Real-Life Survivors


Nellie Bly
Simon Bolivar
Helen Keller
Rosa Parks
Branch Rickey
Chiune Sugihara

Nellie Bly (1867-1922)
When, as a young woman, Elizabeth Cochrane announced that she wanted to be a newspaper reporter, few people believed she'd make it. At the time, most editors believed that only men could write the news. But Elizabeth persisted. She wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch explaining that a girl could do almost anything as well as a boy and could do it better. The editor called her in and not only gave her a job but a new, shorter name. She would be Nellie Bly -- in case he wanted to use her name in a headline.

Nellie's name did become part of many headlines. Most of her work was as an investigative reporter. She took a job in a Pittsburgh factory to expose owners who were taking advantage of the workers, many of whom were young girls working fourteen hour days. When she wrote for The World in Chicago, she pretended to be insane so that she could expose deplorable conditions in hospitals for the mentally ill from inside the hospitals themselves. She even got herself arrested so that she could report on how police treated women prisoners. In 1889 she set a record by traveling around the world in less than eighty days. She went alone by ship, train, handcart, and even burro. The day she got back, almost the entire front page of The World was about her trip.

Simon Bolivar (1783-1830)
Simon Bolivar was one of the great generals of South America. Yet as he grew up, no one would have predicted that he would someday be known as El Libertador (The Liberator) and compared to George Washington. Born to a wealthy family in Venezuela, he led a life of idle pleasures. As young man, he traveled in Europe. There he met the woman he was to marry. When she died less than a year after their return to Venezuela, the grief-stricken Bolivar turned his energies to fighting for freedom from Spain, which controlled much of South America.

Influenced by the revolutionary ideas that had led to the American and French revolutions, Bolivar called for independence and used his own money to organize armies to achieve it. He had two dreams: the first was to drive the Spaniards out of South America, and the second was to create a unified nation out of Spain's former colonies. When the fighting was over, Bolivar had freed half a continent.

The military victories that drove the Spaniards out didn't come easily, but it was equally difficult to fulfill his other vision. After liberating the territory of Columbia, Bolivar helped organize the republic of Gran Colombia (Greater Colombia), an area of nearly a million square miles. Though Bolivar was a persuasive speaker, he could not always convince others to see his viewpoint. The republic split into three separate countries. (One of those countries, Bolivia, is named after the general.) Though he called for the removal of "the dark mantle of barbarous and profane slavery," full emancipation did not occur in Venezuela until twenty four years after Bolivar's death.

Helen Keller (1880-1968)
At two years of age, Helen Keller was shut off from the world, unable to speak or hear. Until she was seven, she was, as she later described by herself, "wild and unruly," communicating only through kicking, scratching, and screaming. Then Anne Sullivan became Helen's teacher, and she stayed with her pupil for the rest of her life. With Anne, Helen learned to communicate. Anne also taught her social skills. A whole new world opened for Helen. She read Braille, a system of letters as raised dots invented by Frenchman Louis Braille, who was himself blind. By "spelling" words into Anne's hand using a manual alphabet, Helen could ask questions about the world and get answers. She was a good student, too, studying everything, even Latin and German. She found she could "hear" what people said if she put her fingers on their lips. Then she imitated the movements of people's mouths, lips, and tongues so that she could speak herself. Going on to college, she graduated from Radcliffe College (part of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts) with honors.

After college she became an activist on behalf of the blind and the deaf-blind, appearing before legislatures, giving lectures, and writing books and articles. During World War II, she worked with blinded soldiers to bring them hope and courage that they could go on with their lives.

Rosa Parks (born 1913)
It was a fateful moment. Many historians believe it was the real start of the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks, a seamstress in a Montgomery, Alabama department store, decided she was tired. She was not going to give up her bus seat to someone else just because that person was white and Rosa Parks was black. She was tired, not just from a long day's work, but of the racial segregation that had led to that rule. Rosa Parks was a believer in civil rights. She worked with the Voters League to register black people to vote. Because of strong feelings at the time, that was dangerous work. And this day, when she politely refused to give up her seat, the driver called the police. Rosa Parks was arrested.

