The Garden of the Righteous of Milan
The law about the Righteous of the humanity should unite people, regardless of any political, religious or cultural difference, in our democratic institutions. It concerns our ability and willingness to bring about those who, in the gloomy times of the humanity, when unjust laws prevailed and people were persecuted, have taken up personal responsibility in the face of evil.
This is a proposal that honors our country, in that our entire political representation in the Brussels Parliament, without exceptions, was the driving force that led all deputies on 10 May 2012 to approve with a broad majority the establishment of European Day of the Righteous.
Ours is a country that exemplifies beauty in the world, launches messages of peace, repudiates war and tries to set an example for conflict resolution in the world.
By supporting European Day of the Righteous, Italy has committed itself to an innovative culture that we could define as diplomacy of good: raising awareness about the tales of exemplary figures who have defended freedom, democracy, and the value of human life all over the world – through the creation of Gardens of the Righteous in every city, and an educational process at schools and in the institutions.
This is an important duty at this historical stage, as we are witnessing to the surfacing of cultures of violence, of which terror is the most blatant expression, and the growth of public and private behaviour that incites to hatred, defamation and clash. Remembering the Righteous means working for dialogue, the respect for human beings, and education to individual responsibility.
Great accomplishments have been achieved at the domestic and international level, because thanks to the great work of Gariwo, the forest of the Righteous, nearly a hundred Gardens have been created in Italy and abroad. In particular, this diplomacy of good led to the creation of three Gardens in the Middle Eastern area (in Israel, Tunisia and Jordan), all of them with an antiterrorist aim and as an expression of peace and dialogue among the peoples. Furthermore the city of Warsaw, following the example of the Garden of the Righteous Worldwide of Milan, created in the place of Jewish persecution the first Garden of Central Europe. Similar experiences have been created in Bosnia and Rwanda. Now, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we started a process to popularize the best figures of our diplomacy who committed themselves to the defence of the populations hit by genocide or who stood out for humanitarian deeds in the wartorn or crisis areas. In a short while, a Garden of the Righteous will be created precisely at the Farnesina, and many of our Embassies have already committed themselves to bringing about particularly significant moral figures.
The diplomacy of good yielded great results in the cultural fight against terrorism, as it made people in Italy and worldwide aware of the presence of important figures of Muslim Righteous who have rescued human lives during the attacks. Let us think about Lassana Bathily, who has become the international example of a young Muslim who saved Jews during an attack, Faraaz Hussein, who in the attack against a restaurant in Dhaka full of tourists did not accept the terrorists' proposal to be saved as he was a Muslim, but immolated himself to help his friends, or Hamadi ben Abdesslem, who during the attack against the Bardo Museum in Tunis succeeded in rescuing about 50 Italians.
Remembering these figures today means building with concrete examples a thought of good that shall prove to be stronger than the one of terrorists. On the ground of ideas, this is the best way to defeat the sowers of hatred who justify the cruellest deeds against the humanity in the name of God and religion.
THE DAY OF THE RIGHTEOUS
How to make the Day of the Righteous effective?
There are no rules, nor we can think of an imposition from the top or a unique institution that define the Righteous to be commemorated. There shall not exist any absolute authority that can hold the monopoly of decisions.
The Yad Vashem memorial in Israel has had the great historical merit to highlight for the first time the moral value of those who had committed themselves to saving the lives of people during genocide. Righteous then was a non Jew who had rescued a Jew.
By supporting this Day we have sought to universalize this concept as in every experience of genocide and crimes against the humanity, there were some figures who tried to defend human dignity.
Thus, the idea that took shape in the Garden of Jerusalem has set an example for the entire world.
The quest for the Righteous is thus a plural experience, as in every context it is possible to retrace new figures who deserve to become examples for the new generations.
Every country will be able to choose its own path, with the commitment of the associations engaged in remembrance to ensuring the quality of the work. We must imagine a plurality of experiences that arise from municipalities, parliaments, schools, universities, and bring about examples of moral courage of citizens of one's country, also looking ahead toward figures of universal value. The Righteous are world citizens and do not only have one single fatherland. When they are remembered outside their own boundaries, they gain a new citizenship, as it normally occurs to great artists, writers and philosophers.
