One reason we can’t all be heroes, the American humorist Will Rogers wrote, is that “somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” In a society obsessed with fame, trying to define the difference between celebrity and heroism gets confusing when the words are used interchangeably. A nice thing about Wayne Gretzky is that he doesn’t call himself a hero, though others do. He understands he’s a fine role model who makes millions doing something he loves—and that’s it. Real heroes are ordinary people who react to extraordinary circumstances with breathtaking bravery. At a traditional time of year for reflection, remember and recognize lesser-known heroes for what they are. Here are five of mine:
• Father Angelo Panigati In 1990, Afghanistan was torn by civil war—and Panigati, a Roman Catholic priest, was marking 25 years in Kabul, the capital. As an Italian diplomat, he was the most prominent of the few Westerners left— and a frequent target of death threats from Muslim extremists. He held mass each Sunday, playing hymns on a portable organ. Several minutes before our first meeting, a mortar had landed nearby and blown out the church windows—“again,” he sighed, as a chill February wind swept in. Multilingual, well-read and worldly, he liked to recite lines from his collection of Broadway theatre scripts. He repeatedly rejected offers to transfer to more peaceful locales. By then in his late 60s, he spoke several Afghan dialects, and moved about without protection or worry. “God will provide,” he said, when asked about his safety, “on this earth, or beyond.”
• Boleslaw Szenicer At the start of the decade, Poland’s Jewish community, which numbered 3.5 million people before the Second World War, had fallen to 7,000. One was Szenicer, the sole full-time employee ofWarsaw’s 200-year-old Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery. Through the slaughter of three million Polish Jews in the Holocaust, and a postwar exodus, Szenicer’s father, Pinchas, stayed on, determined to keep the cemetery open. After his death, Boleslaw, then in his mid-30s, resisted entreaties to join a brother in Israel. On most days, the cemetery was so bereft of visitors that the only signs of life were pheasants and hares moving among the 300,000 burial plots. The job was not what Boleslaw wanted to do in life, but he had no plans to leave. If he did so, he asked rhetorically, “who would bury the rest of the Jews ?’
• Asir Semyonovich Sandler On Dec. 12, 1941, Sandler answered a knock at his apartment door in Baku, in the thenSoviet republic of Azerbaijan—and his life changed forever. For reasons never given, two secret policemen arrested him. Accused of being “anti-Stalinist,” he was sentenced to 10 years
in a Siberian labour camp. He never saw his pregnant wife again or the son she produced. When he was released, his weight had dropped from 152 to 92 lb., and he was ordered to remain in the region. He kept a secret diary. When we met in the Siberian town of Magadan in 1989, it was his first encounter, at age 72, with a Westerner. “I am a man with two lives,” he said sadly, “the life I lived, and the life I planned.” Frail and withered, he was writing his memoirs, which he said would be “my only contribution to the next generation, for I leave nothing else behind.” He was not bitter—with one exception. Of communism, he said: “Anyone who wants to understand its effects needs only to hear my story.” He died soon after we met, the manuscript unfinished.
• Sgt.-Maj. Charlie Martin (ret.) Anyone who met Charlie Martin in 1994 saw a soft-spoken churchgoer from Mississauga, Ont., father of two sons, and husband of more than 50 years to wife Vi. Fifty years earlier, he was one of the Queen’s Own Rifles—part of the first wave to hit Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was astonishingly brave: once, the five-foot, seven-inch Martin dragged a wounded six-foot, 200-lb. comrade back to their lines—with a prisoner in tow. He won the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal. He hated war, wept at the graves of fallen mates when he returned in 1994, and downplayed his exploits. He was, he insisted, “just one of thousands” of Canadians in like circumstances. He died in 1997 at 79; his greatest legacy was the peace he and others of his era fought so hard to achieve.
• Lew Harris In the spring of 1998, Lew Harris, a journalist at The Gazette in Montreal, described himself with uncharacteristic hyperbole as “the most contented man in the world.” The cause was his beloved wife of nearly 12 years, Marian Scott, and their two sons, Benjamin and Samuel. Shortly after, he saw a doctor for suspected heartburn. The diagnosis was inoperable cancer. He approached his illness with courage and humour, joking: “I’m taking bets on who lasts longer in Montreal, me or the Expos.” He continued to work as he underwent debilitating treatments. He spent hours talking with his family about life with and without him. For a while, Lew seemed in remission, and the few months he was expected to live turned into more than a year. When the illness took over, with time running out, he called friends to reminisce, and say goodbye. He died in October, aged 51. The manner in which he prepared to do so taught everyone who knew him to better appreciate every day of life.
This New Year’s Day in particular, be thankful for a world that produces such people.
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