We, the artist Michael Rogatchi and the author Inna Rogatchi were close friends with Harry for about 20 years, and his sudden death is felt both surreal and very painful to us.
He was a true Hero of our time, and his absence will be indispensable forever. He was a unique man, and there will be no others like Harry.
Four days ago, on May 21st, Inna Rogatchi had been taken the Harry’s place at the Special Panel, The Price of Activitism, at The Art of Impossible, the International Raoul Wallenberg Roundtable. The aim of that top international gathering was to find the way to pursue the truth regarding the destiny of the heroic Swedish diplomat who personally saved more than 100 000 Jewish lives in the hell of the Holocaust in Budapest in 1944. Not surprisingly, the conference was held in Budapest, at the Holocaust Memorial Centre there. The Rogatchi Foundation and we personally have been sponsors and supporters of that initiative.
When Inna invited Harry to support the Raoul Wallenberg International Initiative a few months ago, Harry, of many people, did not hesitate for a moment. Not only did he immediately put his weight to support it, but he wanted to travel to Budapest to support the quest for truth for the hero of XX century personally. It was so much him – to support the right for him cause with all his heart. His brave and big heart. And his brilliant and very deep mind. And his generosity. Harry has sponsored the Wallenberg Initiative quiet substantially, too – without anyone asking him to do it.
We were discussing our meeting and re-uniting in Budapest with Harry so happily for both sides. We were so glad to see our dear friend again, and to embrace him so soon, as we thought. But three weeks before our meeting in Budapest to honour Raoul Wallenberg, Harry died so shockingly for all of us. The panel in Budapest gathered in the afternoon of May 21st, now it was in Memoriam of Harry Wu, with Harry’s pictures on the screen, and his voice played on the record for the audience, from the one of his recorded interviews.
Inna was telling to all those people from all around the world about Harry, his life and his convictions, his struggle and his aims, his hopes and his believes. During that addressing, Inna had a strong feeling that the door of the beautiful 1920s Synagogue turned into a cultural centre would open, and Harry would enter the hall any minute. His presence had been all around at the moment. His spirit was with us there in Budapest, we believe. He saw us all gathered, speaking and thinking about him. We also believe and hope that his mighty and at the same time very delicate spirit is with us here and now.
For us it is also a very heavy personal loss. It is the case when a part of oneself is gone, and you have to manage somehow to live without it .
What is the essential element of friendship? It is not an attraction to someone, it is not mutual interests, it is not the similar views. It is that unconditional support that you know that your friend will provide to you at any cloudy day, under any circumstances; it is your friend’s shoulder next to you. And Harry’s was the one of the most solid shoulders we knew. And not us only. Anyone who was a good friend with Harry, would tell the same. Harry was a Great Friend. Because he knew the value of loyalty and help in a full measure of it. He learned it in the hardest way possible.
Imagine a bright and intelligent 19-years old boy from a good prominent family of upscale Shanghai bankers who was torn from his life circle by the exceptionally cruel regime and confided into horrific Laogai, the Chinese ‘improvement’ of Gulag and Nazi camps, for 19 years of his life.
His family was crushed, and they have lost everything, including lives, because of suicides. Instead of gentle and caring nest full of light, it has become a ruin, in all and every sense. Ironically, when being arrested and taken to Laogai for almost two decades, Harry was not a dissident, nor his family was rebelling against the Communist China. They all failed victims of a quota. It was a random arrest, to fill a quota for ‘the bourgeoisie elements’ to “disciplined” and ‘educated in the right communist way’.
Harry could never overcome the tragedy of his family. It was his deepest, ever present pain. In Chinese mind, time runs slowly, and when it stops due to tragedy, it stops definitely.
And there he was, astounded on limitless cruelty, devastated by non-stop tortures, both physical and moral ones, insulted by sadistic humiliation which has been the ruling principle of the Chinese version of applied totalitarianism. But there has been spark of light inside Harry, as a living memory, legacy of his very good family that did save him for the world, for all of us.
Harry told us that every single day in Laogai it was a miracle and a victory. We know, and he learned about it too, eventually, that the inmates of the Nazi camps had the very same feelings. In Harry’s perception, it has become also a stimulus to go on, to strive for life. He was saved in his incredible ordeal because of the main thing: he understood the value of human life. He got it right. The Creator was with him in this, and Harry always remembered that.
Our friend had a passion for learning; but most of all, there was the strongest desire to understand in him. Understanding was the way that Harry lived his life, it was his modus Vivendi. His main desire yet during his life as a prisoner, it was to understand why Laogai system has become possible in the first place. What was the real reason for that; how it has been implemented, and what for? That was the triple set of questions that has become vital for him.
