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


ATHERTON, Calif. — 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.

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