Thursday, August 6, 2009

Safe At Home

As everyone knows, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years of labor & re-education in North Korea a few weeks ago. From what I've read, it sounds as if they were likely snatched from the Chinese side of the N. Korea/Chinese border, but no one really knows what happened except for the women themselves and the incredibly scary N. Korean government.

Now, in a completely movie-ready turn of events, Big Daddy Bill Clinton flew to North Korea, met with crazypants dictator Kim Jong Il, swept Ling and Lee into Steve Bing's private loaner jet, and brought them home to their relieved and happy families. Yay! The pictures of their arrival at the Burbank airport are lovely and joyful. I may be jumping the gun a bit, but I really want to read the Ling sisters' inevitable book, and will totally watch the movie on whichever cable network it airs.

For me, though, this is pretty much where the happy ends.

I know this is going to come off as unspeakably glass half empty of me, or like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, when he said, "I can't enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening." I know we should all be really happy and everything, but when Lee and Ling were sentenced a few weeks ago, I spent a really depressing couple of days reading eye witness testimony about the N. Korean gulag system, which, I'm ashamed to say, I really knew nothing about prior to Lee and Ling's trial. The two young journalists didn't wind up in a labor camp. They are American, and therefore valuable. That, at least, is the perception most Americans have of themselves in relation to the world. Amidst all the celebrating, I really hope that people don't lose sight of the fact that nothing has changed. The N. Korean gulags are still going strong. If you want your week ruined, take a little time and read about what they are like.

Which started me thinking abut other Special Prisoners (as we'll call them for the purposes of this post). In 1944, Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, sister of NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who was living in Budapest with her hungarian husband at the time of the Nazi invasion, was arrested as a political prisoner and sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. This was by no means easy. The conditions were brutal, but compared to the fate of most other Jews (including her husband, who died in the gas chambers at Mauthausen), she was placed in comparative safety - because as the sister of an influential American politician, she might wind up being useful. Gemma survived and finally managed to emigrate to the US with her children. She did not have an easy war, but her status as an American did likely save her life.

A much more squirrely prospect in every way was Gluck’s fellow Ravensbrück Special Prisoner, the Polish Countess Karolina Lanckorońska. She was an aristocrat, an art historian and a fierce Polish nationalist. She was a really admirable character in many ways – she was fearless, generous and an intellectual patron of the arts. When first arrested after the German invasion of Poland for her Resistance work, her reply to the Gestapo was, “Not just now, I don’t have time for this.” Under Gestapo questioning, when she was asked, “Are you an enemy of the German Reich?”, she replied, “Yes, obviously.” She was sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted. She bounced around various German prisons, finally being sent to Ravensbrück, where she was given a nice apartment and plenty of food, as she was under the protection of the Italian Royal family and, reportedly, Himmler. She gave away her food to her fellow prisoners, and insisted she be allowed to join the general population. After a hunger strike, her wish was granted. In her memoirs, she rhapsodized about the great joy she felt when she entered the camp proper, as she felt it to be a deep insult to be treated differently from her fellow Polish prisoners. One can’t help but think this might be a bit disingenuous. She did lots of good work in the camp – she educated, she organized, she used her special status to help her fellow prisoners. She was also casually anti-Semitic (duh), truly saw herself as a modern day Christian martyr launching a glorious Middle Ages-style crusade of righteousness (her words,, although I am paraphrasing) and her views about what the war was all about (Polish patriots v. German invaders. End of story.) was slightly, ahem, narrow. Also, one wonders how much of her unbelievable bravery (at one point she seemed so unconcerned for her own safety, a cellmate thought she was a madwoman) was due to the fact that she somehow believed, as a Polish aristocrat, that she was a god among mortals.

Which brings me back to Americans' view of themselves, particularly abroad. It feels a bit odd to say this view of being inviolate is that of white, middle class Americans when the women whose plight began all this are of Asian descent, but maybe not as it's really a question of class, as the Polish Countess would have been happy to tell you. It's American exceptionalism brought to the individual level. I guess what I'm trying to get at is that as happy as I am that Ling and Lee are home and safe, I can't get it out of my head that there are thousands of men, women and children who are currently suffering the fate we feared would befall the two Americans. Even Jon Stewart last night made a joke about the camps (saying that they would have likely been put to work manufacturing toys for Chinese children while showing stock footage of a clean, happy looking Asian factory) which, from all the testimony I've read, is just insulting. This is a subject very, very few Americans know anything about and now that the two Americans are safe, we can go back to making jokes and ignoring the suffering of these thousands of people. I know I'm coming off as shrill and humorless, but the word I choose to use for women like Lee and Ling and the Polish Countess isn't "special", but "lucky".

1 comment:

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Yeah, the NoKo camps are a unique center of horror, and have been for *decades*. There are reports of N.K. refugees who snuck across the border to China in the mid-70s and were stunned into seizures, like Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson, at the freedom and prosperity saw around them. In China. In the 70s. Brrrrr.