In November, 2018, several of my liberal Facebook friends shared euphoric memes of newly elected Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. If Facebook posts were audible as well as visual, these posts would whoop, cheer, and applaud – indeed they would ululate.
“What do you know about these women?” I asked. “What makes you think that their terms as congresspeople will be any more consequential than any other?” What I knew about these three women indicated to me that their election presented no cause for elation. Ocasio-Cortez had displayed a cringeworthy lack of depth in a July, 2018 Firing Line interview. Ilhan Omar had a history of anti-Semitic tweets and there was evidence strongly suggesting that she had married her own brother as part of an immigration scam. Rashida Tlaib had referred to the president of the US with a twelve-letter curse word. In that same talk, Tlaib ululated and said, “You can’t take the Palestinian out of me. I feel so Palestinian today.” She celebrated her victory by posing with a Palestinian flag, and her office map was altered to indicate that Israel was in fact “Palestine.” Why were these women heroes?
Finally one of my liberal friends acknowledged that the rhapsodic, over-the-top celebration had nothing to do with these women’s proposals, intellects, or accomplishments. Rather, liberals were celebrating the new celebrities’ identities. It’s so easy to be a hero these days. All you have to do is be other than the villain of the moment: the white, Christian, American man.
History is being re-written. My liberal friends believe that the world has been run by white, Christian, American, heterosexual men. These men have all been racist, sexist, and homophobic. Other people, who are not white or American or Christian or heterosexual are, by virtue of their identities alone, virtuous. As these others gain power, the world improves.
This revisionist history is expressed in quite overt ways. Omar told us that “CAIR was founded after 9-11 because some people did something.” Ocasio-Cortez claimed that Republicans “had to amend the Constitution of the United States to make sure Roosevelt did not get reelected” in 1947, two years after Roosevelt died. Rashida Tlaib said that she feels “a calming feeling … when I think of the Holocaust” because her Muslim Arab ancestors created “a safe haven for Jews.”
The entertainment industry has gotten the revisionist message, as have reviewers. Two very good recent films, Green Book and The Best of Enemies, were lambasted as “white savior” movies. Both films are based on real events from decades ago. The main characters in both films are white men who begin as racists. Both are forced into situations where they have positive encounters with a black person. Later they both go on to forge lasting friendships with black people. One might think that this plot outline would offend no one – that, rather, viewers would find it inspirational. Well, it would offend no one rational, but rationality is optional nowadays.
Hostility to films that depict white American men behaving in an at all decent manner towards women or people of color is so intense that docudramas now resort to distorting history. Hidden Figures is a 2016 film that dramatized the true story of African American women who made significant contributions to NASA’s space race. The film depicts a handful of women who, on their own and without significant support from any white men, break through pervasive racism and sexism. Any thinking person will recognize that this aspect of the film cannot be accurate. Without white and male allies, the Civil Rights Movement and feminism never would have gotten off the ground. In fact, in several respects, Hidden Figures changed historical realities in order to worsen the image of the majority white males working at NASA. The segregation depicted in the film was a thing of the past during the time period of the film’s action. Several other events in the film were depicted as worse and more racist than they were in real life. Why? Perhaps so that the film could avoid the dreaded moniker of “white savior” movie.
When I think of young, conventionally educated Americans, I worry. Too many have been brainwashed and demoralized by revisionist history. They look at their own country, at their heritage, Western Civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition, and see only error and oppression. In too many classrooms and media products, status, good and evil are all determined by ethnic, religious, or gender identity. This process is occurring even as I write this. Tlaib’s inexcusable comments about the Holocaust and Muslims providing a “haven” for Jews are the subject of at least five Washington Post articles in the past sixteen hours. The headlines tell the story: “Anatomy of a Smear,” “House Republicans Criticize Tlaib” “Trump Joins GOP Criticism,” “Republicans Are Ignoring Reality to Twist Tlaib’s” comment, “Trump, GOP, Twisting” Tlaib’s comment. Tlaib, because of her identity, must be made virtuous. Republicans, because of their identity, must be made villains.
