Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Individuals in history

There has always been an on-going debate among historians about whether "history makes the man or the man makes history." On the latter side of the argument, Don Silverberg gave a fascinating lecture at AACI Netanya on the the role some relatively unknown individuals played in Jewish and Israeli history. Here is a list of his selections:
Gino Bartali (1914-2000) was an Italian cycling champion from the Tuscany area. He won the Tour de France in 1938 and again in 1948. He was a friend of the Jews and during WWII he played a major role in saving the lives of many Jews. Since he was able to ride around the roads of Italy unhampered by security because he was so famous, he was able to take photos of Jews who were in hiding to a printer, who then prepared false identity cards, and he was able to deliver them back to the Jews, who could then come out of hiding and use them. He hid the documents inside his tires. In this way he saved countless Jewish lives. His life was memorialized in a book entitled "Road to valor" by McConnon (2012).
Miklos Nemeth (1948- ) served as PM of Hungary 1988-90, during the tumultuous years that led to the collapse of communism in eastern europe. Earlier in his political career he was MInister of Agriculture and was responsible for a successful reform of the agricultural system in Hungary. At the same time Mikhail Gorbachev was Agriculture MInister in the USSR and came to see Nemeth to obtain advice on reforming the USSR's moribund agricultural sector. As a result they became friends. When Gorbachev was President of the USSR in the same period (1988-91) he was contacted by Nemeth who urged him to release the Jews of the USSR. Many others had tried without success, but Nemeth was persuasive and Gorbachev initially agreed to release the Soviet Jews by train through Hungary. Nemeth was also responsible for allowing East Germans to enter Hungary from Czechoslovakia and to leave thru Austria to West Germany, thus playing a key role in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communist East Germany.
Dimitar Peshev (1894-1973) was Bulgarian Minister of Justice and Dep. Speaker of the General Assembly before and during WWII. When the Germans invaded Bulgaria in 1944 and wanted to deport all the Jews, Peshev was instrumental in rallying Bulgarian leaders to oppose the orders of Adolf Eichmann. This was done even though Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany. Most of the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews survived and immigrated to Israel in the Jaffa area and there is a square with a fountain in the center of Jaffa named Peshev Square in his honor.
Menachem Begin (1913-92) is of course famous as one of the pioneers and PMs of Israel. But, in a little known incident he saved the future state of Israel. The armed forces of the nascent state of Israel had no heavy weapons. Begin's militia, the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (National Army Organization) known as "Lehi," stopped a train bound from Haifa with heavy mortars for the Arab forces. They used these in the battle for Jaffa. The British had decided secretly to hold on to the port of Jaffa after leaving Palestine, in order to assist the Arabs in invading Israel. By attacking Jaffa and forcing it to surrender Lehi stopped this plan and Begin saved the State from a sea invasion. For this reason the Museum of Lehi is situated on the seam line between Tel Aviv and Jaffa on the Mediterranean shore.
Alan Turing (1912-54) was a British mathematician who developed the first computer named Colossus in 1943 to assist in the decoding of the German Enigma codes at Bletchley Park. These supposedly indecipherable codes were broken by Turing and his team, that allowed the Allies to know the German plans in advance. Thus, Gen. Montgomery knew the plans of Rommel at Alamein and was victorious. Also, the Russians knew the plans of Hitler to attack Moscow in advance and were able to defeat him in the biggest tank battle in history at Kursk. Without Turing's genius the allie's victory would have been uncertain. Unfortunately Turing committed suicide in 1954 because he was a homosexual and was persecuted by the secret service, a fact for which the current British PM David Cameron recently apologized.
John Monash (1865-1931) was a Jewish Australian engineer who rose to become the preeminent General and military expert during WWI. He pioneered the coordination of different armed forces, aerial, artillery, tanks and infantry and was recognized as a military innovator. Before the war a Melbourne golf club refused him entry because he was a Jew, but after the war they invited him and he refused. HIs methods were used by all armed forces in WWII and by the IDF in the war of independence..
Ronald Ross (1857-1932) was responsible for the discovery of malarial parasites in the specific Anopheles species of mosquito. He was born and grew up in India, where malaria was a scourge. His predecessor Laverne discovered parasites in human blood and others had speculated that the vector was the mosquito, but it was Ross who made this significant discovery in 1897 and won the Nobel Prize in 1902. It was because of the prevalence of malaria that Arabs sold land that they considered worthless to the Jews of Palestine for exorbitant sums, including the Jezreel Valley and the coastal strip from Hadera to Tel Aviv. It was because of Ross's work that these swamps were drained and sprayed and the mosquitos were removed and people could then settle there.
Raoul Wallenberg (1912-1947) was a Swedish diplomat who was employed by the US War Refugee Board to try to save the Jews of Hungary during WWII. As a neutral he had diplomatic immunity, and he used the funds given to him, principally from Jewish sources, to buy apartments in Budapest, where he placed Jews with papers declaring them under his protection. By the time he arrived in July 1944 ca. 500,000 Jews had already been deported and murdered, but 150,000 remained, and Wallenberg saved a large proportion of them. Towards the end of the war, Eichmann left his deputy in Budapest to organize the murder of the Jews, but Wallenberg went to see him and told him that if he did this he would personally make sure he was the first on the list of Germans executed by the Allies after the War, but if he stopped it, then he would ensure that he was not executed. This argument was persuasive, all deportations of Jews from Budapest were stopped and all 150,000 Jews survived, as did this Nazi. Any other person might have tried to do the same, but Wallenberg had a unique combination of bravery and audacity that enabled him to accomplish what seemed impossible.
All of the above individuals are merely a few of the hundreds and thousands of individuals who through their own actions made the interconnecting web of history actual.


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