officer: “Never may such a thing happen again! And so we must act now.”

Thus, as the chief operations officer of Army Group Center, he took great risk to seek out other officers who shared his views and place them in key positions to build up a strong base for internal resistance. He tried to persuade other high-ranking officers to join his conspiracy, to little avail (notably, all those he did manage to recruit cited the massacre of Jews and others as the catalyst for their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis).

Ultimately, he teamed up with several dozen fellow resisters — chief among them Ludwig Beck, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Colonel Hans Oster, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — and devised the Valkyrie plan to kill Hitler, seize control of the government from the Nazis, and make peace with the Allies. A few days before the coup attempt, Tresckow confided to a friend that “in all likelihood everything will go wrong”, and when asked whether the action was necessary nonetheless, he replied, “Yes, even so”.

Unfortunately, as we all know, it did go wrong, with many of the plotters later being caught and executed. When Tresckow, who was stationed on the Eastern Front, learned of this failure, he opted to commit suicide after issuing the last words quoted above to his liaison. In order to protect his co-conspirators from suspicion, he staged his death to look like an enemy attack, firing several bullets from his pistol before detonating a grenade beneath his chin. His words from months before ring true to this day, if unfortunately forgotten:

The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.

It is a shame that his story, like that of so many other resisters to the Nazis, remains widely unknown outside Germany (recent attempts by Hollywood notwithstanding).

Tresckow c. 1943 (Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives).