Award ceremony speech


Presentation Speech by Gunnar Jahn*, Chairman of the Nobel Committee

The Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament has this year awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Belgian Dominican, Father Georges Pire, for his efforts to help refugees to leave their camps and return to a life of freedom and dignity.

Father Pire’s work is known to all of us in Western Europe. We have read in the newspapers of this man who, on his own initiative, has set himself the task of rescuing the handicapped refugees, the «Hard Core», or the residue. These are the old and infirm who remained in the camps, doomed to stay there without hope of a brighter future, men for whom our hard, ruthless world, which has taken Efficiency and Working Capacity as its idols, has had no further use.

Just seven weeks ago, we in Oslo had the pleasure of hearing Father Pire speak of his work for these refugees1. His talk in the Great Hall of the University was reported in the national press; so most of us in Norway are acquainted with both the practical ventures he has launched and the difficulties which he has encountered. Father Pire told us then that his aim was not merely to rescue individuals from material want, but also to restore to each of these unfortunate human beings the self-confidence dulled by the many years languished away in refugee camps.

As everyone must know, the refugee problem in the form and magnitude which we know today is a legacy of the two world wars. It is one of the blackest stains on the twentieth century. But a great deal has also been done for the refugees.

When the last war ended in 1945, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was charged with the care of the homeless. Later on, its duties were taken over by the International Refugee Organization. Both of these organizations have since been dissolved and the mission was in turn entrusted to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose achievements have been and still are vitally important. It was in recognition of these that this institution was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1955 [for 1954].

In my speech on that occasion, I tried to describe the work which was being done to secure a legal position for the refugees, to help them to find work in the countries in which they had settled or, as the High Commissioner, Dr.van Heuven Goedhart, expressed it then, to give every single refugee an economic, legal, and social foundation that would enable him to build up a new life by his own efforts. But even in 1955, ten years after the end of the war, there were still 300,000 refugees in Europe, 70,000 of these living in camps. The High Commissioner told me at the time that he was driven to despair by the many obstacles he encountered in his work. And most difficult of all was to overcome the extreme reluctance to accept the refugees, regarded simply as unwelcome foreigners.

A great deal has been done since then to ease their lot, not least by the numerous private refugee organizations existing in various countries of the Western world. But the most difficult problem of all still remains: that of rescuing all those who can be saved only by the help which one human being can give to another, by creating the personal contact necessary to restore to the refugee the faith and confidence that he will again be able to live as a human being among others.

It is to this labor that Father Pire has devoted himself and it is here that his great contribution lies.

Father Pire himself tells us that it was on February 27, 1949, when he was thirty-nine years old, that he suddenly became poignantly aware of the refugee problem. Until that day he had, as a Dominican priest, been actively engaged in helping the suffering, and especially the children. But a conversation with a colonel in UNRRA awakened him to the plight of the refugees, and he began to ask himself what he could personally do to save some of the displaced persons who were still detained in the camps and who were in the majority old and infirm, with little hope of building up a new existence for themselves and their families by their own endeavor.

It is obvious that effective help for this category of refugee must be very difficult because it is to all intents and purposes impossible to think in terms of loans, the arrangement frequently adopted in the case of the young emigrant refugees, who were fit and trained for work. Help for the old people must, at least to begin with, be built entirely on men’s unselfish desire to help their fellowmen, on their will to give practical proof of compassion and love.

Father Pire began with an attempt to establish a sponsorship scheme; that is to say, he tried to place refugee families living in the camps in contact with private individuals, or «godparents», who were willing to write to them, send parcels and perhaps money. Today 15,000 «godparents» from twenty countries correspond with 15,000 refugees. In other words, refugees have been put in touch with people outside the camps who, they know, have a kind thought for them. Just imagine what joy the arrival of letters and parcels must bring to them! They have in this way a tangible proof of someone’s willingness to reach out a helping hand.

But, and this is a big but, their own place is still in the camps and only in the camps. By visiting the refugees, Father Pire has learned to know what this means.

And so, in 1950, he began his work to help the refugees to leave the camps. In the first place, there was the problem of the old people. Within four years he had succeeded in founding four homes for the old people, all in Belgium, where they, to use Father Pire’s own words, «are left in peace to dream of their lost homeland». Here they are provided with shelter, clothing, food, medicine, and here they will be cared for until they die.

It can be seen, then, that Father Pire’s faith in the goodness of men, his confidence in their capacity to show compassion for their fellows, have proved to be well founded, for all these homes for the aged are the result of voluntary work and of donations of money from private individuals. But at the back of it all stands the personality of Georges Pire, who has managed to awaken in others the urge to help those in need.

That was the beginning. But most of us know how Father Pire’s work expanded, how he, both by his own efforts and with the help of others like him, has in the past three years founded his five European Villages for refugees, the first in Aachen, one in Bregenz in Austria, a third in Augsburg. The fourth, near Brussels, is named after Fridtjof Nansen, and on September 21 of this year in the Saar was laid the foundation stone for the latest village, which is to bear the name of Albert Schweitzer.

Father Pire had in 1950 formed a society named Aid to Displaced Persons (L’Aide aux personnes déplacées). This was a Belgian organization and had its headquarters in Georges Pire’s home village of Huy. The society became an international organization in 1957 and, after Father Pire had embarked on his scheme for European Villages, rapidly broadened its scope of activity. Article III of its statutes provides as follows:

«The Society has as its aim to provide stateless refugees, regardless of their nationality or religion, with material or moral support in every form and especially through assistance by sponsorship, nursing homes, and European Villages, and to forge a chain of forces for good around the refugees who are without country, in the form of Europe of the Heart.»

