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People Making Headlines in 2001


Home Page > Articles in English > People 2001


Italy: Giorgio Perlasca

Indonesia: Atmakusumah Astraatmadja

Australia: Charles Perkins

Brazil: Marta Suplicy

China: Jin Xing

Germany: Hans Mayer



From the January 2001 issue of World Press Review

Giorgio Perlasca:
Italian Wallenberg

By Tekla Szymanski

giorgio perlascaHe was an Italian fascist who fought on the side of General Francisco Franco in Guernica, then changed his beliefs and, while posing as Spanish attaché for Franco in occupied Budapest, saved thousands of Jews from certain death.

Budapest, 1943: Giorgio Perlasca, posing as the city's Spanish attaché, protects two Jewish boys on their way to deportation by letting them sit in his limousine. German officers protest but are powerless in light of Perlasca's immunity.

A man watches the scene—Raoul Wallenberg. "Do you know who you just took on?" he later asks Perlasca, and points to one of the Germans. "That was Adolf Eichmann."

"The Italian Wallenberg, the embodiment of the 'Banality of Good,' " as he is referred to in Italy, was a righteous gentile who was recognized as a war hero only shortly before his death in 1992. Now he will be honored by a documentary being filmed in Hungary. "Perlasca did not seek popularity," writes Gyula Varsanyi in Budapest's Népszabadsag.

"He lived his life in silence. If survivors had not...sought his whereabouts, he might have taken his secret to the grave." Faced with evil, this unpretentious man showed rare humanity. Asked why, he usually responded, "What would you have done in my place?"


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From the January 2001 issue of World Press Review

Atmakusumah Astraatmadja:
Conscience of the Press

By Tekla Szymanski

He is this year's recipient of Indonesia's Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts.

Indonesian journalist Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, 61, has one major subject he feels passionately about: freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of thought. He has devoted much of his life to the independence of the press in his country. Much due to his devotion, Indonesia was transformed from one of the most media-oppressed countries in Southeast Asia to one of the most liberal.

Astraatmadja worked assiduously for a draft media bill—which passed in September 1999—that carried no vestige of the infamous media regulations imposed by the Suharto regime. The landmark bill mandated the creation of an independent National Press Council.

In March, Astraatmadja was elected its first chairman, pledging "moral punishment" to the media and public alike against anybody who sabotages the right to know, hinders the national press's professionalism, and undermines democracy.The council is made up of six media representatives and two from the public (one of the print media representatives is Goenawan Mohamad, World Press Review's International Editor of the Year for 1998).

"Without a moral compass," Astraatmadja was quoted in Hong Kong's Asiaweek, "the press is like a ship that has lost its beacon in dense fog." He seems to be its steamer: As the current executive director of the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute, Astraatmadja now trains young journalists and public-relations officers. However, Indonesia still has a long way to go, he cautions. "The struggle for media freedom is not yet over."



From the January 2001 issue of World Press Review

Charles Perkins:
Australian Gadfly

By Tekla Szymanski

"You learned from when you were a kid to stay out of the way of whites," Charles Perkins always said. The colorful, sharp-tongued Australian Aboriginal leader died Oct. 18 at the age of 64.

"Australia's Martin Luther King" dedicated his life to bringing the plight of Australia's Aborigines to the public conscience. His constant political arm-wrestling with the political establishment over the decades paved the way for the Aborigine Olympic runner Cathy Freeman to light the torch at the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Sydney this year.

Perkins, one of 11 children, was born on a table in an abandoned telegraph office to a white father and an Aboriginal mother. At the age of 10, Charlie was taken to an Anglican hostel in South Australia where he spent his childhood, the basis for his claim that he was one of the "stolen generation"—children who were taken from their parents and placed in the custody of whites. "That," he said, "washed the color out of me."

Known among Aborigines as Uncle Charlie, "the bloke who took up the battle, the tireless freedom fighter, and a pioneer of his people," according to Toronto's Globe and Mail, he was among the first Aborigines to earn a university degree and the first to play professional soccer.

He paved the way for future indigenous leaders by painstakingly climbing the political ladder to become a top-level civil servant, an advocate of reconciliation long before the term became fashionable.

His fight began in 1965, when he led freedom rides into Outback towns to confront segregation and discrimination. From then on, Australia became "a better and fairer place because of him," writes The Globe and Mail. He ended the ban on Aborigine children swimming at public pools, and later, as head of the Department for Aboriginal Affairs, he was the only Aborigine in Parliament, courageously demanding the most basic human rights for his people.

Perkins, married to a German Lutheran and the father of three, was "a true hero," writes his friend John Pilger in London's Guardian, who "went on to win-and lose-many battles." He was a man "given to a certain vehemence in propounding his views, intelligent and argumentative," writes The Times of London. "Never the mute, traditional public servant," according to The Age of Melbourne, "he remained the agitator.He felt that this would make Australia a magic country."

Adds Aden Ridgeway, the only Aborigine in Australia's Parliament today: "Love him or hate him—no one could help but admire the man for his passion."



