SYDNEY – When Frank Vajda arrives at Government House in Canberra on May 6, it will mark the beginning of the end of a 30-year campaign to honor Raoul Wallenberg, the venerated Swedish diplomat who saved his life.
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In the presence of Australia’s head of state, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Holocaust survivors and Jewish community leaders, a certificate of citizenship will be handed over recognizing Wallenberg as an honorary Australian – this nation’s first such citizen.
“I’m absolutely overwhelmed and very grateful it’s being done,” said Vajda, 77, who is still in regular touch with the Wallenberg family. “You never forget when you are on the edge of extinction.” To this day, he added, he still can’t believe he survived.
“Anything I’ve ever done and achieved in my life I owe to Australia," Vajda said. "But I owe my life to Raoul Wallenberg."The memory of Wallenberg, he said, is still with him every day.
Vajda was nine years old on October 16, 1944 when he and his mother were lined up with about 30 other Jewish Hungarians to be shot by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross.
He cheated death thanks to Wallenberg, who persuaded the gunmen to spare these Jews – and tens of thousands of others – by issuing them a Swedish “Schutzpass,” which gave holders protection from the Nazis.Wallenberg was later arrested by Soviet forces in January 1945. His fate has remained a mystery ever since.
Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, will speak on behalf of the Jewish community next Monday.
“If evil triumphs when good people say and do nothing, Raoul Wallenberg demonstrated that even one good person can thwart evil and inspire others to work together to defeat it,” he said.
Vajda, a Melbourne-based professor of neuropharmacology, erected a public memorial to the Swedish diplomat in Melbourne back in 1985 – believed to be the first public memorial in the world outside of Budapest. Since then he has lobbied for Wallenberg to receive the ultimate honor.
“I first tried in the mid-1980s to make him an honorary Australian citizen,” he told Haaretz this week. “The first time [I asked] I was fobbed off and told there was no precedent.
“The Sydney Wallenberg committee tried many times and so did B’nai B’rith,” said Vajda, who received the prestigious Order of Australia award last year for services to neuropharmacology, medical education, and to the Jewish community. But all of the attempts to honor Wallenberg in this way were rebuffed – until now.
Vajda said the centenary of Wallenberg’s birth, which was marked last year by numerous events around the country, triggered a renewed push.In a speech to federal parliament last October, Jewish MP Joshua Frydenberg praised Vajda, who lives in his electorate, and hailed Wallenberg as a hero.
“He was a man who was a righteous among nations and whose courage and deeds will always represent a beam of light in what was one of the darkest periods in the history of mankind,” Frydenberg told parliament.
The following month, Foreign Minister Bob Carr spoke at a ceremony at the Australian National University in Canberra, where a row of trees was planted in Wallenberg’s honor.
In his speech, Carr quoted Vajda: “I owe a debt to this man. I owe my life to this man. I owe my mother's life to this man. I honor him. How can you honor him other than by making people think, ask questions and remember?”
These public statements prompted Vajda to write to the Foreign Minister, appealing for Australia to finally make Wallenberg an honorary citizen.
“This was a trigger,” Vajda told Haaretz. “The climate seemed favorable.”
His plea, which had fallen on deaf ears for decades, was finally answered when the prime minister made the historic announcement on April 15, calling it a "symbolic recognition of Mr. Wallenberg’s tireless devotion to human life during the Holocaust.”
Since this is a first for Australia, the legal issues were “thoroughly assessed by the relevant departments, and ultimately there were no impediments,” a spokesperson for the PM told Haaretz, stressing the “critical distinction” between the granting of formal citizenship and honorary citizenship.
Aside from Vajda’s original memorial in Melbourne, other memorials have been erected in Australia, including a garden in Sydney, a tree in front of the new Parliament House in Canberra named by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1989 and a reflective seat in Melbourne, inscribed with the Talmudic injunction: “Whoever preserves the life of a single human being, it is as if he had preserved an entire world.”
But for Vajda, next week’s ceremony will not signal the end of his campaign to honor the diplomat who saved his life.
“Wallenberg should take his place as a unique historical figure in the Australian curriculum and every Australian child should be inculcated with the idea to be humane, tolerant and to fight racism,” Vajda said. “He represented goodness, kindness and humanity.”