It is important to underline that the Day of the Righteous of 6 March does not represent an obligation, but rather a free choice, which uniquely depends on the will of local entities, educators and teachers.
It would be non sense, if this recurrence, that remembers the tales of those who made moral choices, were felt as an imposition and not like an act of responsibility.
WHO ARE THE RIGHTEOUS
There is no such thing as a sociology of the Righteous. There cannot exist a category comprising them all. For every historical moment, for every new genocide case, for every new challenge there can be some new definitions.
On the one hand, as Hannah Arendt, Václav Havel and Primo Levi pointed out, the presence of the Righteous in the gloomiest times of history has shown that there is no unbeatable and devilish evil, as the Righteous are the most concrete expression of a possibility of resistance of human beings. Evil in fact is always a relationship that subjugates and manipulates passive people. Besides the executioners there is always a gray area of people who take part in or are passive bystanders of crime. Nonetheless this gray area can turn into its opposite, thanks to the endeavour of brave people. An indifferent society can change when responsible people appear on the public stage.
On the other hand, the Righteous are neither saints nor heroes, and do not belong to any particular political, social, economic or military field; they can be fascist, as well as antifascist; communist or anticommunist; fundamentalist or anti-fundamentalist; prison or camp guard as well as victims and prisoners; member of an occupation army or resistants against that very army; they can be thieves, scoundrels, prostitutes, but also honest and irreprehensible people.
What really matters is that at a certain moment of their life, in the face of injustice or the persecution of other human beings, they are able to bravely go to the rescue of sufferers and thus interrupt, with an unexpected deed done in their span of control, the chain of evil to which they are witness. This kind of approach makes it possible to bring about the good accomplished by people under extreme circumstances, which the weight of circumstances often makes it impossible to grasp, risking many times to deliver to oblivion some extraordinary gestures of civil courage. In Italy, for instance, it took many years before any importance was attached to the rescue deeds accomplished by fascists such as Giorgio Perlasca or Guelfo Zamboni, as their political belonging was considered as a wrong that far outweighed his lofty gesture of generousity.
In somebody's eyes, thus, political labels mattered more than actions.
For how paradoxical it may seem, also in the reflection about the Righteous a perverse mechanism of quest for perfection is set in motion, as if it were necessary to award only sainthood – which instead almost never exists on this earth. Human beings feel reassured by the quest for heroes and saints, when on the contrary the only possible good in this world is the one accomplished by ordinary and imperfect people. It is often difficult to accept the fragility of good. Nonetheless, it is precisely the ordinary people who struggle for dignity that need be brought about, because they pass on an example within everybody's reach.
THE FIGURES OF THE RIGHTEOUS
We can split, in general terms, the Righteous into four categories: those who save lives in the face of peril and report genocide; those who do not accept the laying of information and defend human plurality; those who safeguard their own dignity, not accepting to be corrupted under extreme circumstances; those who defend the memory of a genocide case in the face of deniers.
At any rate it is important to underline that circumstances in life give rise to multiple figures and experiences, which are not always easy to classify, and the definition of a Righteous in the face of a crime against the humanity always remains an open issue.
The first category is the one of rescuers. The former are the individuals able of a selfless deed to help those who are persecuted for their nationality, a political guilt, or ideas.
The typical behaviour exemplifying rescuers is that of those save lives under extreme circumstances such as war, where crimes against the humanity are perpetrated.
This is the kind of figures that was highlighted in Israel to remember those who have rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
The second category is the one of those who struggle for freedom, dignity, and truth in a totalitarian regime.
Peculiar, in communist regimes, is the figure of the opponent or dissident who has the courage to defend the truth against the lies of the regime. Individuals can change the world by exerting their own freedom in their span of control, thus contributing in their small space to demolish the network of lies of totalitarian power.