Later on, after his release from Laogai, Harry has learned, indeed, the essence of both Nazi camps and the Gulag, and what was behind the giant killing machineries that consumed millions. His knowledge came from the people he has chose as his mentors by himself. The first of them was Simon Wiesenthal, who also was our great friend. The Wiesenthal’s Sunflower was the book that has changed Harry’s life and his perception of the world – as he has told us, and he has decided to see Simon Wiesenthal immediately. So, being very Harry, he bought the ticket to Europe and landed in Vienna, to sit and talk with great Nazi-hunter and very wise man, and to learn to from him.
Harry loved Sunflower book, and whenever we were in his changing offices, the book with Wiesenthal signature for Harry always was there and in a close proximity. “I still need it “, – he would tell us a few times. Honesty, simplicity, and depth – those were some of the qualities of our friend. Harry’s simplicity was the one of the best, most beautiful, Chinese porcelain’s: pure, elegant and classy.
He was also an avid student of the history and principles of the Laogai’s predecessor, the Gulag. Those lessons he went through with our other close friend, great Vladimir Bukovsky, the man who disclosed to the world the dark secrets of the Soviet punitive psychiatry, among the other horrors of the Soviet totalitarianism.
With Michael, Harry has become like a brother. Michael was born in Gulag, in the infamous Valley of Death. His father was a political prisoner, as Inna’s grandfather was, too. After the Stalin’s death, Michael’s family had been exiled to Kazakhstan, and Harry also knew the country well enough. Harry and Michael spent many hours together, in that organic brotherhood that does not need a lot of words.
And in Michael’s view, there had been no more natural home for his Year 1953 painting picturing Gulag than the Laogai Museum, the purpose of Harri’s life during the last decade of it. Harry could not believe that Michael would depart with that painting – and how right he was. The work had been in front of Michael in his studio for good 20 years. “But for you, Harry, I will do it. It is your painting the same, as it was mine”, – Michael said to his dear friend. And they hugged, with no more words said.
We knew and still know many dissidents, brave and courageous people. But no one of them did what Harry was doing. No one had ever returned to the very place of his tortures, in order to get the hard evidences from there, the photographs of the crimes of totalitarianism. In this super-deed, Harry was unique. In that paradoxical way which is the salt of life, Harry did what he did – as he told us – out of his love to his country, China. He just wanted it to become a normal place for people to live. He believed that with collected by him undeniable evidences the world will make China to stop Laogai. He believed it in firmly. And his belief – based on love, it is important to understand – was the source for his unprecedented bravery during not just one, but four of his returns to China and collecting the evidences there, and during his detention there already as the American citizen.
“You know, they ( representatives of the Chinese Ministry of Interior) have asked me the last time when they’ve arrested me: “Harry Wu, are you mad? Don’t you afraid?..” – Harry told us with somewhat strange, semi-absent smile, and then continued slowly. – “And I have told them: “Afraid?.. But you have killed me already, a long time ago”. After some while that we needed to recover, we’ve asked our bravest friend: “Did they get it?..” – “I think so”, – Harry said.
But it was not always about the past and its horrors, nobody could live like that. We were often laughing and sharing memories, talking about everything, from landscapes to football, and books, and art, and people, and plans, and journeys.
And here comes that Horse that Michael has created for Harry when we were living in Washington and were meeting often. Harry just loved horses, and there had been a lot of inner meaning in that devotion. “In the camps, there had been not much of life, almost nothing. So, horses when they were there, used for some working purposes, had been the only beings that were more human than people. They did not hurt anybody. They were beautiful. They had those special eyes, you know. And you can stroke them, sometimes”, – our friend Harry has told us once in Italy when we were spending a wonderful evening in Rimini together. And he just loved circus, so very much. As a small boy who had been ‘preserved’ in the most terrible of places, and who while growing up through horrid tortures, kept inside himself that light of humanity for which he was fighting as a Lion, ever after, all the years of his outstanding, heroic, noble life.
Harry had been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize several times. Very few people on this earth did deserve it to the degree he did, but he never got it. It had happened with several great people before, such as Simon Wiesenthal or Vaclav Havel. We believe that perhaps, there is a time for introducing a new International Award for Bravery of the Heart. The Award should be given for uncompromising courage, real caring and saving lives, fighting for freedom and decency with all one’s being. No money should be allocated for this prize, but the art piece of crystal heart, to symbolise everything what Harry was about.
Our dear friend Harry Wu should become the first receiver of it, and his son Harrison should accept it on behalf of his great father. Importantly, the new International Award should be known as Harry Wu Award for Bravery of Heart. We all do owe Harry to do it in his ever-lasting, enlightening memory .
(C) Inna & Michael Rogatchi, May 2016.