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 refugees. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Presentation Speech by Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee Mr. Jahn delivered this speech on December 10, 1958, in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1958.