Richard Gere Hails Dean

By Masha Leon

Published February 09, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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FIGHTING FOR WOMEN’S AND CHILDREN’S RIGHTS AROUND THE GLOBE

“I would… like to acknowledge the supreme sacrifice you have made in choosing to spend the evening with us rather than watch the State of the Union [speech],” said Kati Marton, co-chair and emcee at the January International Women’s Health Coalition gala at Cipriani 42nd Street. “[IWHC] empowers young women in Pakistan; we try to improve communication among couples of Nigeria, we train midwives in Brazil… we raise our voices for [these] women in the Halls of Congress, at the World Bank and the United Nations.” Marton, a journalist and IWHC board chair — whose latest book is “The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World” (Simon & Schuster. 2006) — thanked Nicky Oppenheimer, chairman of the De Beers Group (which underwrote the evening), for the company’s “civic responsibility… to their employees in the terrible global fight against HIV.” Varda Shine, formally of Diamdel in Tel Aviv and now managing director of the Diamond Trading Company, the sales and marketing arm of De Beers, stressed her company’s role in “funding schools, hospitals, medical centers and hospices, [giving] more than 5 million people access to appropriate health care worldwide.”

Keynote speaker Jan Egeland, former United Nations under-secretary general of Humanitarian Affairs, noted he was “no longer welcome in Darfur or Khartoum… where it is more dangerous to be a woman or child… than a soldier.” He also said, “I have become obsessed with [trying to stop] this outrage against the most vulnerable… women and children who are dying disproportionately in our wars and our time….” In her introduction of the evening’s “second hero,” Dr. Allan Rosenfield (dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health), Martin cited his pioneering work for maternal and child health care, quoting his unwavering premise: “‘If you empower women to where they are equal, it changes society… it changes the future.’”

Free of face paint from his “I am Africa” AIDS awareness media campaign, a pink-cheeked Richard Gere paid homage to Rosenfield, whom he had met seven years ago. “I had just decided that India was going to be a focus of mine to work on HIV/AIDS [and] was having trouble getting traction there. I was told Allan was the guy, the best guy.… We started a program.” Crediting Rosenfield with “wisdom, compassion… [and] answers,” Gere noted: “We expanded the program to 5,000… now more than 10,000 people…. The antidote to this pandemic of HIV/AIDS, whose recipient are women, is the empowerment of women,” Gere stressed.

Though wheelchair bound, Rosenfield rose to the occasion: “I unfortunately have a medical problem that is going to shorten my talk… but I really want to emphasize how important the rights of women and girls are.” Award presenter to Rosenfield, Diana Taylor, recalled one of their earlier meetings at which he suggested she take a couple of courses to complete her degree at Mailman. Taylor challenged the doctor: “‘I have more than a full-time job, I sit on 10 boards, I travel all over the place, my boyfriend [Michael Bloomberg] is running for office for mayor. I could never in a million years find time for school.’” She did. “I wanted Allan to be the one to shake my hand and give me my diploma, which he did last spring. We’re honoring Allan because he has spoken up and cared for women when others would forget them…. We honor you for making women’s health rights the hallmark of your career… a more equitable and just future for all the world’s people.”

There were also remarks by IWHC President Adrienne Germain and by Mónica Carillo, an IWHC partner who founded, as serves as director of, Lundu, the Center for Afro-Peruvian Studies and Empowerment, to advance human rights for people of African descent in Peru. Among the guests were American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger, who helped galvanize the Jewish community re genocide in Darfur; Gary Smith, executive director of The American Academy in Berlin (who told me his parents were Holocaust survivors); Alan Patricof, managing director of Greycroft LLC, and Richard Holbrooke, former ambassador to the United Nations (he’s also Marton’s husband).


REMEMBERING HEROIC DIPLOMATS OF WORLD WAR II

The following night (January 24), Holbrooke was the keynote speaker at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue for the launch of “Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust” published by KTAV and by the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Affairs of Yeshiva University. The volume profiles 29 diplomats who had risked their careers and lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Written by Mordecai Paldiel of Yad Vashem, the book’s introduction is by Holbrooke.

