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Banquet of Stones

Posted by John Rachow, MD on August 27, 2010

The banquet at end of a very long first day of the 19th Annual IPPNW World Congress and was held in the hall of the Safran Zunft (Saffron Guild) the 13th century Guild of Apothecaries in Basel.  The evening was time for good food, fellowship, and introspection.  A series of toasts were given, none more poignant that of Ulrich Gottstein, WW II German veteran and long time IPPNW activist.  While he was frail, his message was strong.   He spoke of his countless enduring friends in IPPNW and his reinvigoration by new acquaintances made with young activists.  “Gottstein,” god stone, got me thinking about the wisdom and durability traditionally represented by stones that would have been familiar to our most ancient ancestors and perhaps why I felt so related to Ulrich, whom I have never met personally.

The nuclear disarmament movement began over five decades ago in the UK.  One of the original icons of the movement were small ceramic stones, emblematic of the only artifacts that were likely to survive a nuclear holocaust, each with a symbol inscribed on them that was a superimposition of the semaphore positions for “N” and “D”  for “Nuclear Disarmament,” and represented a desperate warning to the future.  The symbol was brought to the U.S. by civil rights activists in the early 1960’s, and it rapidly became recognized as the universal peace symbol during the Viet Nam War.

How times have changed in other ways.  I was born in the same year as the atomic bomb and thus am first generation inheritor of a life in the nuclear age.  In a sense the bomb defines one bookend of my life.  This year, my father passed.  He was a WW II US Army Air Corps bombardier in the European Theatre.  But for the slightest shift in the roll of the dice, he could have been the one to have dropped the first atomic bomb.  Veterans all come back from war changed.  I wonder what he and Ulrich could have talked about.   

At the banquet, mood for introspection was enhanced by the Cantate Chamber Choir that sang a series if international folk songs.  There were two encores, both in minor keys, one reminiscent of Finlandia and the Helsinki 2006 IPPNW Congress.  The second was included in the loop of renaissance choral vocals I listened to on the long KLM flight to Amsterdam earlier in the week and perfectly pitched for a 13th century guild hall that has survived seemingly endless conflict on the continent.

Ulrich’s toast was not to be the last.  The last toaster noted the sadness and introspection of the minor key and said now it was time for our work to resume in a major key.  The work is not done, we have the Verantwortung, the answerability, the responsibility to see that the investments made by the Nobel Committee in 1985 and 2009 are paid back with interest.  This is the other bookend, I hope, for us all.


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