Wallenberg: A moment of reflection

Raoul Wallenberg demonstrated how 1 person, having compassion to care and courage to act, can make a profound difference.

Raoul Wallenberg 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Raoul Wallenberg 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tuesday, July 17, will mark an important moment of remembrance and reminder in the Knesset, as Israel commemorates the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, an honorary citizen of Israel, the US and Canada, a Swedish non-Jew who saved more Jews in four months in Hungary in 1944 than any single government.
The disappeared hero of the Holocaust – who embodied the Talmudic idiom that ‘if you save a single life, it is as if you have saved an entire universe’ – confronted the Nazi killing regime and showed that not only that one person can confront evil and one person can resist evil, but that one person can prevail, and thereby transform history.
His incredible heroism including:
• The granting of Shutzpasses – passes conferring diplomatic immunity on their recipients – which survivors have told me were crafted by Wallenberg in such a way that they appeared to be even more authentic in their design than the original, and which inspired others to do the same. By this remedy alone, some 20,000 Jews were saved.
• Establishing an international save haven of 32 safe houses – as they came to be known – protected by neutral legations. Some 32,000 people were saved through this initiative alone.
• The organization of hospitals, soup kitchens, and day care centers – the staple of international humanitarian assistance – which provided women, children, the sick, the elderly – the most vulnerable of victims – with a semblance of human dignity in the face of the worst of all horrors and evils.
• In October 1944, as the Hungarian Arrow Cross – the Nazi puppet government – organized mass deportations to the death camps, Wallenberg went down to the trains, distributed the Shutzpasses, and gave life to those consigned to death.
• In November 1944, as thousands of Jews – mainly women and children – were sent on a 125-mile death march, Wallenberg followed, distributing food, medical supplies and improvised Shutzpasses, once again saving people destined for death.
• To the Nazi desk murderer Adolph Eichmann, Wallenberg was the Juddenhund – the Jewish dog – but to those he was saving, and those he saved, he will always be known and remembered as “the guardian angel.”
Wallenberg’s last rescue was perhaps his most memorable. As the Nazis were advancing on Budapest and threatening to blow up the city’s ghetto and liquidate the remnants of some 70,000 Hungarian Jews, Wallenberg put the Nazi generals on notice that they would be held accountable for their crimes, brought to justice – if not executed – for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Nazi generals desisted from their assault on Budapest and some 70,000 more Jews were saved, thanks to the indomitable courage of one person prepared to confront radical evil.
While Wallenberg saved so many, he was not saved by so many who could. Rather than greet him as the liberator he was, the Soviets – who entered Hungary as liberators themselves – imprisoned Wallenberg. He disappeared into the Soviet Gulag, with the Soviets continuing to claim that he died in July 1947.
But, our International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg – which I chaired and which included Wallenberg’s brother, Guy von Dardel, from Sweden, Elie Wiesel, former attorney-general Gideon Hauser and Soviet scholar Mikhail Chelnov, determined in our 1,200 page report in 1990 that:
• The evidence was incontrovertible that Wallenberg did not die in 1947 as the Soviets claimed he did.
• The evidence was compelling that Wallenberg was alive in ’50s and ’60s, and credible that he was still alive in the ’70s and ’80s.
• Legally speaking, Wallenberg remained a disappeared person.
• The burden of proof with respect to what happened remains with the Soviets, as it does with the Russian successors to this day.
I will close by recommending that Israel establish, like Canada did, a Raoul Wallenberg commemorative day to be marked on January 17 – the date of his disappearance – so that Israelis, particularly young Israelis, can learn about, reflect upon and act upon his humanitarian legacy.
In his singular protection of civilians amidst the horrors of the Holocaust, Wallenberg manifested the best of what we today call international humanitarian law. In his provision of humanitarian relief, he symbolized what today we would call the best of humanitarian intervention.
In saving Jews from certain death, deportation and atrocity, he symbolized what today we would call the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine.
In warning the Nazi generals that they would be held responsible for their war crimes, Wallenberg was a forerunner of the Nuremberg principles and what today we would call international criminal law.
In a word, Wallenberg demonstrated how one person, having the compassion to care and the courage to act, can make a profound difference. Indeed, Wallenberg made that profound difference in Jewish and human history.

The writer is the member of parliament for Mount Royal and the former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. He helped established Canada’s Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day, observed on January 17.