From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review

Marta Suplicy:
São Paulo's Savvy Mayor

By Tekla Szymanski

São Paulo's mayor, Marta Suplicy, 55, of the leftist Workers' Party, just smiles when called an "ill-brought-up hussy" by conservative friends.

She is rarely seen dressed in anything but a Chanel suit and lives in an elegant home; but she knows how to communicate with the masses. The former sex therapist, who for eight years was the star of a local television program discussing sexual issues that made the right-wing "choke itself with indignation," as the Paris-based L'Express observed, moved into politics when she turned 50.

Last October, she easily won São Paulo's mayoral election with 58 percent of the vote.

Suplicy "moves unhurriedly through the dirt paths [of the city's shantytowns], and does not avoid anyone," according to L'Express. "Never before had a mayor ventured this far into the city's slums. Blond, elegant, vibrant, and full of joy, delicately perfumed, a transparent chemise under a dangerously V-cut vest," she cuts a unique figure in Brazilian politics.

After decades of corrupt city government, Suplicy is promising a cleanup. Left-leaning with close ties to big business, her agenda is socialist: helping the city's 2 million poor and 1 million unemployed, expanding the infrastructure, overcoming the recent energy crisis, and fighting crime—which in 1999 climbed to a staggering 9,000 murders (as compared with 661 in New York), turning parts of São Paulo into a war zone.

Suplicy has emerged as Brazil's key candidate in the country's presidential race scheduled for October 2002. Her media savvy will surely come in handy. "I love people," she says. "Politics isn't simply rubber-stamping paper and debating the budget; it is also trying to change people's minds."



From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review

Jin Xing:
Dancing Golden Star

By Tekla Szymanski

A high-ranking Chinese military officer transforms himself into a transsexual modern-dance icon: This is the life of Jin Xing, 33, a former soldier who after a sex change has become China's most admired dancer.

It sounds like the story line of a sassy soap opera.

Jin is China's "most famous transsexual," whose life achievements "border on the revolutionary [and] overturned traditions long upheld in China," wrote Sylvie Levey in London's Daily Mirror. "High-ranking representatives of the Communist Party, dressed to the nines, pay a fortune to watch her perform from their seats in the front row."

But Jin believes her transsexuality is not the source of her success. Born in Shanghai, Jin Xing ("Golden Star" in Mandarin) exhibited exceptional grace at the age of 4, and, he says, by 6, he knew that he was different from other boys. When he was 9, he staged a hunger strike until he convinced his father, a military man, to allow him to enroll in the Chinese army's dance school.

At 18, after grueling years spent entertaining the nation's troops, he was declared China's best dancer and went on a scholarship to New York. There, he was "introduced to an alternative lifestyle in the gay bars on Broadway," writes Levey. But Jin didn't feel like a homosexual. He felt like a woman.

In 1995, after his sex change, Chinese opera houses overflowed with crowds eager to see this unusual dancer. Tickets went for the equivalent of half the average monthly salary.

"People complain about the system, saying there is too little freedom in China," Jin says. "But there is always enough space to accomplish something incredible."


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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review

Hans Mayer:
A Life for Literature

By Tekla Szymanski

Germany's most prominent literary critic and indefatigable writer has died May 19 at the age of 94.

"I never became the prey," Hans Mayer used to say. He didn't like to be cast in the role of the victim.

A German Jew and a homosexual, Mayer fled Germany in 1933 for Paris because of his involvement with the Socialist left. He survived the war in Switzerland, returned to Germany, and moved to Leipzig, in what was then East Germany, where he taught literature at the university.

But after becoming disillusioned by the communist state, he remained in West Germany following a visit in 1963.

"Mayer was a witness to the century," writes Peter Müller in Zurich's Tages-Anzeiger. "He was a brilliant orator." Christoph Hein in Hamburg's Der Spiegel adds, "He was a man with a backbone. He was a king—even while in exile. He was never bitter. But his pain was ever evident."

His friends formed the Who's Who of German-language literature: Paul Celan, Anna Seghers, Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson (who was Mayer's student in Leipzig), Thomas Mann, Max Frisch, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin. He was "a scholar with an ability to listen," writes Matthias Wegner in Zurich's Neue Zürcher Zeitung. His immense oeuvre included works about Wagner, Aragon, and Sartre; about Judaism, politics, his experiences and observations, but also about Marilyn Monroe.

"Mayer was driven by a vibrant mandarin self-awareness—he was an intellectual charged with historical and political responsibility," observes Lorenz Jäger in Frankfurt's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "He saw himself in the role of the contemporary interlocutor in all things literary and political. Over time, the critical journal-style and contemporary history aspects in his writings melded into a completely unique writing style with only rare emotional outburst."

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany's prominent literary critic, describes Mayer as "the unhappiest man. Exile never became his home, and his home became his exile. He was a scientist with the temperament of a journalist. He was a friend of discourse, an advocate of discussion, and a virtuous polemicist."

On his 94th birthday in March, Mayer hinted that he was ready to die. The frail writer, who was nearly blind, had told his friends with a smile: "I am looking forward to seeing Brecht again."

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