Opinion

Raoul Wallenberg: Disappeared Hero of the Holocaust

A Hungarian woman touches the memorial stone of Wallenberg in Budapest on August 1, 2012.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

This week marks an important moment of remembrance and reminder, of bearing witness and of taking action.

Friday is the 75th anniversary of the disappearance of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, presaging the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most brutal extermination camp of the 20th century.

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75 years later, the international drumbeat of evil and indifference can still feel overwhelming, with the international community too often a bystander to atrocity and injustice. How appropriate, then, that January 17, the day of Wallenberg’s disappearance in the Soviet gulag in 1945, has been designated Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day internationally in honor of this disappeared hero, who is also an honorary citizen of Israel, Canada, Australia and the United States.

Wallenberg, a non-Jewish Swedish diplomat, was a beacon of light during the darkest days of the Holocaust, and his inspiration remains so today. Prior to his arrival to the Swedish legation in Budapest in mid-July 1944, some 440,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz in 10 weeks – the fastest, cruelest and most efficient mass murder of the Holocaust. Yet Wallenberg rescued some 100,000 Jews in Hungary in the last six months of 1944, demonstrating that one person with the compassion to care, and the courage to act, can confront evil, prevail and transform history.

I witnessed the celebration of Wallenberg’s heroism in Stockholm during the centennial year of his birth in 2012, in an international exhibit titled, in Wallenberg’s own immortal words, “To me there is no other choice,” reflecting his singular courage and commitment.

Raoul Wallenberg.
AP

Canada, Israel and the U.S. also commemorated the centennial of this man, whose heroism embodies the Talmudic idiom that “if you save a single life, it is as if you have saved an entire universe,” and whom the UN called “the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century.”

In transforming history and saving human “universes,” Wallenberg may be said to have presaged today’s foundational principles of international human rights and humanitarian law.

In distributing schutzpasses, diplomatic passports conferring protective immunity, and establishing safe houses conferring diplomatic sanctuary, Wallenberg is credited with saving 50,000 Jews. His heroic 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.

In his protection of civilians amid the horrors of the Holocaust, he manifested the best of what we today call international humanitarian law.

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 face of the worst of all horrors and evils, Wallenberg symbolized the best of what we today call international humanitarian intervention.

In saving Jews from certain death, deportation and atrocity, he symbolized what we today call the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

Finally, Wallenberg’s last rescue was perhaps his most memorable. As the Nazis advanced on Budapest and threatened to blow up the city’s ghetto and liquidate the remaining Jews, he put the Nazi 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 Nazi generals desisted. Some 70,000 more Jews were saved, thanks to the indomitable courage of one person prepared to confront radical evil. In 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 call international criminal law.

A statue of Raoul Wallenberg in Israel
Tomer Appelbaum

Wallenberg’s heroism embodied and symbolized the universal lessons of the Holocaust with their contemporary international resonance and importance: 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 the betrayal of the elites – and the responsibility to speak truth to power.

The dangers of racism and anti-Semitism amid a global resurgence of this oldest and most enduring of hatreds – and our individual and collective responsibilities to confront and combat them.

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. The Soviets first claimed that he died of a heart attack in July 1947, before changing their story to claim that he was murdered, also in July 1947.

These contradictory Soviet claims have been refuted by several inquiries, including the 1990 International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg, which I chaired, along with Wallenberg’s brother Guy Von Dardel, U.S. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Russian scholar Mikhail Chlenov and former Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hausner.

In 1985, a U.S. federal court found the evidence “incontrovertible” that Wallenberg was alive in 1947, “compelling” that he was alive in the 1960s and “credible” that he remained alive into the ‘80s; but precisely what became of him remains a mystery.

It is imperative that the international community finally secure for Wallenberg the long-denied justice and unlock the secrets of history. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel to speak at the International Holocaust Commemorative Forum January 23 presents such an opportunity. Russia should be encouraged to open its archives and reveal the long-sought truth about this disappeared hero of humanity and personification of moral courage and action. For us, “there should be no other choice.”

Prof. Irwin Cotler, the chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, is a former justice minister, attorney general and a longtime parliamentarian of Canada.