While country after country turned its back on Jewish refugees, Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, saved tens of thousands at the end of World War II by issuing protective passports and offering shelter in embassy buildings. With over 65 million displaced persons around the world today, the need for another Wallenberg has never been greater.
On January 17th 1945, Swedish attaché, Raoul Wallenberg, drove his car to the front lines in Debrecen, Hungary to make contact with the approaching Soviet forces. He was promptly arrested as a spy and never heard from again. During the previous 7 months Wallenberg, and his team at the Swedish embassy in Budapest, had been frantically working to rescue the surviving Jews in that city from deportation by the Nazis. They did so by distributing Schützpass (protective passports) and negotiating with authorities to ensure the immunity of the its holders.
While the mission to save Budapest’s remaining Jews had support from the US and Swedish governments, what is remarkable is how little had been done up until that point to help save the desperate Jewish population of Europe. Antisemitism, immigration fears and general apathy were just some of the reasons for inaction. With historically high numbers of refugees, a sharp rise in xenophobia, and more restrictive immigration policies, it’s hard not to recognize the similarities between today’s response to the refugee crisis and our own inaction during the 1930s and 40s.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”
In May 1939, the German ocean liner, the St. Louis, departed Hamburg bound for Havana. On board were 950, mostly Jewish, passengers seeking asylum. After being denied entry to Cuba the St. Louis continued on into American waters and sailed within sight of Miami harbor. Some of the passengers managed to send an urgent message to President Roosevelt begging for intervention. The State Department telegrammed back stating that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas” before they would be allowed to enter the United States. The St. Louis eventually headed back to Europe where nearly 250 of its passengers perished in the Holocaust.
The response of the US government to the refugees aboard the St. Louis was not unique. In fact, US policy towards Jewish immigration had been restrictive for years. In 1924, the US government passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which restricted immigration to two percent of a particular nationality already residing in the United States. It also completely prohibited immigrants from Asia. As part of this policy the quota for German and Austrian immigrants at the outbreak of World War II was just 30,000 which included a waiting list of several years.
The Immigration and Nationality Act was in place for over 25 years and its official purpose was to “preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity”.
In February 2015, Republican Senator, Susan Collins, introduced a bill prohibiting the use of federal funds that would, among other things, increase access to U.S. citizenship, modernize and streamline the US Immigrant Visa System, or help integrate immigrants and refugees. The bill came a year after the US deported over 400,000 immigrants – more than in any previous year. In fact, between 2009 and 2015 a total of 2.5 million people were deported from the US, earning President Obama the nickname, ‘Deporter-in-Chief’. More recently, president-elect Trump has made his views clear when he stated that, “refugees harbor ideologies anathema to the values of the United States”.
This is how US leaders have responded to the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. In Syria alone over 11 million people have been forced to flee their homes since the start of the civil war there. For most, the situation is desperate. Around 13 million Syrians, for example, are in need a humanitarian assistance and the United Nations has described the situation in the city of Aleppo as a “meltdown of humanity”. And while countries like Turkey and Jordan have together accepted millions of refugees, the US has allowed in just 12,000 Syrians.
In total there are over 65 million displaced persons around the world today.
A righteous man
On the outskirts of Stockholm there is a small nature reserve filled with beech trees and gently sloping hills that look out over the Baltic Sea. In the middle of that reserve sits the foundation of an old summer cottage where on August 4th 1912, Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg was born.
Wallenberg was an unlikely candidate for the mission in Budapest. He was born into one of the wealthiest industrialist families in Sweden, studied architecture in the US, sold construction material and worked in the import-export business. He also had no diplomatic experience before accepting the assignment at the Swedish Embassy. What he did have however were qualities essential to the mission: courage, compassion and a conviction to do the right thing.
It was this conviction that led him to Budapest in July of 1944 in the middle of fierce fighting between the German and Soviet armies; it was this conviction that kept him committed despite death threats from the Hungarian fascists (The Arrow and Cross) and the head of the SS himself, Adolf Eichmann; and on the day he disappeared, it was Wallenberg’s conviction that persuaded him to drive the 150 miles through a war zone to ensure that the rescue mission could be completed.
The Book of Exodus says that, “you shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. In times of economic, political or social upheaval it is easy to forget about the millions of “strangers” struggling around the world today. The conviction and compassion of people like Raoul Wallenberg remind us that there are those out there willing to put the needs of many before the interests of a few.