Thursday marks an important moment of remembrance at Montreal’s city hall, as the city commemorates the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, Canada’s first honorary citizen. Wallenberg was a Swedish non-Jew who saved more Hungarian Jews in four months in 1944 than did any single government. The United Nations has called him “the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century.”
This 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 not only that one person can confront and resist evil, but that one person can prevail, and thereby transform history.
His incredible heroism — which is also recognized at the inauguration of Holocaust Education Week under the auspices of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre on Wednesday evening — includes:
- Issuing Swedish Schutzpasses — diplomatic passes conferring immunity on their recipients — that Holocaust survivors saved by Wallenberg have told me were crafted by him in such a way that they appeared to be even more authentic in their design than the original, and that inspired other legations to do the same. By this remedy alone, some 20,000 Jews were saved.
- Establishing an international group of 32 “safe houses,” as they came to be known, protected by neutral legations. Some 32,000 people were saved through this initiative alone.
- Organizing hospitals, soup kitchens and child-care centres, the staples of international humanitarian assistance, that provided women, children, the sick, the elderly — the most vulnerable of victims — with a semblance of 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 Schutzpasses 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 Schutzpasses, once again saving people destined for death.
To Adolf Eichmann, the man who was to implement the Nazis’ “final solution” for the Jews, Wallenberg was the “Judenhund,” the Jewish dog. But to 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 remaining Jews there, he put the generals on notice that they would be held accountable and brought to justice, if not executed, for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. The 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.
While Wallenberg saved so many, he was not himself saved by those who could have done so. Rather than greet him as the liberator he was, the Soviets — who entered Hungary as liberators themselves — imprisoned Wallenberg. He disappeared into the Gulag, and the Soviets claimed that he died in July 1947.
But the International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg — which I chaired, and which included Wallenberg’s brother, the late Guy von Dardel, from Sweden, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel from the U.S. — 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.
The evidence was compelling that Wallenberg was alive in the 1950s and ’60s, and credible that he was still alive in the 1970s and ’80s.
Legally speaking, Wallenberg remained a disappeared person.
The burden of proof with respect to what happened remains with the Soviets’ Russian successors to this day.
Our subsequent weeklong visit to Vladimir prison in the former Soviet Union not only affirmed these points, but we found — astonishingly — that the Soviets who maintained that he had died in 1947 had never themselves visited the prison, never examined its archives, never interviewed any of its officials, and never interrogated any of the witness inmates. In a word, they had no basis upon which to conclude anything regarding the fate of Raoul Wallenberg.
In recognizing Wallenberg as a citizen of Montreal, the city will be affirming that, in his singular protection of civilians amid the horrors of the Holocaust, he manifested the best of what we today call international humanitarian law; that in his provision of humanitarian relief, he symbolized what today we would call the best of humanitarian intervention; that in saving Jews from certain death, deportation and atrocity, he symbolized what today we would call the Responsibility to Protect doctrine; and that, in warning the Nazi generals that they would be held responsible for their war crimes, he was a forerunner of the Nuremberg principles and what today we would call international criminal law.