This was affirmed in Summer 1973 in Moscow by Aleksander Solzenicyn, in a document, in which he invited the Russians to reject telling lies. “This is the key of our liberation, a key we have overlooked and nonetheless is so simple and accessible: our refusal to take part personally in the lie, even though it covers everything, and rules everywhere. There is one thing, about which we are unshakable: that it shall not rule because of me”.
The third category of Righteous is represented by those victims who have the strength to defend their own dignity during the most terrible times of persecution and in the circumstances, in which people are generally compelled by executioners to abdicate to their own humanity. We can call them as the men and women who do not bow themselves to dehumanization.Primo Levi and Varlam Salamov told us as in Stalinist Gulags and Nazi concentration camps, prisoners had to bear a tremendous effort to keep self-respect and their humanity in the faces of cold, hunger, and the merciless competition for survival. It is a dreadful challenge not to become informers in the Gulag, not laying information, not reporting, for the sake of surviving, the other prisoners, not stealing a slice of bread from the other Auschwitz inmates.
Valid for all is the declaration of intentions of young philosopher Etty Hillesum who, before being deported to Auschwitz, wrote in her diary that the Nazis could win the war not only by using weapons and committing mass murder, but even in a more dangerous way: getting the plant of evil and hatred to grow. Then the defeat would be complete.“The rot that is there in the others, is there also within us, I went on preaching, and I see no other solution than the one of recollecting our own feelings and ripping away our rot. I don't believe any longer in the possibility to improve anything in the outside world before doing our part within ourselves first […] and let us convince ourselves that every atom of hatred we add to the world makes it even more inhospitable.”
The fourth category of Righteous is represented by those who have defended the memory of a genocide case in the face of persecution denial or have fought hard so that the countries and societies where a crime against the humanity was perpetrated took up the moral responsibility to remember those events.
It is a new dimension of responsibility, which becomes more and more important as witnesses little by little die out and our distance from those events grows. Let us think of the risk run on a daily basis by the intellectuals who in Turkey lead a battle for the memory of the Armenian genocide, in defiance of a state law that considers this remembrance as a crime, or those who in the Arab world lead a battle against the trend to remember the Holocaust, which is often presented as a historical manipulation conjured up by Zionists to justify the so called “crimes” against the Palestinian people.
If we then look at the history of communism until 1989, Holocaust remembrance then was often concealed following the theory that Jews had fallen victims of capitalism and that extermination did not have to be presented as a specifically Jewish event. There were the two great intellectuals who defied the communist oblivion and ran great risks because of their stances. On the one hand István Bibó, the great Hungarian political scientist, protagonist of the 1956 revolt, who after the war invited in vain the society to face a work of moral purification to remember the Hungarian responsibilities in the extermination of Jews, in a climate, in which the country used to conceal its own guilt by putting the blame on the Nazi ally. Then there was the extraordinary figure of Vasilij Grossman, who was censored by Stalin for drafting a multiple-author book that reconstructed the tales of the Holocaust victims in the Soviet Union.
RESPONSIBILITY IN OUR TIME
The law about the Righteous of the humanity shall enable us to tackle one of the limits of all kinds of Remembrance days. The lessons from the past become sterile unless we educate young people to respond in the time we live in. It is easy to be good in the aftermath, condemning the Nazis, the fascists, the villains of concentration camps and declaring our sympathy toward their victims. It is far more difficult to investigate past history to understand the present world.
By this Recurrence we wish to invite young people to ask himself the following questions: “What could I have done yesterday to help the Jews or the Armenians, and what could I do now to fight for peace, against racism, terrorism and violence? What can I do to help migrants and sufferers? How can I do today what Marc Aurel used to call the art of being human?”.
The discovery of the Righteous confronts everybody with the problem of responsibility.
This message is very useful for the political and cultural condition of our country today. The idea that we can do nothing about the things that do not work is always prevailing, along with the one that the only possible thing is to go indignant and blame the others. The Righteous instead teach us that every person in his or her small space can do something and defend his or her own moral integrity. Those who take care of their garden may not change the world, but leave a little trace that can become a path for the other human beings.
Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman