Raoul Wallenberg

At times like these, the evil in the world can feel overwhelming and it can be tempting to cede to despair, aggravating the problem of the international community as bystander to atrocity and injustice.

How appropriate, then, that January 17 -- the day of Raoul Wallenberg's disappearance in the Soviet Gulag in 1945 -- has been designated Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day in Canada in honour of this disappeared hero. 

Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was a beacon of light during the darkest days of the Holocaust, and his example remains so today. Prior to his arrival in Budapest in July 1944, some 430,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz in the space of 10 weeks -- the fastest, cruelest and most efficient mass murder of the Nazi genocide. Yet Wallenberg rescued some 100,000 Jews in six months in Hungary in 1944, demonstrating that one person with the courage to care, and the commitment to act, can confront evil and transform history.

His heroism was celebrated in the international Wallenberg exhibit during the centennial year of his birth, titled, in Wallenberg's own immortal words: "To me there is no other choice" -- reflecting a singular courage and commitment. Canada Post also unveiled a stamp to mark the centennial of this Swedish non-Jew, whose heroism embodies the Talmudic idiom that "if you save a single life, it is as if you have saved an entire universe."

This disappeared Hero of Humanity -- whom the UN called "the greatest humanitarian of the 20th Century" -- demonstrated that one person can make a difference, that one person can resist evil and prevail.

Indeed, in transforming history and saving human "universes," Raoul Wallenberg, in his incredible heroism, may from a justice perspective be said to have presaged today's foundational principles of international human rights and humanitarian law.

For example:

  • First, in the distribution of schutzpasses -- diplomatic passports conferring protective immunity on their recipients -- and in the establishment of safe houses conferring diplomatic sanctuary on their inhabitants. Raoul Wallenberg is credited with saving 50,000 Jews by these means alone. His deeds affirmed and validated the principle of diplomatic immunity -- the remedy of diplomatic protection -- a foundational principle of international law and model of the diplomatic capacity to save lives.
  • Second, in his singular protection of civilians amid the horrors of the Holocaust, he manifested the best of what we today call international humanitarian law.
  • Third, in his organization of hospitals, soup kitchens, orphanages =- the staples of international humanitarian assistance that provided women, children, the sick and the elderly with a semblance of dignity in the fact of the worst of all horrors and evils -- Wallenberg symbolized the best of what we today would call international humanitarian intervention.
  • Fourth, in saving Jews from certain death, deportation and atrocity, he symbolized what today we would call the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
  • Finally, 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 remaining Jews there, he had the Nazi generals put on notice that they would be held accountable and brought to justice, if not executed, for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Nazi generals desisted from their assault and some 70,000 more Jews were saved, thanks to the indomitable courage of one person prepared to confront radical evil. In so 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.

Indeed, Wallenberg's heroism embodied and symbolized the universal lessons of the Holocaust, with their contemporary international resonance and importance for our time:

  • The dangers of forgetting -- the responsibility to remember;
  • The dangers of state-sanctioned cultures of hate and incitement -- the responsibility to prevent;
  • The dangers of indifference and inaction -- the responsibility to act;
  • The dangers of impunity -- the responsibility to bring war criminals to justice;
  • The dangers of mass atrocities -- the responsibility to protect:
  • The dangers of la Trahison des Clercs -- the responsibility to speak truth to power;
  • The dangers of race and anti-Semitism -- the responsibility to confront and combat.

Yet, while Wallenberg saved so many, he was not himself saved by so many who could have done so. Rather than greet him as the liberator he was, the Soviets -- who entered Hungary as liberators themselves on January 17, 1945 -- imprisoned Wallenberg. He disappeared into the Gulag, and the Soviets first claimed that he died in July 1947, and subsequently that he was murdered -- also in July 1947.

But these Soviet claims have been contradicted by several inquiries, including the International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg, inspired by Wallenberg's brother, the late Guy von Dardel, from Sweden, and in which Professor Irwin Cotler participated, along with US Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Russian scholar Mikhail Chlenov and former Israeli attorney-general Gideon Hausner.

Indeed, in 1985, a U.S. Federal Court found the evidence "incontrovertible" that Wallenberg lived past 1947, "compelling" that he was alive in the 1960s, and "credible" that he remained alive into the 1980s; but precisely what became of him remains a mystery.

Recently, a group of international Wallenberg experts launched a new international research project, the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70), coordinated by long-time researcher Susanne Berger. The group convened a Raoul Wallenberg International Roundtable anchored in the repository of the experience and expertise of the scholars, in order to develop, in Susanne Berger's words, "a blueprint for solving the Wallenberg case... and to discuss how to obtain access to essential documentation in Russian and other international archives."

Most important, this group is seeking justice for Raoul Wallenberg -- which has been denied all these years -- to unlock the secrets of history so that we, and particularly his long-suffering family, can finally learn the truth about this disappeared Hero of Humanity and personification of moral courage and action. For us, "there should be no other choice."