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Raoul Wallenberg rescued 100,000 Jews. He deserves better.

Those who know the Swedish diplomat as the ‘greatest humanitarian of the 20th century' should unite to secure the truth about what befell him in the Soviet gulag
Raoul Wallenberg in his office
Photo: Wikipedia
Raoul Wallenberg in his office Photo: Wikipedia

This week we marked Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day in remembrance of, and in tribute to, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg – Canada’s first Honourary Citizen and an Honourary Citizen of 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 Malmö International Forum on 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. This is particularly resonant amidst the international drumbeat of evil – mass atrocities targeting the Uyghers, the Rohingya, Afghans, Ethiopians, and others – let alone the imprisonment of human rights defenders amidst a culture of impunity – and the accompanying indifference and inaction.

From mid-May to the beginning of July 1944, some 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the death camp Auschwitz – 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 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 mark also the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference on January 20th, 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.

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 45 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 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 – heroism that 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.

In distributing schutzpasses, diplomatic passports conferring protective immunity, and establishing safe houses conferring diplomatic sanctuary, Wallenberg is credited with saving 50,000 Jews by these means alone. His heroic deeds affirmed and validated the principle of diplomatic immunity, the remedy of diplomatic protection, a foundational principle of international law and are 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

In 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.

In 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.

In 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.”

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 ‘80s – a position held by Soviet Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov, who conveyed this information personally to Mikhail Chlenov and me in a meeting we had in Moscow in November 1989. I returned to Canada but arranged to meet with Dr. Sakharov for dinner on a return visit to Moscow scheduled for December 14th. While flying to Moscow, I learned that the meeting was not to be, as Dr. Sakharov had died of a heart attack that morning. I ended up speaking at his funeral and delivering the Sakharov-Wallenberg lectureship at the founding meeting of the Russian Jewish Congress in Moscow, dedicated to the heroism of both Wallenberg and Sakharov.

It is imperative that the international community finally secure for Wallenberg and his family the long-denied truth and justice owed to them. 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 twentieth century.” For us, in Wallenberg’s own immutable words, “there should be no other choice.”

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.

Irwin Colter is International Chair of the Canadian-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights; Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University and the first Isaacman Distinguished Visiting Professor in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Gratz College; former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and longtime parliamentarian; and international counsel to political prisoners.

About the Author
Irwin Cotler is an 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, and International Legal Counsel to Prisoners of Conscience. He has also been appointed Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.