Irwin Cotler

Raoul Wallenberg: Remembering a hero of humanity

The world must finally learn the fate of the Swedish diplomat who saw 'no other choice' but to help Jews during the Holocaust
Raoul Wallenberg (Wikimedia Commons)
Raoul Wallenberg (Wikimedia Commons)

This week we marked Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day in remembrance of, and in tribute to, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg – Canada’s first honorary citizen and an honorary citizen of the US, Australia and Israel – who demonstrated that one person with the compassion to care, and the courage to act, can confront evil, prevail and transform history.

Accordingly, Canada’s “Country Pledges” at the recent 2022 Malmo International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism – and which I recommended then, as Canada’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism – called for learning about and acting upon Wallenberg’s heroic legacy, a call reaffirmed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day.

Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was a beacon of light during the darkest days of the Holocaust, and his heroism warrants remembrance and reminder today. Indeed, this year’s Commemorative Day comes at a particularly poignant and painful inflection moment in both historical and contemporary terms. First, it takes place on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to the death camp Auschwitz – the worst extermination camp of the 20th century. Second, it also marks the 80 years since of Wallenberg’s heroic rescue. Third, it takes place amidst an unprecedented, contemporary international drumbeat of evil – Russia’s criminal aggression in Ukraine; Hamas’ horrific mass atrocities of October 7th, otherwise known as Black Sabbath, underpinned by Hamas’ standing incitement to hate and genocide, which triggered the Hamas-Israel War, and the resulting death and devastation. Let there be no mistake about it, the death of any civilian – Israeli or Palestinian – is a tragedy. And China, too, continues its assault on the rules-based order, and their mass atrocities targeting the Muslim Uyghurs; and there are ongoing assaults upon the Rohingya, Sudanese, Ethiopians and more – let alone the intensifying imprisonment of human rights defenders amid a culture of impunity.

What did Raoul Wallenberg do during the Holocaust?

From mid-May to the beginning of July 1944, some 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the Auschwitz death camp – the fastest, cruelest and most efficient killing field in the Holocaust. Wallenberg arrived as a member of the Swedish Legation in Budapest, Hungary in mid-July 1944 and in a remarkable demonstration of ingenuity and inspiration, bluff and bravado, rescued some 100,000 Jews in the last six months of 1944 alone – more than any other single government or organization – let alone the continuing indifference of the international bystander community.

As we also marked the 82nd anniversary of the Wannsee Conference on January 20, where the Final Solution was foreordained, we recall that what makes the Holocaust so unspeakable are not only horrors too terrible to be believed but not too terrible to have happened, but that these horrors were preventable. Nobody could say we did not know. We knew but did not act.

As Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel taught us, silence in the face of evil ends up being complicity with evil itself.

I first learned of Wallenberg’s heroism from the testimony of Holocaust survivors saved by him, when acting in the 1970s as pro-bono Counsel for the Association of Survivors of Nazi Oppression; from US congressman Tom Lantos, himself saved by Wallenberg, who inspired the conferral of honorary US citizenship on Wallenberg in 1981; from Raoul Wallenberg’s family, whom I have been serving as counsel for close to 46 years; and from Swedish diplomat Per Anger, who worked with Wallenberg in the rescue of Jews in Hungary in 1944 and later became Sweden’s ambassador to Canada.

I also had the occasion, as a Canadian parliamentarian, to address the Swedish parliament during the celebration of the centennial of Wallenberg’s birth in 2012, where I witnessed an international exhibit titled, in Wallenberg’s own immortal words, “to me there was no other choice.” This phrase reflected his singular courage and commitment, which embodies the Talmudic principle that “if you save a single life, it is as if you have saved an entire universe.”

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 – underpinned by the understanding that indifference and inaction always means coming down on the side of the victimizer, not on the side of the victim.

By distributing schutzpasses – diplomatic passports conferring protective immunity – and establishing safe houses conferring diplomatic sanctuary, Wallenberg has been credited with saving 50,000 Jews by these means alone. His heroic deeds affirmed and validated the principle of diplomatic immunity, and the remedy of diplomatic protection, a foundational principle of international law and a model of the diplomatic capacity to save lives. Simply put, consular or diplomatic assistance should not be seen as a matter of “discretion,” but a matter of legal obligation.

With his protection and rescue of civilians amid the horrors of the Holocaust, including from death marches and death camp transports on the way to Auschwitz, he manifested the best of what we today call international humanitarian law.

With his organization of hospitals, soup kitchens and 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 embodied the best of what we today call international humanitarian intervention.

By saving Jews from certain deportation, death 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.

To the “desk murderer” Adolf Eichmann, who was organizing the transports to Auschwitz, Wallenberg was the Judenhund Wallenberg, the “Jewish Dog.” To the Jews, as those saved by Wallenberg would tell me, Wallenberg was the “Guardian Angel.”

What happened to Raoul Wallenberg?

Yet, while Wallenberg saved so many, he was not himself saved by so many who could. Rather than greet Wallenberg as the liberator he was, the Soviets – who entered Hungary as liberators themselves on January 17, 1945 – imprisoned him, where 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, US Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Russian scholar Mikhail Chlenov, and former Israeli attorney-general Gideon Hausner.

Indeed, in 1985, as our commission report cited, a US 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 1980s – a position held by Soviet Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov, who conveyed this information personally to Chlenov and me in a meeting we had in Moscow in November 1989, shortly before Sakharov’s passing in December.

It is imperative that the international community finally secure for Wallenberg and his family the long-denied truth and justice owed to them. Accordingly, I am delighted that Susanne Berger, founder and coordinator of the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70) and a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, has launched an initiative that opens up the blank pages of history. Accordingly, the countries of Wallenberg’s honorary citizenship, including Israel, should lead an international consortium calling upon Russia to open its archives and reveal the long-sought and suppressed truth about this disappeared hero of humanity, whom the UN called “the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century.” For us, in Wallenberg’s own immutable words, “there should be no other choice.” As well, these countries should hold parliamentary hearings with witness testimony to further this compelling initiative.

May our commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg Day be not only an act of remembrance but a remembrance to act on behalf of our common humanity.

About the Author
Irwin Cotler is Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada, longtime parliamentarian, and International Legal Counsel to Prisoners of Conscience. He is Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.