Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a number of books, but out walking this morning I was thinking about his “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and I seem to recall the story had to do with Ivan walking either up or down eight steps.And as my thoughts rambled through my head, I was feeling what an emotional week it has been, with my granddaughter’s first walking steps, being separated from Howard, especially on Valentines- but made more emotional by the individual photos displayed of the lives taken of the adolescents murdered in Florida by a disgruntled student,
Yet as I am always aware, there are threads of good and evil everywhere, and the heroism of the teachers shielding their students and dying in their place makes one gasp: that in those ultimate terrible seconds, they reacted, ignoring demands for self preservation to shield others: defiant acts to counteract the overpowering presence of horror.
Last night I went with friends to watch a film called Act of Defiance. It centred on an unsung hero too, Bram Fischer, the legal defence for Nelson Mandela and nine other defendants at the Rivonia Trial in 1964 in South Africa. Discovered at the trial was that the well respected counsel Fischer was , as well, the head of the SACP ( South African Communist Party). On the surface, this Afrikaner lead a life of privilege from a distinguished family, his wife the niece of Jan Smuts who supported discriminatory acts. Yet Molly, Fischer’s wife, and Fischer himself worked tirelessly towards the implementation of a better world. He wrote, “
What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow. Appalling bloodshed and civil war will become inevitable because, as long as there is oppression of a majority, such oppression will be fought with increasing hatred…”
Although the movie by the Dutch filmmaker Jan Van de Velde garnered many awards, it moved – for me- almost laboriously to present the story. Yet there were scenes that fleshed out the Fischers’ characters with their children, revealing a depth of moral feeling in both public and private situations that illuminated the deep love the couple shared for state, justice and one another. Fischer’s double life could have been the topic of a Jean LeCarre novel: from courtroom to collusion with anti- apartheid groups and arrangements to procure passports out of the country for dissidents to dinners at the bar association and country club. My friends and I had never heard his name although we were familiar with Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman and Nadine Gordimer. I had read Andre Brink’s A Chain of Voices years ago and heard his intensely emotional interview about returning home to vote against apartheid. As many films do, this one expanded our education, filling in gaps, amplifying events, detailing historical information, providing a semblance of the times, struggles and persons.
And when I taught my post colonial literature course I had shown my students Dry White Season and Cry Freedom that focused on Steve Biko. I have written about experiencing first hand the photos of the open fire on school children protesting against sub standard education and books written in their own language in the museum next to Hector Pieterson’s Memorial in Soweto. One has to marvel at children and all of the people of conscience who defied the laws of their country when the majority of the population submitted. Of course, included in these brave behaviours are those who hid Jews during the holocaust, putting themselves and families at risk.
The questions regarding freedoms and rights and justice become more twisted in regard to Israel. A second film I viewed this week, An Israeli Love Story by Dan Wolman , bases its story on another important struggle, but moves the conflicts into a romance between a rising actress and her kibbutznik boyfriend Eli, son of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s 2nd president. In 1947, the Jews were finally allowed a homeland; armed resistance against the British and the Palestinians substantiates the political backdrop for this awakening of first love. In both films, Wolman and Van de Velde’s, the protagonists fight for justice not readily espoused or accepted by the status quo. In both films the people caught up in politics decide to choose to overthrow societal rigours and proceed to change. If we are honest, we will admit the difficulty and pose the question,”What would I do?” After the fact and the struggles, it is easier to cheer those who have participated. But truly, how far would you go to alter circumstance? With the “Pussy”and #MeToo marches and rallies, there is communal support, groups standing with linked arms, challenging and demanding. And so we have seen, finally, charges brought against offenders.and better late than never…
I’m thinking about what each person needs. (My grandfather used to say you could only wear one suit at a time) . But terribly at present, South Africa heads towards a country without water, a country emerging from years of corruption, and discrimination, a country so beautiful with its vistas, landscapes and natural wonder it dazzles the mind and gives one pause, pondering the disconnect between the physical beauty and the ugliness of most men who have governed there.
And the number of students gunned down in the states makes one shake at the madness of the world to allow citizens to carry guns for their own protection. On 60 Minutes, Kristen Gillibrand who replaced Hillary Clinton as senator for New York, actually voiced awareness that after speaking with and listening to victims of violence she had changed her mind, out right admitting she had been wrong to support laws allowing people to carry guns. To hear a politician opening admit and publicly change a stance was mesmerizing. So everywhere there have been and are tiny rays of hope peeping through the darkness.
As I write this after the movies and the killings, I wonder at myself to seize the good in the midst of doom:for I am no Pollyanna, much more glass half- empty than half- full. I surprise myself that I focus on the heroes not the villains. But if our children and grandchildren are to persist in a world, we should turn our eyes to the possible. With the incredible feats of the Olympics( although set in a landscape that could be Post- nuclear with its crags, cold and bareness!), especially the prowess and elegance of the skating pairs, we can imagine better and beautiful, what is good in the human, echoing the child Anne Frank.
My husband upon watching our grandsons, reflected that he wished we would be around to see how their stories end , where their lives will take them, what kind of men they will become, what paths they will follow. My son countered, “ The stories never end…” Let’s hope so.