“The past is never dead,” said novelist William Faulkner. For those who have been scarred by history’s upheavals and tragedies, a painful living past can, with grace and will, provide the motivation to transform the hearts of generations to come. Their hard-won wisdom, born of memories of brutality and injustice, may form the bedrock of a better world for all who follow.
Gerda Weissmann Klein, photographed above by Patrick Zachmann, likes to say that even a boring day is beautiful if you’re living in freedom. The 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, now residing in Phoenix, doesn’t take these words lightly. After she endured six years of Nazi brutality, she was liberated by U.S. troops — including Kurt Klein, who would become her husband and whose portrait she holds. The gift of survival inspired Klein to spend her life teaching tolerance and the blessings of American citizenship, a calling that earned her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Students at the Grandmothers School in Maharashtra, India —Cristina García Rodero/Magnum
Other struggles for freedom are ongoing — and older adults are at the fore. In Maharashtra, India, at the Grandmothers School, about 30 women over 50 are learning to read and write. Many grew up in wretched poverty, without access to even a primary education, unlike their brothers.
CEO Jennifer Riria in her home garden near Nairobi, Kenya —Lindokuhle Sobekwa/Magnum
For Jennifer Riria, 59, being a trailblazer comes naturally. A couple of decades ago, it was difficult to find female entrepreneurs in Africa, but today women all over the continent are running successful businesses. Riria is one of the reasons why. Born into poverty in rural Kenya, she got herself through school with her parents' help and in 1991 joined a microfinance institution teetering on failure. Since then, she has stabilized it and climbed to the rank of group CEO, rebranding the firm as Echo Network Africa.
Deborah Carlos-Valencia, foreground center, founder of the non-profit refugee-focused Melissa Network —Enri Canaj/Magnum
The needs of a changing world are also a guiding force for Deborah Carlos-Valencia, 69. With 1 in every 30 people living outside their birth country, the world’s population of migrants is the largest ever — and Carlos-Valencia knows the refugee experience from both sides. She and her husband, Joe, emigrated from the Philippines to Greece in the 1980s.
Now living in Athens, Greece, Joe and Deborah run a nonprofit, called the Melissa Network — named after the Greek word for “honeybee” because of the group’s buzzing hive of activity — that helps recently arrived refugees build new lives.
Deborah Carlos-Valencia, right, encounters a client on the way to work —Enri Canaj/Magnum