Irena Sendler

09Sep08

A friend sent me this article from snopes.com about Irena Sendler. It had me thinking all afternoon, and wondering if it is as much of an outrage that she didn’t win the Nobel Prize (it went to Al Gore instead) as my friend thought. I have no idea what the criteria is for judging the Nobel prize, and who deserves it most out of any number of valiant humans trying to turn this world around and fight the rising tide of violence and anger and ugliness, and I certainly can’t argue against the bravery of this woman in the face of such circumstances. I’d like to think I’d be that brave, but have a horrible feeling I’d be hiding under my duvet hoping it would all go away.

Anyhow, my initial reaction that this was typical establishment, and that even after the last forty years dicrimination against women was still as active and nasty as it ever was in the upper echelons of “the establishment”.  How unfair that the man (Schindler) gets international recognition and plaudits for his resistance during WWII whilst Irena sinks into obscurity and is ignored.

But then I thought about it some more, and I couldn’t help but think of all the millions of lives affected by that war, all around the world, and it came to me that for every city or town occupied by a hostile force during that bleak period, there must have been at least one Irena Sendler or Oskar Schindler willing to take the risk and stick to their principles in the face of appalling punishments. And how equally impossible it would be for every single one of them to be honoured in a way that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the stand that each one took in some sort of bland mass plaudit. I wondered, too, why more of these people didn’t/don’t stand up to be counted and tell everyone what happened and what they did, and I remembered that my grandfather never once talked about the war, what he saw, what he did. It was always my grandmother who would tell me where he’d been and what he did. And it seems a common theme, that what these people saw and did during those years seemed to them to be such a small thing in the face of overwhelming oppression and terror, when it surely couldn’t make more than the tiniest difference to a minute handful of lives, that what they did was so futile in the rising tide of atrocity, that they felt almost shame that they couldn’t or didn’t do more, that it was never enough, and that they must have had to make some of the most soul-destroying choices, that with the war over, those memories and that knowledge must also be set aside, consigned to the silence, so that in the end only those who were affected by them and knew them in those times would ever be able to recognise what they really did. And a handful of research students who stumble across their stories and are touched by them in ways it is difficult to define. That doesn’t make them any less worthy of our recognition, or our respect, or diminish the significance of what they achieved in any way, but it does highlight for me the impossibility of singling one of them out over and above all those countless others for such an award. After all, Schindler never got a Nobel prize, either.

Is there a political angle to the Peace Prize? Is the prize committee discriminating against women? After all, only 12 of the 100+ winners are women. But then look at the list of who won (organisations included) and it seems clear to me that the Prize is awarded to those who are of the moment, who best represent the work that is being done TODAY to achieve peace in our time. I don’t think it can be denied that there is a political angle to it, but in the world in which we live, by default much effective change does and has to originate from political power: it may start small, with individual and personal actions but ultimately it’s the representatives of the political powers that implement the cultural changes into the societies in which they operate (for example, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan founded the Northern Ireland Peace Movement and were recognised in 1976, but then it’s David Trimble and John Hume who take the prize in 1998 as the Northern Ireland Peace Process rumbled to its conclusion). So perhaps it is right, in a decade which has increasingly seen a shift away from conflict resolution to a focus on democracy, human rights, social and developmental equality and earth-issues, that the prize goes to Al Gore, poster boy for the IPCC. Climate change – destruction and inequality caused by over-consumption of earth’s limited and finite resources – is the biggest challenge to peace in our time, will increasingly become a source of conflict between the nations and peoples that are able to buy their way out of the consequences and those who cannot and are left to bear the brunt of it. I think it is right that the Nobel Prize looks forward, not back, and recognises an organisation that offers at least some hope that there are still alternatives and still ways we can get ourselves out of this mess.

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