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Raoul Wallenberg, hero of humanity

The hero who rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust is a model for today's principles of human rights law
Raoul Wallenberg (Wikimedia Commons)
Raoul Wallenberg (Wikimedia Commons)

I write at an important moment of remembrance and reminder, of bearing witness and taking action – on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, reminding us of horrors too terrible to be believed but not too terrible to have happened; and on the eve of the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most brutal extermination camp of the 20th century. From 1941 to the end of 1944, some 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, 1.1 million of them were Jews. Let there be no mistake about it: Jews were murdered at Auschwitz, but anti-Semitism did not die there. It remains the bloody canary in the mineshaft of global evil.

In particular, I write also on the 72nd anniversary of the arrest, imprisonment, and disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg in the Soviet Gulag on January 17th in 1945 – which has been designated “Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day” in Canada – and where the Swedish Embassy in Israel this week organized a moving commemorative gathering which included the testimony of four Holocaust survivors saved by Raoul Wallenberg.

The testimony dramatized, yet again, the singular heroism and moral courage of this hero of humanity – this Swedish diplomat who the United Nations characterized as “the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century” – and who embodied the Talmudic idiom that if you save a single life it is as if you have saved the entire universe. Wallenberg was a beacon of light during the darkest days of the Holocaust, and his example remains so today. Prior to his arrival in Budapest in July 1944, some 430,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz in the space of 10 weeks – the fastest, cruelest and most efficient mass murder of the Nazi genocide. Yet Wallenberg rescued some 100,000 Jews in six months in Hungary in 1944, demonstrating that one person with the courage to care, and the commitment to act, can confront evil and transform history.

Raoul Wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg

Indeed, in transforming history and saving thousands of “universes” – Raoul Wallenberg, in his incredible heroism, may from a justice perspective be said to have presaged today’s foundational principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. For example:

First, in the distribution of “Schutzpasses” – diplomatic passports conferring protective immunity on their recipients – and in the establishment of safe houses conferring diplomatic sanctuary on their inhabitants – Raoul Wallenberg is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives 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 a model of the diplomatic capacity to save lives.

Second, in his singular protection of civilians amidst 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 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.

Wallenberg’s last rescue was perhaps his most memorable and presaged yet another foundational principle of international criminal and humanitarian law. As the Nazis were advancing on Budapest and threatening to blow up the ghetto and liquidate the remaining 70 000 Jews there – on orders of Adolph Eichmann – Wallenberg had the Nazi generals put 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. To Adolph Eichmann, Wallenberg was the “Judenhund Wallenberg”. To the Jews, and Holocaust survivors, Wallenberg was “the guardian angel.”

Indeed, Wallenberg’s heroism embodies and symbolizes the universal lessons of the Holocaust, with their contemporary international resonance and importance for our time:

The dangers of forgetting – the responsibility to remember – le devoir de mémoire;
Mass murder is not a matter of abstract statistics. Unto each person there is a name; each person has an identity; each person is a universe.

The dangers of state-sanctioned cultures of hate and incitement – the responsibility to prevent;
The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words.

The dangers of racism and anti-Semitism – the responsibility to confront and combat.
The oldest and most enduring of hatreds.

The danger of Holocaust denial – the responsibility to repudiate false witness;
The ultimate Orwellian inversion: the Holocaust denial movement whitewashes the crimes of the Nazis as it excoriates “the crimes” of the Jews.

The perils of indifference and inaction in the face of mass atrocity and genocide – the responsibility to protect;
Indifference and inaction always mean coming down on the side of the victimizer, never on the side of the victim.

The dangers of impunity – the responsibility to bring war criminals to justice;
Impunity only emboldens and encourages the war criminals and war crimes.

The dangers of la Trahison des Clercs – the betrayal of the elites – the responsibility to speak truth to power;
The Holocaust was made possible not only because of the “bureaucratization of genocide”, but because of the complicity of the elites – doctors, lawyers, judges, educators, faith leaders, engineers, architects, and the like.

The danger of assaults on the vulnerable and powerless – the responsibility to intervene;
It is our responsibility to give voice to the voiceless, to empower the powerless.

The danger of violence against women – the responsibility to prevent and protect;
Horrific crimes against women have not only accompanied genocide or been in consequence of it, but have in fact been perpetrated in pursuit of it.

The danger of mass atrocities against children – the responsibility to prevent and protect;
The destruction of millions of universes, of generations murdered and never to be realized.

The danger of the bystander community – the responsibility to remember and pay tribute to the rescuers;
The righteous among the nations, of whom the Swedish non-Jew Raoul Wallenberg is metaphor and message.

The imperative to respect the legacy of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides.
The legacy of light that emerges from the darkest of hatreds.

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 17th in 1945 imprisoned Wallenberg. He disappeared into the Gulag, with the Soviets first claiming that he died in July 1947, and subsequently claiming that he was murdered, also in July 1947.

But these Soviet – and subsequent Russian – claims have been contradicted by several inquiries, including the International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg, inspired by Wallenberg’s brother, the late Guy von Dardel, from Sweden, and in which I participated, along with US Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Russian scholar Mikhail Chlenov and former Israeli Attorney-General Gideon Hausner.

Indeed, in 1985, a 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 remained alive into the 1980s; but precisely what became of him remains a mystery.

Recently, a group of international Wallenberg experts launched a new international research project, the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70), coordinated by long-time researcher Susanne Berger. The group convened a Raoul Wallenberg International Roundtable in Moscow in September, anchored in the repository of the experience and expertise of the scholars, in order to develop, in Susanne Berger’s words, “a blueprint for solving the Wallenberg case… and to discuss how to obtain access to essential documentation in Russian and other international archives.”

Most important, this group – along with the Wallenberg family, Holocaust survivors, and custodians everywhere of Holocaust remembrance and bearing is seeking justice for Raoul Wallenberg – which has been denied all these years – to unlock the secrets of history so that we, and particularly his long-suffering family, can finally learn the truth about this disappeared Hero of Humanity.

Irwin Cotler is Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and longtime Parliamentarian.

About the Author
Irwin Cotler is a former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, and emeritus professor of law at McGill University.