Over recent decades, individual rescuers have received public acclaim — the best known is Oskar Schindler, whose persona — thanks to Thomas Keneally’s 1982 book “Schindler’s List” (Simon & Schuster, 1982) upon which Steven Spielberg based his film — is now used to define other rescuers. For example, Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who in 1940-41 issued 2139 visas — which saved between 6,000 and 10,000 Jews — has often been incorrectly labeled as “the Japanese Oskar Schindler.” Each of the diplomats was a miracle worker in his own right. Among them was Kovno, Lithuania-based Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk, who issued 1,400 false “end” visas to Curaçao, a Dutch island in the West Indies. Without these Curaçao visas, Sugihara could not have issued his 2139 “transit visas.” This included visa #1882, which saved my mother and me from becoming Holocaust statistics. On September 9, 1996, Zwartendijk, a retired geologist, was posthumously honored at the 47th Boys Town Jerusalem dinner at New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel. The State of Israel and the Netherlands sponsored the evening jointly. Present were Zwartendijk’s children, Jan, Robert and Edith, who did not learn of their father’s heroism until 1963, when an article appeared in the B’nai B’rith Messenger of Los Angeles calling him “The Angel of Curacao.” No one could remember his name, so the Dutch government officials called on the former consul to find out what it was he had done in Kovno. That night, Boys Town’s executive vice president, Rabbi Ronald Gray, announced the dedication of the Jan Zwartendijk Garden in Jerusalem and the establishment of the Jan Zwartendijk Faculty of Humanitarian Ethics and Values. During our chat, the diplomat’s son Jan lamented, “If only my father could have heard one survivor say, ‘I thank you for my life’.”

In the same vein is David Kranzler’s book, “The Man Who Stopped the Trains to Auschwitz: George Mantello, El Salvador, and Switzerland’s Finest Hour” (Syracuse University, 2000). Mantello (ne George Mandl), the Jewish first secretary of the El Salvador consulate in Geneva in 1942-1944, saved the lives of 140,000 people when he responded to his discovery of the “Auschwitz Report” by alerting the world to the systematic murder, between 1942 and 1944, of 2 million Jews. Mantello’s scheme to issue El Salvadoran citizenship papers — which, among the other stipulations, exempted Jews from the ghetto and from wearing the yellow star — later became the model for Raoul Wallenberg’s concept of the protective papers and safe houses in Budapest in 1944. No doubt, there may still be unrecognized diplomats whose stories will surface in the future. Should the additional number of these turn out to be seven, then a revised edition of “29 Diplomat Heroes” may be issued with the subtitle, “The [36] Lamed Vovnik Diplomats.”


“THE ITALIAN” A HEARTBREAKING FILM OF AN OLIVER TWIST IN TODAY’S RUSSIA

At a recent Hidden Child Foundation/Anti-Defamation League event, a teary-eyed woman next to me confided that she was born in 1943 inside the Warsaw Ghetto and that her parents left her with a Polish family they did not know. How her parents survived she would not say. But after the war they came looking for her, and after many false leads they eventually found her. “What if they had not found me?” she said to me.

I thought of that woman as I watched “The Italian,” an award-winning Sony Pictures Classics entry for the 2006 Academy Awards. Lest the film’s title misleads you into expectations of passionate liaisons in a warm climate setting amid the lush Tuscan Hills, this is a heart-rending, beautifully nuanced portrayal of angst trapped in a climactically and emotionally icy environment. Six-year-old Vanya, exquisitely portrayed by Kolya Spiridonov, is a foundling put up for adoption — sorry, sale — by the unscrupulous Madam (Maria Kuznetsova), who reigns over a Russian version of a Dickensian institution. Primped and paraded before an Italian couple — ergo the title — Vanya does not want to leave the orphanage to which he hopes his mother will return to find him. So dispiriting are his existence and those of his fellow “orphans,” so calculating and heartless are some of their caretakers, that you root for the young prostitute who sells herself to help Vanya escape. Cell phone-wielding Madam reminded me of the malevolent queen in Disney’s “Snow White.” And so skillfully manipulative is director Andrei Kravchuk that no sooner did you dab your eyes with the second of those metaphorical four-film handkerchiefs, then a third was awaiting its turn at the occasional kindhearted souls who showed compassion for Vanya. This little gem of a film will attach itself to your heartstrings and resurface whenever you see a documentary about abandoned children in Russia, Romania, China… anywhere.






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