The next morning the arrest became big news. Civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy helped spread the word. They called for an end to segregation on buses. For the next year the black people in Montgomery refused to ride the buses. Instead, they walked, rode bicycles, car pooled, and took taxis to work. Because African American riders made up 65 percent of the bus company's passengers, the boycott really hurt. Eventually, the United States Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was illegal. Blacks in Montgomery could no longer be forced to sit in the back or to give up their seats to white passengers.

Branch Rickey (1881-1965)
It took two courageous men to break the color barrier that kept black players out of baseball's major leagues: Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play, and Branch Rickey, the man who hired him. Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, laid his plans carefully. He felt that the time was right. Among the returning World War II veterans were many black men who had fought for their country. Why, the African American community asked, was a black man good enough to die for his country but not to play in the major leagues? The only professional ball clubs for blacks were in the segregated Negro Leagues.

Branch Rickey wanted to build a winning team in Brooklyn, and he wanted to see baseball integrated. When Rickey had coached college baseball, he had seen, and never forgotten, how one of the best players on the team was refused a hotel room because he was black. He made a vow then to change things. Rickey knew, though, that if his plan leaked out, there would be those who would try to stop him. So he let it be known that he was recruiting players for an all-black team. Meanwhile, he was narrowing the field down to one man who would not only be a good ballplayer but have the strength of character to withstand the pressures he would face. That man was Jackie Robinson, who had been an All-American in college and won a letter in four sports.

It was only after Robinson met Rickey that he learned the real reason he had been called to Brooklyn. What followed was a three-hour meeting. "I want a player with guts enough not to fight back," explained the owner, "someone who can ignore any nasty comments and continue playing." Jackie Robinson was a man who took pride in standing up for himself. Yet he knew that what Rickey was asking him was part of a more important fight. After thinking it over, the future Hall of Famer told Branch Rickey he would do it. The first step had been taken.

Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986)
Early one morning in the summer of 1940, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul general in Kaunas, Lithuania, woke to an unbelievable scene outside the consulate. The usually quiet street was crowded with more than 200 men, women, and children. Frightened at first, the consul woke his wife and three children and told them to hide in a closet. But when he took another look at the at the crowd, he saw it was not an angry mob. Instead, the people were exhausted. When they saw him at the window, many raised their hands, with palms together, as though praying for help.

These people were Jewish refugees from Poland, where the Germans had been rounding up Jews and shipping them to death camps. Some had escaped to Lithuania, but they knew the war would follow them there. They had come to the consulate hoping to get visas that would allow them to travel through the Soviet Union to find refuge in another country. It was their last hope because no other country would help them.

After speaking with one of the leaders of the group, Sugihara cabled the foreign ministry in Tokyo, requesting permission to issue transit visas. His reply was no. Two more times he cabled for permission and each time the answer was no. And all the while the lines outside the consulate grew. Torn between following his government's orders and his own conscience, Sugihara made his choice. "I had to do something," he was to say years later. "I had to look at it from the standpoint of humanity. I could only be fired and returned to Japan. What else were they going to do?"

For at least twenty days, Sugihara signed visas. He worked day and night, skipping lunch so that he could write as many as possible. When the official forms ran out, he wrote more by hand. In the evenings his wife Yukiko would massage his aching hand and tell him to keep writing. "Each one you write means a life," she said.

Then Sugihara was transferred to Berlin. Even as the Sugiharas headed to the train that would take them out of the country, a crowd followed them. Sitting on the train, Sugihara continued signing visas, his wife supporting his hand so that he could write. For as long as he could, he handed the signed visas out the open window to the waiting hands. As the train slowly moved away from the platform, Sugihara apologized to the crowd for not being able to write any more visas. "Sugihara," cried one man, "we will not forget you!"


Graff, Stewart, and Graff, Polly. Helen Keller. Garrard. 1965.
Graves, Charles. Nellie Bly: Reporter for The World. Garrard. 1971.
Scott, Richard. Jackie Robinson. Chelsea House. 1987.
Tracey, David. "Visas for Life." Reader's Digest. January 1994.
Turner, Glennette Tilley. Take a Walk in Their Shoes. Dutton. 1989.
Watanabe, Teresa. "An Unsung 'Schindler' From Japan." New York Times. March 20, 1994.
Wepman, Dennis. Simon Bolivar. Chelsea House. 1985.

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