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
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 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
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
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
Stephen Most, a Berkeley-based playwright and scriptwriter, interviewed Ginetta Sagan for a documentary film about prisoners of conscience.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle