(As published in the Montreal Gazette)
It has been a dark January.
Thus far, 2015 has brought tragic and infuriating terrorism, anti-Semitism and assaults on liberty in France; a car bomb in Yemen that killed and injured dozens; and the massacre of thousands in Nigeria by Boko Haram. This is in addition to continuing mass atrocities and humanitarian crises in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Central Africa, Sudan and elsewhere, and it comes on the heels of the deadly hostage-taking in Sydney, and the barbarous terrorist attack on a school in Pakistan that left over 100 dead, most of them children.
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 Saturday, Jan. 17 is Raoul Wallenberg Day.
Prior to Wallenberg’s arrival as a Swedish diplomat in Budapest in July 1944, some 430,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz in only 10 weeks – the fastest, cruelest, and most efficient mass murders of the Nazi genocide. Yet Wallenberg rescued more Hungarian Jews than any single government, notably saving 20,000 by issuing Schutzpasses, documents conferring diplomatic immunity. He even went to the trains as mass deportations were underway, distributing Schutzpasses to people otherwise consigned to death.
Wallenberg saved an additional 32,000 by establishing dozens of safe houses in a diplomatic zone protected by neutral legations. He organized hospitals, soup kitchens and childcare centres, and when thousands of Jews were sent on a 200-kilometre death march in November 1944, he followed alongside, distributing improvised Schutzpasses, as well as food and medical supplies.
Finally, with the Nazis preparing to liquidate the Budapest ghetto, Wallenberg warned Nazi generals that they would be brought to justice, if not executed, for their crimes. They desisted, and 70,000 more Jews were saved.
Regrettably, 70 years ago, on Jan. 17, 1945, Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets, who had entered Hungary as liberators. He disappeared into the Gulag, and his fate remains unknown.
Initial Soviet claims that he died in custody in July 1947 have since been contradicted by investigations including the one I chaired in 1990, which included Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Soviet scholar Mikhail Chelnov, former Israeli attorney general Gideon Hauser, and Wallenberg’s brother, Guy von Dardel, who was the driving force behind our commission’s establishment. In 1985, the 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 lived into the 1980s, but precisely what became of him remains a mystery.
Still, Wallenberg’s legacy endures, reminding us of the power of an individual to confront evil and transform history.
Wallenbergwas named Canada’s first honorary citizen 30 years ago. He has been granted the same distinction in Hungary, Australia, Israel and the United States, and there are monuments to him in cities around the world.
By intervening to save civilians, Wallenberg personified what today we call the Responsibility to Protect; by giving out food and medical supplies, he provided what today we call humanitarian relief and assistance; and by issuing his warning to Nazi generals, he prefigured the Nuremberg principles and what today we call international criminal law.
At a time when it seems as though each day brings a new heart-wrenching catastrophe, let us be inspired by Raoul Wallenberg, who came face to face with the horrors of Nazism, and was moved not to despair, but to action.
Irwin Cotler is the Liberal MP for Mount Royal, former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, and emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University. In 2014, he was awarded the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Medal.