Remembering Raoul Wallenberg
Last week included an important moment of remembrance and reminder as Canada observed Raoul Wallenberg Day, marking the 67th anniversary of his January 17th, 1945 disappearance at the hands of Soviet forces. Wallenberg — a Swedish non-Jew who saved some 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust — confronted the Nazi killing machine in Hungary and showed that one person can make a difference; that one person can resist; and that one person can prevail over radical evil.
Wallenberg is most known for his granting of Shutzpasses — diplomatic passes protecting their recipients. This influenced other governments to follow his example and issue passports that saved thousands from the Nazis. He also established 32 safe houses protected by neutral legations, saving some 32,000 people through this initiative alone.
Further, Wallenberg’s organization of hospitals, soup kitchens, and day care centers — the staple of international humanitarian assistance — 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.
Moreover, in November 1944, as thousands of Jews — mainly women and children — were sent on a 125-mile death march, Wallenberg followed them, distributing food, medical supplies, improvised certificates, once again saving people consigned to death.
Wallenberg’s last rescue was perhaps the most memorable. As the Nazis were advancing on Budapest, they threatened to blow up the Budapest ghetto and liquidate the remnants of Hungarian Jews, some 70,000 of them. Wallenberg put the Nazi Generals on notice that they would be held accountable for their crimes — that they would be brought to justice, if not executed, for their war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
The Nazi Generals desisted from that assault on Budapest and 70,000 more Jews were saved thanks to the incredible courage of one person who was prepared to confront evil, to resist, and thereby to cause that evil to be overcome.
Today, Raoul Wallenberg deserves to be remembered not only for his heroism, but as an inspiration for action. As U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt put it, Raoul Wallenberg Day is a chance for us to “reaffirm our common aspiration for moral understanding and justice.”
Indeed, each one of us has an indispensable role to play in the struggle for human rights. And it begins with each of us — in our homes, in our schools, in our workplace, in our human relations, in our daily capacity for acts of care and compassion on behalf of some victim of discrimination or disadvantage somewhere.
In 1985, Canada declared Wallenberg an honorary Canadian citizen. In 2002, Canada celebrated Raoul Wallenberg Day for the first time. Now, as we observe the 10th Raoul Wallenberg Day, let us reflect upon and be inspired by the unparalleled and unprecedented heroism of this great humanitarian, and recommit ourselves to justice, fairness, and the bettering of our world.
Irwin Cotler 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 17th.