The Society is run by an administrative council composed of seven members, at present two Belgians, one German, one Austrian, one Frenchman, one Swiss, and one from Luxembourg. The president of the society and chairman of the council is Georges Pire. At the present time the organization has branches in Belgium, Austria, Germany, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, and national secretariats in Denmark and Italy.

As I have said, Father Pire’s homes for the old owe their existence to voluntary work and to donations from individuals. In fact, when building these homes, Georges Pire had to give an undertaking to the Belgian government that he would not ask for help from official sources. The same conditions were imposed on his subsequent work which has been financed solely from private contributions. Is it then surprising that Father Pire spends a large part of his time in raising money for his projects? For Father Pire never begs, and we must remember that the vast proportion of the cash received is donated in small sums from people of average income.

Shortly before the Belgian society was transformed into an international organization, Father Pire and his closest collaborators had founded another society whose aim was the relief of every form of distress in whatever part of the world it might arise. This organization took the name Europe of the Heart in the Service of the World (L’Europe du coeur au service du monde) and invited all countries to become members without regard to any division, whether of frontier or religion, language or culture. In this way it has progressed far beyond the refugee work in Europe, for now Father Pire appeals to all that is best in the West European, exhorting him to promote the feeling of brotherhood among men and asking him to face his responsibilities to the inhabitants of the rest of the world.

I have tried to give a brief outline of Father Pire’s work: his sponsorship scheme for refugees, his homes for the old, and his European Villages. I have described his intentions in creating Europe of the Heart in the Service of the World. If his achievement is judged solely on the number of refugees he has rescued, then some might say that it is not great. But, as is so often the case, it would be dangerous to judge on the basis of numbers alone. Of far greater importance are the spirit which has animated Georges Pire in his mission and the seed he has sown in the hearts of men, for they give us the hope of a harvest to come: man’s selfless work for his needy fellowman.

At the age of eighteen, Georges Pire entered the Dominican monastery of La Sarte in Belgium. His training consisted of one year’s novitiate, three years of philosophical studies, and four years of theological studies. His interest in social problems directed him to the study of sociology and, having taken his doctorate in 1936, he studied moral philosophy and sociology at Louvain University.

Thus far Georges Pire had followed the path trodden by so many other Dominicans. The Dominican Order, according to one of its members, has always been very intellectual in character and is marked by the pursuit of study and learning, especially in the fields of philosophy and theology. The order has therefore always had close connections with university life.

His studies, reading, and work at the University seem to have meant a great deal to Father Pire. University life should give a person a wider horizon and make him less bound by dogma. But intellectualism can often become sterile and turn a man into an onlooker remote from the world of reality.

Father Pire, however, did not withdraw into the shell of the intellectual. His university life seems to have left him free from narrow dogmatism in his attitude to men. But apart from this, it is assuredly something much deeper, something quite unconnected with learning, which has inspired Father Pire in his work. Might this not be his profound desire to give practical expression to his love for his fellowmen?

In his speech here in Oslo, Father Pire said that each human being is of infinite value, that love is our greatest asset on this earth and that we give it concrete form by practicing it in our relations with each individual. He sees it in this way: Try by loving your neighbor to reach the individual person. This is what he has tried to achieve by his method of helping the refugees through sponsors, homes for the old, and the Villages.

There may perhaps be some who find it difficult to understand that the best way to help the refugees can be to build villages. I have heard it said that to collect refugees in villages is to isolate them from the society into which their children must one day grow up. It may appear so. But then we must remember that the refugees whom Father Pire wishes to rescue are not the healthy and the young ones. His refugee friends, isolated and alone as they are, cannot be thrown suddenly into new and foreign surroundings to make their own way. Here in Oslo Father Pire said of his refugees: «They have been sitting on their luggage and waiting twelve or fourteen years for a train that never comes.» It is for them that Father Pire’s villages are intended, so that carefully, little by little, they may be blended into the new society while still feeling secure and protected against the prejudice and ill will with which foreigners are often received.

Father Pire has named two of his villages after Fridtjof Nansen and Albert Schweitzer. He frequently refers to Nansen, a man who was never a member of any particular church but who, in his great work for refugees, for prisoners of war, for the victims of the famine in Russia, followed the precept of brotherly love.

Albert Schweitzer too has lived his whole life by the same principle, applying it to everything he has done, although he has never been a believer in dogmas. In the eyes of Father Pire, all are in the service of good who, without regard for religion, color, or nationality, carry out their work in this troubled world of ours in the spirit of brotherly love.

Father Pire’s work for the refugees was undertaken to heal the wounds of war. But he looks much further ahead for, as he has said himself, our aim must be «to erect a bridge of light and love high above the waves of colonialism, anti-colonialism, and racial strife». Indeed, we must do more than that, we must by our actions spread the gospel of brotherhood among men, nations, and races. This is the ideal expressed by Alfred Nobel in his testament when he decreed that the Peace Prize should be awarded to the one who has done the most or the best work for the cause of brotherhood among nations.

For this reason the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament is today pleased and honored to present the Peace Prize for 1958 to Father Georges Pire.

* Mr. Jahn delivered this speech on December 10, 1958, in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo. He then gave the insignia of the prize to the laureate who responded with a speech of acceptance. The translation of Mr. Jahn’s speech is based upon the Norwegian text published in Les Prix Nobel en 1958, which also carries a translation in French.

1. The laureate was then in Oslo to speak at a meeting of the Norwegian chapter of the European Movement.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1958

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