Thursday, March 24, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: The Hardagas and the Kabiljos

You know how the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction?

When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 and the Lufftwaffe bombed their home, the Jewish Kabiljo family was forced to flee into the local mountains to hide.  But this proved untenable and they made the desperate decision to try and get to the factory building where their business was housed.  Once there, they encountered Mustafa Hardaga, the Muslim man who owned the building.  Not only did he choose to not turn the family in to the Nazis, he made the extraordinary decision to invite them to his home, to live with him, his wife, Zejneba, and his brother and sister-in-law.

Islamic rules about modesty dictated that women cover their faces in the presence of men who were not family, but the Hardagas decided to declare the Kabiljos part of their own family so their women did not have to veil their faces.

Of course anyone caught harboring Jews would have been executed, and to make matters even more tense, the Hardaga home happened to be located ten yards from the Gestapo headquarters.  The Hardagas were unfazed but eventually the Kabiljos decided they could no longer put their friends in danger. 

Mrs. Kabiljo and their children escaped to a Bosnian city that lay outside the Nazi-zone.  Josef stayed behind to close down their business but was captured.  Because of the heavy snows, he could not be transported to the infamous Jasenovac camp near Zagreb where he almost surely would have been killed.  So he stayed in Sarajevo, and worked on a chain gang clearing snow from the roads.  When the Hardagas found out where Josef was located they began bringing him and the other prisoners food to keep them from starving  Eventually Josef was able to escape, return to live with the Hardagas for a short time, and then rejoin his family. 

After the war the Kabiljo family relocated to Jerusalem.  And there, in 1984, they finally convinced Yad Vashem to grant the Hardaga family the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations’--- making them the first Muslims to receive this honor.  But the story doesn’t end there.

In 1994, when the Serbs attacked Sarajevo, Zejneba Hardaga and her family were forced into a basement for shelter and survive on soup made from grass they’d picked in a local park.  The Kabiljo family, who had stayed in touch with the Hardagas, contacted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and explained the situation and the background story.  Israel, in turn, contacted the Bosnian government and negotiated for the Hardaga family to be transported anywhere they chose.  The Hardagas chose Israel.  And when the Hardagas landed in the Holy Land, they were met at the airport by one of the Kabiljo daughters!

Muslims save Jews, and Jews save Muslims.  And hope springs eternal.

The Hardagas and the Kabilijos are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Biddy Mason

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1818 without a last name.  At 18, she was given as a wedding present to Robert Smith.  By 1848 Smith and his household had become Mormon, and decided to journey to Utah with a 300 wagon caravan.  Biddy and her three daughters---a 10 year-old, a 4 year-old, and an infant (all three probably fathered by Smith himself)---walked the 1,700 miles.  Biddy helped to break camp, cook, herd cattle, and serve as a midwife for the caravan.

Although the Mormon Church did not have black members at the time, they did encourage Smith to free his slaves (including Biddy and her daughters), but Smith refused.  When Brigham Young sent Smith and his household to San Bernardino, California to establish a Mormon settlement, though, Biddy saw her chance for freedom.  California was a free state, so she escaped with several other slaves.  However Smith captured her and her party and quickly decided to move to Texas, a slave state, to protect what he considered to be his property.  But before the family could leave California, the Los Angeles county sheriff---tipped off to Smith’s illegal activity---stopped them on the El Cajon pass and prevented their exit.  Biddy then filed a petition in district court for her freedom, the freedom of her daughters, and 10 other slaves held by Smith.

After three days of deliberation, Judge Benjamin Hayes handed down a ruling in favor of Biddy and her extended family.  Free, Biddy took the last name of Mason, the middle name of the mayor of San Bernardino, and moved with her daughters to Los Angeles.

She began working as a nurse and midwife for physician John Griffin, earning $2.50 per day. Within ten years Biddy was able to save enough money to buy a parcel of land on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles for $250, becoming the first black woman to own land in Los Angeles.  Her parcel was one block from the heart of the financial district.  She then sold part of the land, and on the remaining property built several homes and a commercial building. 

As Biddy Mason’s wealth began to grow so did her generosity.  She supported many charities that provided food and shelter for the poor of Los Angeles, and often visited inmates in county jail. Additionally she built a school, and helped African-Americans start businesses. In 1872, Biddy financed the establishment of the Los Angeles branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became a founding member.

By the time of her death in 1891, Biddy had become one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles.  But despite her prominence Biddy Mason was buried in an unmarked grave in Boyle Heights, and for reasons that defy logic it took 100 years for the city she’d blessed so significantly to officially celebrate her life. 

Finally on November 16, 1991 Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, and the City Council proclaimed “Biddy Mason Day” in Los Angeles and a tombstone was placed on her final resting place.  The next day a mixed-use building named the Broadway Spring Center was opened on the site of her original home.  The site contains an 8-by-81 foot memorial wall honoring this remarkable woman.

