Soldier of Conscience : Victim of Nazis Has Devoted Her Life to Freeing Political Prisoners


On April 23, 1945, Ginetta Sagan was rescued from a Nazi torture chamber.

Two Germans impersonating Gestapo agents dragged her off the floor of the interrogation room and threw her into a car. In sinister silence, they drove the 20-year-old Italian Resistance fighter not to the execution she was expecting, but to a local hospital.

They handed her over to the Mother Superior without a word and drove off. Sagan never saw them again. Nearly two months of starvation, rape and torture had left her skeletal. But she was alive.

Sagan celebrates the 45th anniversary of her personal liberation this month. But unlike some victims who wanted only to forget, Sagan has devoted much of her life to seeing that other prisoners are not forgotten.


She has lobbied for the release of prisoners of conscience in Greece, Chile, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Vietnam--both before and after the Communist victory. She helped launch Amnesty International on the West Coast, funneled money to Lech Walesa and started a human rights group of her own, the Aurora Foundation in Atherton. And for more than a decade, she has been involved in controversial work involving alleged human rights abuses in Vietnam.

“I think she has probably organized more people than anyone else in the human rights movement globally,” said David Hinkley, a former West Coast director of Amnesty International. “She really is the one who got Amnesty International off the ground in this country.

“In a way, she’s an embodiment of the human rights movement,” Hinkley added. “The human rights movement as we know it today was born out of the Holocaust and World War II. It was a product of people saying, ‘This is never going to happen again if I have anything to do about it.’ ”

After the war, Sagan said she spent two years in and out of hospitals, healing physically and slowly conquering a deep depression. She attended the Sorbonne, then went to the University of Chicago to study medicine but instead met and married Leonard Sagan, a physician and public health expert. They have three children and three grandchildren.

Sagan, now 65, is small, plump (a reaction, she says, to having been starved), and favors high-necked clothing that covers her scars. She is reportedly a fabulous cook, who held back-yard barbecues and once taught cooking to suburban homemakers to raise money for Amnesty. And she has a sun room filled with dozens of flowering orchids.

She loves to tell stories, in a rollicking Italian accent, about the brave exploits of her comrades in the Resistance.


The doors and windows to Sagan’s home were flung open to the sun on a recent afternoon. Books and papers in French, English and Italian carpeted four different desks and filled several large bureaus. Underneath a dining room table, also eclipsed by papers and boxes of fund-raising letters, a neighbor’s cat was snoozing on an Oriental rug.

Life as a human rights activist has not always been so serene. Indeed, although Sagan insists her mission is not political, she has by turns been glorified and ostracized by both the American right and left.

In the early 1970s, while on a national tour to publicize abuses in the Vietnamese prisons of the American-backed Thieu regime, she remembers she was called a traitor and “Commie sympathizer,” was pelted with tomatoes and received “unpleasant” phone calls.

Later, Sagan learned that some of the Vietnamese who had provided her with information about abuses by the Thieu regime had been tortured and died in Communist jails. But when she began to document mistreatment of Vietnamese “re-education camp” prisoners, former allies in the anti-war movement turned against her. There were death threats and letters suggesting she was a CIA agent.

“I was called time after time a ‘fascist,’ and a ‘cold warrior,’ for doing this study of the re-education camps, by some of the same people with whom I worked on human rights issues in Chile, in Brazil, in South Africa,” Sagan said.

Some liberals believed Sagan had been duped into giving credence to the prediction by the right that a Communist takeover would lead to a blood bath.

By the early 1980s, her admirers included conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita), and the Readers’ Digest Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation, among others, have supported her work on Vietnam. So, she says, have European friends, most of whom are socialists.

Sagan continues to earn praise from unlikely opposites. Singer Joan Baez is a longtime friend and ally. Former President Ronald Reagan singled her out for praise on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 1986, and the next year she was awarded the Jefferson Award for public service.

