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Ginetta Sagan: The Power Of A Nobody
Published on Wednesday, September 13, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Ginetta Sagan:
The Power Of A Nobody
by Stephen Most
 
GINETTA SAGAN, the human rights activist who died last month at age 75, was better known to the powers-that- be than to the public. President Clinton honored her work for Amnesty International by awarding Sagan a presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, and Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean president, were among the prisoners of conscience she helped set free. When Augusto Pinochet imprisoned thousands of Chileans opposed to his 1973 coup d'etat, Sagan somehow reached the general's direct phone line and demanded that he release them all.

A diminutive woman with a warm smile and intense energy, Sagan always insisted that anyone could have done the same. Working out of her home, she seemed to be nothing more than ``that housewife in Atherton,'' as former CIA chief William Casey once called her.

Far from being a pose, Sagan's refusal to be ``somebody,'' to seek public office or to take an official position in a human rights organization, drew from the secret sources of her strength.

Sagan was incognito from the day she was born. The love child of a French Jewish doctor and a married Italian Catholic doctor, Ginetta took on the identity of her wet nurse's baby who had died two years earlier. This arrangement shielded her parents from scandal -- her father, under Italian law, was unable to obtain a divorce -- and it protected Sagan from persecution as a Jew during the war years.

Growing up with a false identity also prepared Sagan for her role in the Italian Resistance. Known as Topolino, or ``little mouse,'' the 4-foot-11 teenager seemed innocuous. The prominent Fascist officer and his mother for whom she worked as a maid in 1943 never guessed that as the girl scrubbed every surface of the house, she was listening in on phone conversations and searching for official documents in the trash.

Sagan's branch of the Resistance, based in Milan, succeeded in smuggling nearly 10,000 people into Switzerland. Topolino escorted 300 anti-Fascists, Jews and draft evaders across a barbed wire fence that marked the Swiss border. A removable section of barbed wire, which she retrieved after the war and wrapped around a candle, was to become the symbol of Amnesty International.

In February 1945, Topolino was captured, imprisoned and raped. One night, she sat alone in a pitch-black cell when, she recalled, ``a man threw a loaf of bread in the cell, calling me a whore and all sorts of names.'' Hidden inside the hollow panini, she found a matchbox containing one match and a tiny scrap of paper. Lighting the match, she read: ``Corragio! Lavoriamo per te.'' (Courage! We are working for you.) Sagan told this story many times. She wanted people to know that they can make a difference by writing prisoners of conscience and their jailers in countries around the world, letting the former know that they are not alone and the latter that they are held responsible for what they do.

Creating an international constituency to insist that people in every country, regardless of their religion, politics and ethnicity, have the right not to be persecuted or unjustly imprisoned became Sagan's lifework. In 1967, a friend introduced Sagan to a Greek woman who described her experiences under the military junta. Sagan learned that methods of torture that the Gestapo used in wartime Italy and throughout occupied Europe were being practiced again. Shortly thereafter, she joined Amnesty International, which had been founded by London lawyer Peter Benenson in 1961.

In Paris, Sagan applied the techniques of the Resistance to the task at hand. She formed a network that included veterans of the Italian underground and Greeks in hiding from the junta. Sagan compiled lists of prisoners and located the prisons where they were detained. Fact-finding required her to travel to Greece several times, always disguised and under an assumed name.

In 1971, Sagan recruited Joan Baez and Melina Mercouri to perform at a fund-raising concert in support of the junta's prisoners. Shortly after this event, which drew 10,000 people to Berkeley's Greek Theatre, Baez and Mercouri joined a group on the Stanford University campus that formed the first West Coast chapter of Amnesty International.

When Gen. Pinochet overthrew President Allende's government, Sagan, Baez and their West Coast cohort initiated Amnesty International's first direct-mail campaign. Their efforts proved instrumental in expanding Amnesty's influence and its U.S. membership, which eventually reached 290,000. Alliances with celebrities did not diminish Sagan's need for anonymity. She learned to hide within the shadow cast by the light of publicity.

In 1985, Sagan invited Baez to travel with her to Poland, which was then under martial law. Sagan had raised money to support people imprisoned for their participation in Solidarity, the worker's revolution that, ironically, was challenging the Soviet empire. How to get funds into Poland was her problem. When their flight arrived in Warsaw, Baez and the film crew that accompanied her became the focus of attention. Sagan, ostensibly just another member of the entourage, was smuggling thick wads of currency under her clothes. Suddenly her pantyhose snapped. Baez quickly took her friend's luggage and told customs officials that the woman's back was hurt. ``I walked as if I had broken my spine,'' recalled Sagan.

Trying to remain incognito, Sagan accompanied the singer to Father Jankowski's parish house where they spent the night. The next day she hid in the church as Baez entertained the congregation.

The 60-year-old smuggler managed to accomplish her mission, but her presence became known to the authorities.

As she traveled in a car chauffeured by Lech Walesa's driver, the vehicle's brakes failed. Believing the car to have been sabotaged by agents of Gen. Jaruzelski, Sagan made a point of posing for a photograph beside the wreck, a triumphant smile on her bloody face. She did not care that her name be known, but she wanted the general and his henchmen to see her spirit.


SAGAN FUND AND AWARD

In 1974, Amnesty International USA established the Ginetta Sagan Fund (and Award) for women's and children's human rights to preserve her legacy in perpetuity. The annual presentation of the Ginetta Sagan Award honors the ``ordinary'' women who have the courage to change their world.

Stephen Most, a Berkeley-based playwright and scriptwriter, interviewed Ginetta Sagan for a documentary film about prisoners of conscience.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle

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