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Ginetta Sagan. She was an Italian human rights activist, known as Topolino, which is Italian for little mouse, because she was 4ft 11. She was incredibly brave and determined, and even though terrible things happened to her, she never gave up fighting for other people.
She was born in 1925. Her mother was a French Jewish physician and her father was a Catholic Italian physician who was married to somebody else. Because it would have caused a huge scandal if people knew they had had a child, Ginetta was given a fake identity: she pretended to be the child of her wet nurse, the nurse who looks after the baby, but she always knew who her real parents were. The wet nurse’s real baby had died two years before. This was just the first of Ginetta Sagan’s false identities.
Both Ginetta’s parents were part of the resistance. The resistance was against fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. When Ginetta was 17, her mother was taken to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, and never seen again. Ginetta’s father was shot within the same year.
Soon after, she joined the resistance. She started by working as a maid for a high-up fascist officer and spying on him for information. Then she began helping Jews, anti-fascists and other people Hitler or Mussolini wanted to kill over the Italian-Swiss border. Her part of the resistance, based in Milan, led 10,000 people to safety in total. There was a huge barbed wire fence on the border, but other people who were part of the resistance would lead goats with bells round their necks to parts of the fence where the wire could be removed to let people through. The chimes of the bells guided Ginetta and the people she was helping to safety. She led 300 people over the border before she was caught.
Mussolini’s Black Brigade caught her at the age of 19. She was taken away and locked up, tortured and raped for 45 days. On the 45th day, a guard threw a loaf of bread in her cell. Ginetta tore open the bread and found a matchbox inside. In the matchbox were a single match and a piece of paper. She lit the match and read the note. There was one word: “Coraggio!” which is Italian for courage. A couple of days later, two supposedly Nazi German soldiers arrived, on April 23rd 1945, to take her away and kill her. However, they weren’t Nazis at all, they were German deserters come to set her free, which they did.
In the next few years, Ginetta was rehabilitated, went to university to study child psychology and interviewed many people who had suffered in WWII, before going to work as an electroencephalography or EEG specialist.
In the early 1960s she worked at 6 Japanese orphanages giving shelter, medicine and food to orphaned children with the Usigikai organisation in Nagasaki. In 1964 she went to live in the US, and in 1967 she joined Amnesty. Between 1967 and 1974 she made many trips to Greece working to free victims of oppression and torture during the Colonel’s regime.
From 1969 -76 she worked hard with Amnesty. Amnesty International or AI is a charity for human rights which works to free people who are being treated inhumanely or who are living in terrible conditions. Ginetta set up campaigns, worked on the board and founded the Western Region of AI. AI took some of her symbols. For instance, the AI symbol is a candle with barbed wire wrapped around it. After Ginetta was freed form the fascist torturers and the war was over, she went back to Italy and retrieved the piece of removable barbed wire from the huge fence and wrapped it around a candle. Also, in the 1990s, AI set up a Ginetta Sagan award for people who work to free victims of torture, the winners of which receive a silver matchbox to represent the one Ginetta found in the hollow bread along with a cash prize, to remind them that there is always hope, that someone out there cares, and never to give up.
In 1974 and 5, she worked in South America with journalists to free prisoners of conscience and succeeded in freeing 400 Chileans and letting the world know what was going on. In 1975 she went to the Philippines and raised money for the AI mission to help Spain and the Philippines. 1976-77 she was in Czechoslovakia and Vienna, helping families affected by and campaigning for Charter 77, which forced the Communist government to give people some basic human rights. 1979-81 she served on the Board of Humanities founded by Joan Baez.
In the 80s she did a lot of work with AI, and also from 81-88 she worked in Poland with Joan Baez and people like Lech Walesa, trying to get workers rights. These kinds of campaigns eventually helped bring down the Soviet Union. They needed money to help the cause and Ginetta was smuggling money in at the airport in her trousers when the waistband snapped and she had to pretend she had hurt her back to stop the money from falling out – not an unbelievable story since she was 60 at the time. She wasn’t caught but it drew a lot of unwanted attention – General Jaruzelski, the Polish martial communist leader, became aware of her. In 1987, although it was never proved, it is thought he tried to kill her. The brakes of her car had been fiddled with and she nearly died in the resulting crash. Ginetta had a photo of herself taken next to the wreck with blood on her face and proudly displayed it so General Jaruzelski would see it and know he had failed. In 1981 she set up the Aurora foundation, a charity for help for victims of torture and rape. In 1983 she helped write a map and report of Vietnam’s so called “re-education camps and as a result 6,000 prisoners were set free.
During the 1990s she did a lot of fundraising and support for AI and also helped produce a film on the torture of women and children at the age of 70. She also drew attention to child victims of war in Algeria and Tibet.
She worked in 20 countries, and won the following awards: International Humanitarian Award; Patricia Neal Courage Award; Italo-American Woman of the Year; made the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by the Starr King School of Religion; Jefferson Award; Visiting Scholarship, Institute of Women and Gender, Stanford University; Affiliated Scholarship, Institute of Women and Gender, Stanford University; Albert Schweitzer Award of Distinction; Elected Honorary Chair of the Board of AI USA; Awarded Italy’s Grande Ufficiale del Merito della Republica Italiana; Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She did not stop working until, at the age of 75, she died of cancer on 25th August 2000.