If I had the power, I would encourage as many young people as possible to watch two recent documentaries. They are movies you’ve probably never heard of, about people you have probably never heard of. The lead characters are not the type of hero the entertainment industry or its critics is invested in celebrating these days. These two people are the old-fashioned kind of hero who earned heroism, not by being young and pretty, non-white and left-wing, but by doing very hard things. One of these heroes did what she did in total anonymity, and died unknown.
I was checking the new releases in a local theater when I saw the title Hesburgh. Sounds like a Dracula spin-off, I thought. I had never heard the name before and I knew nothing about the movie. Curious, I did a quick Google search and discovered that Hesburgh is a documentary about a Catholic priest. A documentary about a Catholic priest running in a suburban multiplex? I had to see it.
Father Theodore Hesburgh was president of Notre Dame for thirty-five years, 1952–1987. He also played a role in the Civil Rights Movement, the effort to limit nuclear arms, and immigration reform. He had close, personal relationships with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Clinton, and Obama, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr and Ann Landers. Much of the film consists of grainy, decades-old film footage of the Space Race, The Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War. A few scenes are reenactments of key moments in Hesburgh’s life. There are also contemporary interviews with people who knew Hesburgh, including Leon Panetta and Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson. Speakers at Hesburgh’s memorial service included Mike Pence and Condoleezza Rice.
Hesburgh sounds like a priestly Kardashian, no? Listen, I walked into the theater knowing nothing about Theodore Hesburgh and by the end of the film my face was sloppy with tears. I cry no tears for Kardashians. Why did this film move me so much?
The film depicts Hesburgh as a remarkably humble man. As a man who, yes, wined and dined with the rich and powerful, but who never lost the personal touch, and who was almost supernaturally humble, and relentlessly committed to his priestly vocation. In every scene I can remember, from the time he took his vows to his 2015 death at age 97, Hesburgh is wearing the exact same clothing: the unadorned, dark suit and white collar of a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Selecting personal dress and adornment is a fundamental human choice. Hesburgh surrendered that choice at 18 and never took it back. In a clip from an interview, TV host Phil Donahue presses Hesburgh. How have you lived your life alone, without a wife? Hesburgh’s visage is severe but calm. “I made that choice at 18.” It’s remarkable to witness a man of his word.
Pope Paul VI presented Hesburgh with his own emerald ring as a gift. The implication was that the pope hoped to elevate Hesburgh to cardinal. Hesburgh put the ring in a drawer. His vocation was as a priest, not a “prince of the church.” Former students from Notre Dame testify on camera that Hesburgh was like a father to them. Journalist Robert Sam Anson, a Notre Dame alum, was taken prisoner in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Hesburgh phoned the Vatican to help broker his release. Anson is visibly moved when discussing Hesburgh.
Hesburgh’s most sustained effort in public affairs, at least as depicted in the film, was in the field of Civil Rights. In one of the most famous images of Hesburgh, he is linking arms with Martin Luther King Jr. at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1964, as they sing together “We Shall Overcome.” Hesburgh was no mere fellow traveler. When Civil Rights Commission members were stonewalling each other, the Northerners against the Southerners, Hesburgh kept his eye on the individual human soul. His faith taught him that each Commission member, no matter how obstructionist, was made in the image and likeness of God. With that perspective, Hesburgh recognized that one thing all these diverse combatants had in common was a love of fishing. He arranged for a Notre Dame donor’s private jet to transport them to a secluded lake. There they could connect as human beings, and make progress. Hesburgh was willing to stick his neck out even when the presidents who counted him among their friends dropped the ball. The Kennedy administration had concluded that pushing Civil Rights would cost Kennedy votes in the South, and, thus, the election. They decided to “slow walk” progress. Hesburgh at this instance, and at other key moments as well, took it upon himself to press for an end to Jim Crow. Sorry, Hollywood and film critics cum social justice warriors, but yes Hesburgh was one of many white allies without whom the Civil Rights Movement would have been an historical blip that reached the same dead-end of a thousand other liberation movements in societies without conscience.
Like any serious Catholic, Hesburgh faced criticism from the right and the left. The Catholic Church opposes abortion, and, thus, gains approval and allies on the right. Other stances on poverty and immigration earn approval and allies on the left.
