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Why You Must Remember Raoul Wallenberg

01/29/2013 08:15 EST | Updated 03/20/2013 05:12 EDT
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January 17 -- Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day -- marks an important moment of remembrance and reminder, wherein Canadians are invited to learn about, reflect upon, and act upon the incredible humanitarian legacy of Canada's first honorary citizen. He was a Swedish diplomat who saved some 100,000 Jews in six months in 1944 Hungary, more than any single government or organization, who demonstrated that one person with the courage to care, and the commitment to act can confront evil and transform history.

His heroism is celebrated in the Wallenberg exhibit now touring Canada, entitled, in Wallenberg's own immortal words, "To me there is no other choice" -- reflecting his singular courage and commitment. Canada Post has unveiled a stamp to mark the centennial of the birth of this Swedish non-Jew whose heroism embodies the Talmudic idiom that "if you save a single life, it is as if you had 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 confront evil, resist, prevail, and transform history.

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

For example:

First, in the distribution of schutzpasses -- diplomatic passports conferring 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 face 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 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 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 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 assaults on the vulnerable -- the Responsibility to Protect;
  • The dangers of la Trahison des Clercs -- the Responsibility to speak truth to power;
  • The dangers of racism 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 -- 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 in August 1990 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.

The time has come for Russia to open up its archives and to unlock the secrets of history so that we can finally learn the truth about this disappeared hero of humanity. For us, there should be no other choice.

May Raoul Wallenberg Day be not only an act of remembrance -- which it is -- but a remembrance always to act.