Monday, December 9, 2013

The Necklace

The passing of President Nelson Mandela has me pondering the legacy of one of the greatest men of all time and my personal hero.
 A few years before Mandela was released from prison, I traveled through Africa.  In Cape Town, I met a white nurse who ran medical clinics in the shanty town of Khayelitsha.  Despite racist taunts from others, the nurse had chosen to help ease the pain and suffering of black South Africans who had been segregated into a sprawling city of corrugated iron and tarpaulin roofed shacks - a place most of her white neighbors had never even dared to drive by. In the townships, mothers and children who visited her clinic learned to look into her heart to see the goodness there, instead of fearing the color of her skin.  On the day I joined her, fear stuck in my throat along with dust as we were enveloped in a swirling dirt cloud from an oncoming armored government vehicle.  As we unloaded her supplies my fear quickly dissipated when women carrying babies on their hips and backs hurried up the path to the clinic to greet her.
When I decided to travel solo through South Africa, I was warned by white people that ‘the blacks’ would necklace me with a burning tire. On the contrary; whenever I picked up African women who were hitchhiking with bundles piled on their heads, we’d travel together through the Drakensberg Mountains and African hinterlands into their towns and villages where my rental car was often swarmed by hundreds of children. I was welcomed into dirt-floored homes to drink and eat as if I were a long lost member of the family.  Whenever I left a village, I was a white speck of dust among the sea of dark faces waving me goodbye and the only necklace around my neck was a thin gold chain given to me by my parents.
The people I met had every reason to take revenge on a white face given the violence and hatred that had been imposed on them, but they showed me only kindness and thankfulness for the rare encounter.  Little did they know, it was their laughter and courage that touched my heart.
As a business leader, I was inspired to follow some of Mr. Mandela’s leadership principles, but it was his ability to make peace with his enemy that truly astounded me. His principle of reconciliation without bitterness has allowed the South African nation to evolve beyond hatred and has influenced how we think about justice and new beginnings.  In an interview with the New York Times in 2007, Mr Mandela was asked how he was able to keep his hatred in check given his barbarous treatment. His answer -  Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.  

Sisters Serafia Adela Rosolinska (left)
& Kornelia Jankowska (bottom) -
 Righteous of Nations.
Nelson Mandela’s legacy for our world seems particularly poignant in the light of a notification that I received not long ago from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  In line with the core goal of Yad Vashem to recognize those who risked much to save Jews,  “Righteous of Nations” medals will be awarded posthumously to people who saved my mother and sheltered members of my family during the German Occupation of Poland.  Two Righteous of Nations awards will go to Catholic sisters who cared for my mother and a third to Mrs. Maria Kaczyńska, the brave woman who risked her life to take my mother, a small Jewish child, into her home where some months later my grandmother Irena was shot by the gestapo. A fourth award is pending for Mr. Talikowski, who smuggled food and money into the Warsaw Ghetto to my family and helped my mother escape during the period of the deportations to Treblinka.
 Were it not for these brave souls who dared to resist, I would not be writing this blog post. It is not only my mother and brothers and sister who owe our lives to them, but all of us for whom they have set a high bar. I like to think that courage like theirs is the kind that President Mandela asked us to emulate.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...