Conservative Catholics condemn Hesburgh’s defiance of the Vatican regarding the concept of a Catholic university. In 1954, Hesburgh hosted Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray. Murray spoke on the individual freedom of conscience. The talk was to be published. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office (formerly known as the Inquisition) ordered that the publication be disappeared, and that no one be told why. “Roma locuta est, causa finita est,” Hesburgh was told. “Rome has spoken; the matter is finished.” Hesburgh saw this as a “frontal assault on academic freedom” and he published anyway. “There was no way I was going to destroy the freedom and autonomy of the university.”
Hesburgh wrote, “The best and only traditional authority in the university is intellectual competence… It was great wisdom in the medieval church to have university theologians judged solely by their theological peers in the university… A great Catholic university must begin by being a great university that is also Catholic.” As the New York Times summarized Hesburgh’s position in his 2015 obituary, Hesburgh declared that “the pursuit of truth, not religious indoctrination, was the ultimate goal of Catholic higher learning in the United States.” His declaration had high impact on other Catholic universities.
Hesburgh rankled both supporters and opponents of the Vietnam War. Hesburgh was an admirer of the military. After he was ordained, his personal goal was to be a military chaplain. His superiors nixed that idea and assigned him to a career in academia. Having taken a priestly vow of obedience, he had to comply. When Notre Dame students wanted to burn down the ROTC building, Hesburgh argued against the arson, insisting that America needed a military with a moral and intellectual foundation, such as they could acquire at Notre Dame. Hesburgh issued a strict rule against campus protests, threatening to suspend or expel those engaging in anti-war demonstrations. This tough stance met with President Nixon’s approval. But Hesburgh personally hoped for a withdrawal of troops.
Hesburgh the documentary depicts a strong, not-quite-silent American hero of old-school masculinity. He’s square of jaw, and graced with Tyrone Power eyebrows. Hesburgh’s facial expression does not significantly change, no matter who his interlocutor is, or what the topic of conversation. He makes no attempt to ingratiate. His voice neither rises nor falls. His stoicism is in the John Wayne or Gary Cooper mold. Did he not face loneliness? The documentary reports that Hesburgh was very close to his sister, and took her death from breast cancer very hard. He also had a lengthy correspondence with Ann Landers.
Filmmaker Patrick Creadon was a Notre Dame student. He was curious to see if “If Father Ted’s life really lives up to the legend that surrounds him.” His film takes a “hard-hitting, deep dive” into Hesburgh’s life. “What we came up with is the story of an extraordinary man who made a difference… he serves as an incredible role model for anyone who wants to try to make the world a better place … While making the film, I thought, ‘What was his one superpower?’ And I realized it was his kindness … He was very transparent, honest, and trustworthy, but his kindness is what saw him through some very difficult times in our country’s history and helped him make really tough decisions.” Creadon is donating all profits from the film to charity, including a hospital in Ecuador and a health care facility for Holy Cross clergy.
Franciszka Halamajowa died in obscurity. Few outside her immediate family had any idea of her heroism. She never rubbed elbows with the rich or the powerful. When Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland in 1939, Halamajowa was a 54 year old Polish, Catholic farm woman, her gray hair brushed back into a simple bun. She was plump, with apple cheeks and kind eyes. She wore simple, loose, cotton dresses. She lived on a small plot of land with fruit trees and pigs in the small town of Sokal. Sokal was then in Eastern Poland; it is now in Ukraine. In 1939, it had a mixed population of Poles, Ukrainians, and 5,200 Jews. Only thirty Jews survived the war. Sixteen Jews were sheltered by Franciszka Halamajowa. The documentary No. 4 Street of Our Lady tells the almost unbelievable story of Halamajowa’s heroism. This ninety-minute, 2009 documentary is currently available on Vimeo.
One can’t begin to understand Halamajowa’s feat without understanding the Nazi and Soviet approach to Poland. Both were genocidal, and their hostility to the continued existence of Poland had begun centuries before. Under German and Russian occupation beginning in the eighteenth century, at times and in places, Poles could not build permanent dwellings on their own land, could not speak their own language in school, and were subject to mass deportations to Siberia, where many died. The Nazi Generalplan Ost called for the genocide and occupation of Slavic nations. In his infamous August, 1939 “Armenian speech,” Hitler said, “I have placed my death-head formation in readiness … with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need.”
