Remembering Raoul Wallenberg
The example of Wallenberg keeps hope alive that one man can indeed change the world.
Raoul Wallenberg Photo: Reuters
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, We are here with a common objective: To remember a man with a peculiar fate.
To remember a man who lived for months in Budapest in the shadow of death, and still managed to become an angel of life.
Today, when we praise the achievements of Raoul Wallenberg, who was born 100 years ago and who died at a painfully young age, we are remembering a man who served the lives of others.
Since he served the lives of others, we are only worthy of remembering him if, when doing so, we also remember others.
If we pay respect to those who acted like he did and followed what their conscience dictated, saving tens and tens of thousands of people from certain death.
Hungarians and other nationals who stood on the side of life and togetherness and the side of active solidarity, even in those ominous times.
Wallenberg is also the symbol of their sacrifice.
Here and now, we also have to pay our respects to those who were not granted a chance of salvation.
We cherish the memory of six million such people.
Six million men and women.
Six million children and adults.
Six million human beings conceived in love and born to love.
Six million lost dreams and hope.
Six million tortured victims, deprived of their human dignity and life.
Among them, several hundreds of thousands were our fellow Hungarians, Jewish compatriots, and it pains us to this day that the Hungarian state failed to protect them.
With them in our minds, we have to say again and again: it is an insurmountable tragedy of our world that this could have happened.
When we bow our heads in memory of the victims of the Shoah, we have to recall that the “final solution” of Hitler’s reign was directed against the whole of the Jewish community living in Diaspora around Europe.
The National Socialist empire was the root and the cause of countless grave tragedies of historic scale.
However, the Holocaust is not simply one of the greatest dramas to have happened to mankind.
It is an incomparable story of suffering turned into an incomprehensible and insurmountable tragedy by the death factories operated on an industrial scale and with systematic savagery.
Dear remembering crowd, rejection and faithlessness begins where human life becomes worthless.
What was human life worth, what could it have been worth in the shadow of the gas chambers? Less than nothing.
No cause was needed in the death camps to take another’s life, but any reason was enough.
Death here was not an unfortunate end, but the sole purpose and desired outcome of the concentration camps.
Although Nazis kept the operation of death camps a secret all along, the infernal world of the camps became known to many during the years of the war.
This was thanks to a document known as the Auschwitz Protocol, which found its way to Hungary in 1944.
The accounts of two prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau, form the basis for the protocol supplemented several times and describe the events taking place in the concentration camps with stark naturalism.
Here are two short but all the more shocking stories: “A tragic end befell Rabbi Eckstein from Sered, who was suffering from dysentery and once came a few minutes too late for the roll-call. The group leader had him seized and dipped head-first into one of the latrines, then poured cold water over him, drew his revolver and shot him.”
The other story is about the world of the gas chambers: “Prominent guests from Berlin were present at the inauguration of the first crematorium in March 1943. The program consisted of the gassing and burning of 8,000 Krakow Jews. The guests, both officers and civilians, were extremely satisfied with the results and the special peephole fitted into the door of the gas chamber was in constant use. They were lavish in their praise of this newly erected installation.”
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I will not quote anything else from this shocking document.
It is evident enough what kind of fate would have awaited those that Wallenberg and his Hungarian helpers managed to save.
I have not been able to verify with absolute certainty whether Wallenberg himself read the Auschwitz Protocol. He might have known about it, but this is not an issue of essence here.
Whether he knew or he didn’t know, he risked his life in order to help others survive.
What is more important is why he did it.
Why did he feel the obligation to help? Much has been written about him by many, yet we know so little.
We know little about what kind of a man 32-year-old Raoul Wallenberg was when he arrived in Budapest a few months after the German occupation of the city.
We know much more about what he looked like and how he dressed than what he felt and what he had in mind when he got down to action.
We know that he was a smart man, sensitive about his elegance, yet his habits were more fragile than military.
We also know little about the secret behind his personality.
What gave Wallenberg the inner drive that helped him stick to his path in a violent and insane world? We do know, however, all the things he did in order to achieve his objective.
During the Nazis’ reign he negotiated with those that he had to negotiate with, bribed those who were corrupt, threatened those who only understood threats and ordered those who only obeyed commands.
Hundreds of memos describe his thousand faces; he seems to have been an excellent actor.
But he had to perform on the stage of reality.
He knew the minds of the Nazis and the Arrow Cross supporters.
He was familiar with their habits, human limits and their respect for authority.
He turned what he knew about them into a weapon against them.
No matter what situation he found himself in, he deliberated wisely and acted courageously.
But simply calling him courageous doesn’t do him justice.
He was human.
A human in the face of inhumanity.
A man of morals in a world devoid of any morals.
A man who knew that action speaks louder than words.
Nothing could be deeper than the silence created by repression, desperation and death.
The silence that prevails beyond the unspeakable.
I am convinced that Wallenberg heard this silence and knew that there were no words that could break it.
So he chose the only moral solution.
He chose action.
He acted, and by doing so he saved thousands of people from certain death.
There were many other men who, like him, chose action.
But the silence, the silence of the unspeakable, will remain with us forever.
And if we pay attention, we will even hear it now.
Let us close our eyes for a few moments and listen to this silence.
LADIES AND gentlemen, according to the Talmud, “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.”
Wallenberg’s example keeps our hope alive that one man can indeed change the world.
The response to the question of why a man like this had to die in a KGB prison can hardly be different than how total regimes can know no moral considerations.
Therefore, we must always follow the moral path, under every circumstance.
Because humanity ends where morality ends.
Because the most important words of morality are those of respect.
Those of mutual respect and recognition.
The respect for life.