The Passion of Ginetta Sagan


Of all the people I’ve known as a journalist and a friend, I most admired Ginetta Sagan. Her life actually exemplified what the Socialist labor leader Eugene Debs said: “while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” That sounds phony, but Ginetta lived it.

Her passion was human rights—not the slogan, but individual names and prisons throughout the world. She would telephone me from time to time: “We must do something for —”

All I could do was write, but Ginetta, through her worldwide personal contacts, stayed on the case as long as it took, and often wherever it took her. She was not politically selective in exposing official brutality. Whether the country claimed to be “progressive” or was fascist in intent, if not in name, she nailed the jailers and torturers and their chiefs of state.

On August 25, Ginetta Sagan died of cancer in her home in Atherton, California. She was 75. She bore her illness, like all the other dislocations of her life, with enthusiasm for resistance, and with wit. When we talked during her last years, it was still about her job, getting people out of prison.

Ginetta was first imprisoned when she was 19, in Italy, where she was born. Two years before, in 1942, she had begun working for the Northern Italian Resistance, as a courier bringing clothing and food coupons to Jews hiding from the fascists. In 1943, her parents—both physicians and both part of the resistance—were arrested. Her father was executed, and her mother was sent to a death camp from which she never returned.

Ginetta, despite her grief, went to work for another underground network, the Giustizia e Libertà party. Printing and distributing pamphlets, she was known in the resistance as Topolino (“Little Mouse”).

In 1945, someone who had infiltrated the resistance movement betrayed Ginetta. For 45 days, she was beaten, sexually assaulted, and tortured by electric shocks and other devices. This, of course, was an organic part of her “interrogation,” but she did not break.

One day, a guard tossed a small loaf of bread into her cell. There was a matchbox in the loaf, and inside was a message—one word, coraggio (courage). That message stayed in her mind ever after, whenever she heard of other prisoners who had come to believe that no one knew where they were, and no one would ever know.

Ginetta’s execution was set for April 23, 1945. On that date, the resistance—with the help of two German officers—smuggled her out of prison. She celebrated that day for the rest of her life.

Ginetta came to America in 1951, and over time helped to found Amnesty International USA. (Amnesty International’s headquarters is in London. It has 1.1 million members, 290,000 of them in the U.S.)

She now knew her vocation. Ginetta was married, and I came to know her husband, Dr. Leonard Sagan, who also felt the call to bring courage to long-forgotten political prisoners in many countries.

I first knew Ginetta through Joan Baez, who has also long been active in Amnesty International—and sometimes, like Ginetta, at a risk to her own freedom. Joan and Ginetta became aware of the barbarous prisons that the victorious North Vietnamese had set up after the Vietnam War. Put in cages were not only South Vietnamese who had fought against the North, but also Buddhists, labor leaders, and other advocates of freedom of conscience (a crime against the Communist government).

Ginetta, Joan, and I had been involved from the beginning in the resistance to American involvement in that war, and some of our comrades were furious that we would now publicly criticize the very government and people to whom this country had caused so much death and suffering.

However, as Joan would say to our belligerent critics, “To a prisoner, it doesn’t matter what the name of the government is that hired his or her torturer.”

In the Voice of February 28, 1977, I wrote—despite internal attempts to prevent publication—a very long article detailing the rampant cruelty and other brutal conditions of life in the Vietnamese “reeducation” camps. Some of that information came from Ginetta Sagan, and the rest I got from my own sources in and out of Amnesty International.

Because of the publicity generated by Joan, Ginetta, and Amnesty, there was some improvement in those gulags; but I remember Ginetta later sent me a map of reeducation camps still in existence, along with the names of some of those still imprisoned.

Ginetta kept on the job. On one of her rescue trips in Eastern Europe, she barely escaped death in a car “accident.” She had been involved in putting pressure on a government to release its “subversive” prisoners, and as a result, there had been unwelcome attention to the regime. “That was no accident,” Ginetta told me with a scornful laugh.

Her message of coraggio seemed to be everywhere—roiling the junta in Greece, Pinochet in Chile, the Polish government trying to crush the Solidarity Movement, and those trying to stamp out democracy in the Philippines.

She picked up some honors—the Presidential Medal of Freedom here; from the Italian government, the Grand Ufficiale del Mèrito Della Repùbblica. Two years ago, as a result of her support for the Solidarity Movement, Ginetta addressed the World Congress of Human Rights under the auspices of the Polish parliament.

There was one award she treasured. I remember how excited she was when she told me about it. A few years ago, Amnesty International USA began giving an annual Ginetta Sagan award to individuals who do exemplary work for the human rights of women and children. She also established her own Aurora Foundation, which documents assaults on human rights anywhere.

The last time we spoke, Ginetta wanted, of course, to call my attention to others of the forgotten. Anyone who would like to be part of her continuing work can contact Amnesty International USA, 322 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10001. You can bring coraggio.