Soviet Russians, Sokal’s first World-War-Two-era occupiers, deported between 500,000 and 1.7 million Poles to Siberia. Soviet Russians arrested and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of other Poles. Many were tortured and executed, including 22,000 Polish Army officers shot in the Katyn Massacre. Soviet propaganda depicted Poles as enemies of the people. Polish land was seized and redistributed, most to collective farms. An estimated 150,000 – 500,000 Polish citizens died during the Soviet occupation.
In June, 1941, as part of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazis arrived. Scarred by the 1932-33 Soviet-orchestrated Ukrainian famine, interwar Polish rule, and Soviet occupation, some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis. In addition to persecuting Jews, Ukrainians tortured, mutilated, and massacred Polish Catholics. Historians estimate that approximately 100,000 Poles were murdered by Ukrainians.
All this bloody history swirled around Franciszka Halamajowa as she tended her fruit trees, chickens and pigs. Ukrainians knocked on her door and told her to leave. Sokal was now Ukrainian territory, and no longer safe for a Polish woman alone with a young daughter. Nazis could kill Poles for infractions so minor as owning a radio. Poles were regularly rounded up and sent to slave labor or concentration camps. Any aid given to any Jew, even something so simple as offering a drink of water, was a capital crime, not just for the one giving the aid, but for her entire family. This punishment was unique to Poland. Miep Gies, who aided Anne Frank in Holland, for example, survived betrayal and discovery. One list of Poles killed for helping Jews includes 704 names. No doubt many more were killed but their accounts cannot be documented.
Jews escaping a Nazi aktion asked Halamajowa for help. Yad Vashem reports that Halamajowa and her daughter Helena “believed that it was G-d who had brought the Jewish refugees to their door to test their faith. They considered it their religious duty to protect the Jewish refugees, and never demanded payment of any kind.” It was not until after the war that the Jews Halamajowa was hiding in a pigsty discovered that she had another Jewish family hiding in a specially built dugout under her kitchen floor. Indeed, Halamajowa was also hiding a renegade German soldier in her attic. He did not want to participate in Nazi killing.
Poles under Nazism were poor and hungry. That Halamajowa was able to feed herself, her daughter, and all of her charges calls to mind the miracle of the loaves and fishes. She had to dispose of hidden people’s waste without attracting German suspicion, or the suspicion of neighbors eager to receive a reward or even just personal safety in exchange for collaboration. In the documentary, one neighbor says, “We all knew but no one said anything.” In fact one neighbor did confront Halamajowa and tell her that he knew she was sheltering Jews. This could have resulted in death. Instead he asked to see the hiding Jews, recognized a kindly doctor, and remained mum.
The horrors of Nazi occupation are brought home in an almost unbearably painful portion of the documentary. One of the Jewish children couldn’t stop crying. The sound of her sobs might have betrayed other people and guaranteed their death. The doctor had a dose of deadly poison. Everyone, including the girl’s own mother, decided that she had to be forced to swallow it. I will let you discover what happens when you watch the documentary yourself.
After the war, Halamajowa, an ethnic Pole, for her own safety, had to leave her home in Sokal and travel to Poland, as it existed within its new, post-war borders. She died in 1960, in a Poland still ruled by occupying Soviet Russians. In fact just four years before Halamajowa’s death, in 1956, 100,000 Poles faced off against 400 tanks and 10,000 soldiers. Shots were fired and perhaps a hundred Poles died, including one 13-year-old boy. Such demonstrations would continue until 1989, when the Berlin Wall finally fell. No. 4 Street of Our Lady is a worthy tribute to a woman of peerless heroism.
Self-examination and self-criticism are foundational in the West. They are rooted in the Judeo-Christian concepts of confession of sins, restitution, and subsequent redemption. This is an invaluable concept in our culture that has prompted our progress. Of course I want young people to learn about American racism, priestly sex abuse, and those Poles who committed acts of violence against Jews. But that’s not enough. Let them also learn about heroes like Hesburgh and Halamajowa.