Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.

From left to right: Sir Nicholas Winton, Oskar Schindler and Aristides de Sousa Mendes

From left to right: Sir Nicholas Winton, Oskar Schindler and Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Today, the world celebrates VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) to mark the end of World War II in Europe. Seventy years have passed since then. Much has been written about all the atrocities and war crimes. Today, however, I don´t want to speak about these horrors. I want to speak about the people, who in the middle of so much human misery had the heart and the courage to be heroes. They could have saved one single life and that would have made them already heroes. However, the three people I selected saved hundreds to thousands of people during the war:

Sir Nicholas Winton (born Nicholas Wertheim in 1909) is a German-descendant, British humanitarian who organised the rescue of 669, mostly Jewish, children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War. Winton arranged for their safe passage to Britain and  found them homes.  Many of these children never saw again their parents, because shortly after the war began and their parents were taken to perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The most astonishing thing about him is that his actions went completely unnoticed until 1988, when his wife found a scrapbook in their attic containing all the information about the children he saved. Only after that his work was recognized.

Oskar Schindler (1908 – 1974) was a German industrialist member of the Nazi Party, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories, which were located in occupied Poland. Though, initially Schindler was interested only in the monetary potential of the business, later he began protecting his workers without any concerns for the cost. Schindler spent his entire fortune until the end of World War II, mainly on bribes to Nazi officials, to prevent the execution of his workers. After that he failed at several businesses and had to rely until his death on financial support from Schindlerjuden (“Schindler Jews”) – the people whose lives he had saved during the war. He is buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the only member of the Nazi party to had such an honour.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes  (1885 –  1954) was the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux, France, in the early period of the Second World War, who defying the Portuguese dictator’s orders issued visas and passports  to thousands of refugees fleeing from invading German forces, allowing them to seek refuge in order parts of the world. Though, the total number of visas issued can´t be ascertained for sure, it is estimated to be as high 30,000, with a total of 1,575 visas being registered just between 15 and 22 June 1940. He and his family were punished by the government for his actions,  leaving him penniless at the moment of his death. Portugal rehabilitated him only in 1988. He was honored posthumously by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, the first diplomat to be so honoured.

This post is dedicated to all heroes, who like Winton, Schindler and de Sousa Mendes, during the Second World War, dared to fight to save lives, sometimes at the cost of their own life.

The lessons to be learnt from the Alps tragedy

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Last week was marked by the plane accident involving a German airline in the Alps that killed 150 people. The evidence collected until now suggests that the cause was a murder-suicide of the co-pilot. This accident has shaken the whole world, in particular, Germany. While the details of the actual tragedy are still being unraveled (if ever they will be completely known) there are several lessons which can be learnt from this tragedy. 

 It is time to stop with the obsession with terrorism attacks after the 9/11. This has lead to absurd measures to protect the citizens that puts them, in the end, in danger. For example, after the 9/11 the airlines removed access to the cockpit from the outside, in a way to prevent possible terrorist attacks. The incident last week has shown that such drastic measures, instead of locking out any dangerous people from the cockpitcan keep them inside! What if the pilot or co-pilot while alone feels bad and faints? In such a case no one can help either. Absurd drastic measures have, in this case, lead to the death of 150 people. It is time to think in global scenarios, instead of focusing on terrorist attacks. It should always be possible to access the cockpit from outside, even if only  by the pilot and co-pilot by punching in a pin number. This would definitely make me feel safer the next time I travel by plane!

This accident made think about a friend of mine. About 20 years ago, she committed suicide by jumping off a bridge as tall as the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. According to people who saw her doing it, she drove her car to bridge, opened the door and jumped! Still today, I can’t go over that bridge. It is hard to imagine how desperate you must feel to summon up enough courage to jump. Of course I knew she hadn’t been well. She had been at my place some time before. I remember that on that day we talked a lot about happiness and love (I had just got married). I can still remember her words on the subject – “Yes I do believe that you can find happiness and love and all or most people, in general. I just don’t believe that I will be able to find love or happiness!“. I thought it was just a bad phase, that she would get through it. But she didn’t. Some time after that she committed suicide. Did I ever think she could do such a thing? No, no way.  However, her words I will never forget. One thing I understood – you commit suicide when don’t see any hope whatsoever in the future.

The distance from a suicide to a murder-suicide is, of course, big.  In this case, again there is the belief that you will not find happiness or peace in the future, but hate plays a big role. Someone or a group of people is responsible for your pain – and they will have to pay for it. It is difficult to imagine the amount of pain and hate that can develop in a person and, at the same time, the courage to then put their plans into practice. Therefore, never underestimate a depressed person. Always take them seriously.

This accident was a severe stroke to German pride. Proud of being very reliable and almost error-free, this accident caused by a German citizen showed that very bad things can be caused by a  native, apparently successful and happy citizen. Living already for some time in Germany, I must say I am not surprised that such thing has happened. The German Society is based on success, on achievements. Since Kindergarten, children are taught that they must work a lot in order to one day have a very successful job. There is no room for failure. An aggravation to all this situation is the basic belief in the German culture that you should never  show your emotions or talk about possible personal problems. Therefore, since childhood Germans are taught not show many emotions. You can´t be angry, you can´t be too happy either and especially you should not make any noise during conversations or in any situation.  Having so much stress and social pressure on one hand and, on the other having their emotions so repressed, can lead to lots of physiological disturbances. I started noticing that some time ago, in particular, on my way to and back from work. It is very common to see people, still young, very well dressed suddenly completely loosing their temper and starting screaming and jumping, just because, for example, they lost their train or bus. Another situation is when people are reading a newspaper or scrolling their smartphone how they start sending dirty hateful looks if someone close to them just talks a bit louder. Believe me, these reactions are the sudden transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. One minute you have everything under control, the next minute you have lost it completely.

Life is so much more than a successful job and having lots of money. It seems that the reason for the murder-suicide were possible health problems, which could damage the co-pilot’s future prospects of becoming a pilot. How much social pressure must you feel in order to decide that your life is not worth anything, if you are not a successful pilot in a famous airline company, and that the people on board must pay for your pain? How much psychological pain must you feel in order to cause such a incredible accident to show the whole world how intense your pain was?

I have heard some victim’s relatives saying that the why of this accident does not matter to them. I disagree: now that so many lives have been lost, I think the only thing that matters is the why, i.e. all the circumstances that lead to it. Only knowing that, can our world learn lessons for the future that can prevent such unfortunate accidents from ever happening again…