Sagan says some former critics have come around to her point of view; other friends still have not forgiven her. She remains relentlessly cheerful--a childhood trait.

“She’s been a torture victim and she’s been in contact with people who have been through the tortures of the damned all her life,” Hinkley said. “But she knows that you have to keep living.”

Sagan’s views are not altered by the varied reaction to her work. She insists that the ideology of a torturer matters little to his victim.

“I am too busy to bother with people who have preferential countries,” she said. “I think they have every right to their beliefs, and I will go to any lengths to defend them.

“However, my only duty is one, careful documentation, and two, I have my duty to the victims. Many of those people have commitments to governments . . . governments of the left, governments of the right. They have a list of rationalizations, reasons for why you should only work for prisoners in this country or that.

“We must remember them all,” she added. “We cannot be selective in our outrage.”

Sagan was raised in Milan, the daughter of two doctors who worked quietly in the anti-fascist movement. Her mother was a Polish-born Jew; long before the war began, her father, an Italian Catholic, arranged fake papers to give his daughter a safe, Christian identity. It would later save her life.

Politics invaded her earliest memories. She recalls her parents warning friends to leave Germany, and her father telling her, when the news came that Adolf Hitler had invaded Austria, “That man is going to destroy all of Europe, and then he will destroy himself.”

By age 16, she was working as a courier for the Resistance, carrying messages and ferrying paper to feed clandestine presses. They called her “Topolino,” or “little mouse.” Gradually, she took more risks, such as disguising herself as a cleaning girl to get into government offices to pilfer stationery for use to forge papers or to make wax imprints of seals.

Her parents had arranged with a servant to put a warning sign in the window if police ever came to search the home. She came home one day and spotted the sign in the window.

“Then I saw this black car in front of the house, and I knew,” she said. “So I just had to walk away.”

At first, she slept in a bombed-out building. Then the underground took her in.

Later, she learned her father had been driven out to a field, told to walk away from the car and shot in the back. He was listed as an “attempted escape.”

“That’s why I’m so familiar with the so-called ‘attempted escape’ assassinations that dictators carry out in so many countries,” Sagan said, adding that any reports of political prisoners’ deaths from escapes or suicides should be immediately investigated.

Her mother was reportedly sent to Auschwitz, where she is believed to have died.

“You have to realize that these are very ordinary stories,” Sagan said. Her stories are punctuated by telephone calls, questions from a young volunteer, and the arrival of a Catholic nun who is helping Sagan sort through her papers (Stanford University has asked her to donate documents about the early years of Amnesty).

Sagan’s own horror story began after two Resistance friends were captured. She was sent from Milan into the mountains to learn whether the partisans had captured any Germans who might be traded in a hostage swap. Along the way, she heard rumors that the police were looking for someone fitting her description--rumors she thinks began with a Florentine informer.

She had planned to walk back, but her feet were so swollen that she took the bus. She fell asleep. When she awoke, the bus was in a square full of officers of the Black Brigade.

She was interrogated mainly by Italians but also a few times by Germans. She said she later learned her captors had recruited criminals to work in the torture chambers. “What they did was to destroy the dossier of prisoners who were socio-sexual psychopaths, in exchange for them doing their dirty work. This had never happened in Italy before.”

She prefers not to discuss the details.

“It was awful, but I wanted to survive. That was for me a driving, driving force. . . . I didn’t want to disappear like a grain of dust or sand. . . . I wanted to tell the story if I possibly could.”

What anger remains she seems to have reserved for informants. “I have utter contempt for people who betray people. . . . The informer is the first step leading to the physical and sometimes emotional destruction of decent human beings.”

Although Sagan has focused on the humane treatment of prisoners, she also stresses economic justice and is fond of remarking, “Human rights begin at breakfast.” She also remains committed to nonviolence.

“I will not hesitate to work for victims whether they are peaceful or have used violence,” she said. “But personally I feel . . . violence is not as effective as people think, and . . . violence creates other victims, often creating a circle of violence.

