I am a student of history. I am also a true believer in the words of early twentieth century philosopher, George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
You can imagine that I’ve been studying history hard, for the past few weeks. Among the trivia I’ve found is a little-known act of resistance by the Norwegian people. I would like to share this story with you.
In April, 1940, Hitler’s Nazi forces invaded neutral Norway which, at the very least, would seem to be a rude gesture to a neighbor trying to stay out of the fight. Norway had access to ports that would make it easier for the Nazis to avoid the Allied blockade. Norwegian forces tried to protect their own turf, but in a matter of months, their fight was over and Norway became an occupied country.
The Norwegian Royal Family and the government were sent into exile. The Norwegian people were on their own. Anti-education laws were put in place, but Norwegian educators resisted the dictate to teach Nazi-friendly curricula. At least 1000 teachers were sent away to camps, but the remaining classroom heroes kept up the fight and, eventually, education returned to normal.
Norway had only a small population of Jewish citizens. With the help of the Norwegian neighbors, at least a thousand were secretly dispatched to Sweden. Another 775 were arrested or deported. About 700 were sent to Auschwitz. By 1946, only 756 Norwegian Jews survived.
As in other occupied countries, an active resistance developed. However, the most intriguing resistance was widespread and involved an everyday item, the paperclip.
The paperclip was invented by a Norwegian Jew, Johann Vaaler. Its purpose, as it is now, was to hold papers together. Now the simple tool was elevated to hold people together against an oppressor. Norwegians wore the homely paperclip on their collars, lapels, or pockets. It sent a quiet message to other Norwegians that the country was united in their fight against the invader. Eventually, the Germans caught on to the symbolism and banned the display of paperclips with the penalty of arrest for wearing one.
I tell you this story because you may have seen on your social media pages that Americans are being urged to wear safety pins on their clothes. Once again, it is a symbolic gesture of unity against racism, bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and all the other nasty hatreds that have recently escaped from the new Pandora’s box of detestable attitudes. It is also a subtle message to marginalized people that they are not alone, that you stand with them against bigotry. It is a commitment for ordinary people to step up when they see hatred happening, and to remind each of us that one of America’s greatest gifts is its diversity and inclusion of all people in our Big Tent.
This is not a “made in America” idea. Following the recent Brexit vote in England which heavily impacted immigrants in the United Kingdom, many Brits began wearing safety pins to indicate that they were “safe” people to seek out for help or just another presence as a witness.
I am wearing a safety pin these days, but I am realistic as to how much I can intervene in actual attacks on other people. Recently, a blogger named Muslim Girl published a cartoon on a non-confrontational way to help a person being harassed: http://muslimgirl.com/29469/can-help-witness-attack-muslim/.
While the cartoon shows an attack on a hajib wearing woman, it could be as easily applied to any person receiving unwanted attention in a public place. As the cartoon emphasizes, the purpose of your intervention is not to physically engage with the harasser, but to deflect attention away from the person being attacked and to deescalate the situation.
I have no illusions of myself becoming a karate kicking, jujitsu jumping Super Senior, able to diffuse uncomfortable situations with a single punch. I do own an I-phone with a camera and a video component. I do possess a very loud voice to scream for help if help is needed. I can make a scene to draw attention to the attacker and his victim. A recent class I saw listed for us older folks is called “Cane Fu.” Essentially, it suggests that, if you use a mobility aid, you learn to weaponize it in case of confrontation. Check with your local police or recreation department for Cane Fu classes. I walk quite well, but I am considering ordering a cane as a safety accessory. If you have ever taken a women’s self-defense class, you know that you are never told to physically engage unless you are attacked.
If you decide to join the safety pin conspiracy, you will be sending a message of unity and compassion to our marginalized neighbors. You will also to be “pinned” to others who say that violence against innocent people, no matter what their ethnicity, religion, or sexuality, is never an acceptable American value. We can be part of an historical “safety chain” that protects friends and neighbors, or we can look away from the lessons of history.