Biddy Mason is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hereos You Should Know: Jerrie Cobb

Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was born the right sex at the wrong time to be an astronaut, but that didn’t stop her from flying.  The daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel and pilot, Jerrie first flew with her dad for the first time at age 12, was flying for a circus at 16, and by 18 had her commercial pilot’s license.

She wanted to fly for a living, but because of the flood of pilots returning from World War II, and discriminatory attitudes toward female aviators, Jerrie ended up with the less exciting jobs of crop dusting and pipeline patrol.  

So she worked harder.  And by 19 she was teaching men to fly, having earned her Multi-Engine, Instrument, Flight Instructor, and Ground Instructor ratings, and Airline Transport license.  At 21 her flying skills were respected enough that she was delivering fighter planes and bombers to foreign air forces all over the world.

In her free time Jerrie set new world records for speed, distance, and absolute altitude. 

1959 was her breakout year, as Cobb was named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association, became one of the few female executives in aviation (taking a position with Aero Design and Engineering Company), and took part in a privately funded research program that came to be known as ‘Mercury 13.’ 

Could women be astronauts?  The records of 700 veteran women aviators were reviewed by Dr. Richard Lovelace who had helped develop the physiological tests for NASA’s astronauts.  In the end 13 women pilots passed the Phase 1 testing, three of those were able to take and pass Phase II, but only Jerrie Cobb was able to pass all three phases of testing the male astronauts had been given---including tests typical to a physical exam, exhaustion and respiration tests, response to electric shock and induced vertigo, and aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft.

In other words, Jerrie could do what any male astronaut could do.

She wrote to President Kennedy and then flew to Washington to meet with Vice President Johnson, to advocate for women being allowed to join NASA.  In 1962 women were still barred from entrance to Air Force training schools, preventing them from becoming test pilots of military jets---a requirement for NASA astronauts.   A special congressional sub-committee was convened in July of 1962, two years before the Civil Rights Act, and the issue of discrimination was debated.  However, in the end no action was taken by Congress. 

Less than a year later, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. NASA would take sixteen years to catch up, finally opening its doors to women in 1978 with six astronaut candidates, including Sally Ride.

Jerrie Cobb would go on to work for over thirty years flying humanitarian missions---delivering supplies to indigenous tribes, and surveying remote areas to facilitate aid.  Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, and Peru have all honored Jerrie for her service, and in 1981 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her charitable efforts.

At 95 years-old, this trailblazer doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.  “I have this feeling that life is a spiritual adventure, and I want to make mine in the sky."

Jerrie Cobb is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Pere Jaques de Jesus (Lucien Bunel)

A Roman Catholic priest in the Carmelite Order Pere Jacques de Jesus (born Lucien Bunel) founded and served as the Headmaster of the Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus, a boarding school in Avon, France for boys, in 1934.  When World War II broke out, he was conscripted into the French Army, but after France’s surrender he returned to his school---and joined the French Resistance.

Because of his authority as Headmaster, he was able to hide young men from being conscripted into the Nazi labor force.  And in 1943 he began hiding Jews as well.  Three Jewish boys were accepted as students under assumed names, and a fourth was added as a worker.  Jacques also arranged for a local Jewish botanist, Lucien Weil, to be added to the school’s faculty.

However, a year later the Gestapo learned of the priest’s efforts from an informant and arrested him along with the four boys.  As Pere Jacques was led away by the soldiers, he turned to his students and smiled, ''Au revoir, et a bientot''  (“Goodbye, and see you soon”).  The students, in a remarkable act of bravery, applauded their Headmaster even as the Nazis shouted for them to stop.

A month later the Gestapo took the botanist and his family into custody as well.  The boys and the Weil family were sent to Auschwitz where they died. 

Jacques was sent to several different concentration camps, before finally ending up at Mauthausen-Gusen, a notoriously sever labor camp where he ministered to all the prisoners.  When the Nazis attempted to round up the priests in the camp to send them to Dachau, reportedly less demanding then Mauthausen-Gusen, Jacques hid his priestly identity.  Thus he was able to continue his pastoral work and help lead the resistance efforts in the camp.  He was the only priest for the 20,000 prisoners.

Mauthausen-Gusen was one of the last concentration camps to be liberated by the American forces in May of 1945.  By then Pere Jacques, his body compromised by tuberculosis, weighed only 75 pounds.  He was immediately hospitalized but died less than a month later.

In 1985 Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, honored Père Jacques de Jesus as “Righteous Among the Nations” for his efforts to save Jews as Headmaster of his school.

The film director Louis Malle, who as an eleven year-old student at the Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus actually witnessed Pere Jacques’ arrest, memorialized his story in the 1987 movie Au Revoir Les Enfants.

The cause for the canonization of Pere Jacques de Jesus, who lived up to his name, was opened by the Catholic Church in 1990.

He is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.