“These people who claim that this is naive confuse nonviolence with passivity,” she added. “There are so many methods, strategies, to achieve the goal of liberation without violence.”

Sagan takes particular joy in the peaceful democratization of Eastern Europe, which has also boosted the fortunes of some of the former “jail birds” she helped. She counts among her close friends, for example, the dissident Czech journalist Karel Kyncl, who signed the Charter 77 Human Rights Manifesto and was exiled to London in 1982.

Earlier this month, “he and his wife went back to Prague for the first time--aboard the presidential plane” of another former jailbird, Vaclav Havel, a playwright who is now the Czech leader, Sagan said. “I was so delighted!”

The Sagans headed back to Poland this month at the invitation of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, the Polish-born Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical heiress. Sagan said Johnson, who has quietly donated more than $100,000 to the Aurora Foundation to support Sagan’s work for Solidarity and on behalf of human rights, had promised to exhibit her private collection of religious art in Poland if her homeland were free.

She recalled that she was walking around the exhibit, on display at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, when she said out loud, “ ‘Do you realize we don’t have to worry about anybody following us around?’ And everybody cracked up.”

Sagan’s memories of Poland haven’t always been so fond. Two years ago, she was driving to Auschwitz with a Polish dissident when the steering mechanism mysteriously failed and the car spun out of control.

The resulting crash cost her the use of a shoulder, a disability that has limited her cooking, traveling, typing and even looking after her orchids.

Nevertheless, she tells the story with a certain Italian-accented glee. It seems the dissident, Zbigniew Romaszewski, a physicist and Solidarity leader once tried for plotting to overthrow the Polish government, has now been elected senator. He believes the car was tampered with, says Sagan, and he plans to look into the matter.

“I am a survivor,” she said happily, showing a visitor grisly snapshots taken at the accident scene. “I have my life twice! Twice!”

There have been other brushes with intrigue and danger. On the day that leftist Chilean President Salvador Allende was assassinated--but before the news media reported his death--Sagan said she was approached in the Los Angeles airport by a Latino man who told her, “We got Allende, and if you don’t stop that crap in Latin America, we’ll get you, too.” The next morning, the phone rang, and a tape recording in Italian informed her of the death. Later, she said, a similar recording advised her to look into what was going on in the National Stadium in Santiago, which turned out to have been used as a detention and torture center.

Her home was broken into twice in the 1980s; files, calendars, itineraries and address books were taken.

The controversy is not over. After a decade of work, Sagan has finally published her 150-page report on violation of human rights in Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The report is based on interviews with more than 800 former re-education camp prisoners now living in the Philippines, France and the United States.

By systematically cross-checking their stories against survivors of the same camps, and against reports from European journalists and intelligence officials--some of them old friends from the Resistance--Sagan has compiled a devastating dossier of abuse, torment and degradation.

“The hope that (former prisoners) place in having the world know what has happened and do something about it is unbelievable,” she said.

One of her fiercest critics, John McAuliff, formerly of the American Friends Service Committee and now director of the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project, said recently that he has not read the report.

But McAuliff said that, over the years, he has doubted the reliability of Sagan’s information on Vietnam, which he called “simply more extreme than other accounts we were hearing, both in terms of numbers (of prisoners) and in terms of treatment.”

Countered Sagan: “I have so many details. But it doesn’t matter how many details you give these people, they will never believe it. Just like people didn’t believe the Nazi camps.”

Nevertheless, Sagan, who has sometimes given inspirational speeches at Joan Baez concerts, hopes her efforts will inspire a new generation to continue the fight.

“Many people believe the job is done,” she said. “It isn’t.”

In every country, she said, it is the best minds and the most principled people who see the faults in repressive governments first, and, therefore, are targeted first; they also are precisely the people who can most help their countries and must be saved.

Sagan thinks it can be done.

“I believe in a happy world,” she said.