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2011 11 03


Why the Jewish Congress remembers Raoul Wallenberg
Canada's first honorary citizen saved thousands from the Nazis and showed what a profound impact a single person of integrity can make in the world

by Eric Vernon
                On Jan. 17, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Red Army in Budapest, Hungary and disappeared, his fate unknown, into the Soviet gulag. What he was doing in Budapest in the first place is a tale of selfless heroism and extraordinary courage and underscores why in 1985 Canada bestowed upon Wallenberg its first honorary Canadian citizenship.
                In March, 1944, Hitler tired of the dilatory efforts of Hungarian leadership to eliminate the Jews of Hungary and dispatched the notorious overseer of the Final Solution, Adolph Eichmann, to finish the job. Mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau soon began in earnest and the United States and neutral Sweden agreed to a rescue mission of the Jews of Budapest, the last remaining large Jewish community in Europe.
                After careful consideration they ultimately determined that Raoul Wallenberg was the best man for the job. Wallenberg was the scion of a wealthy Swedish family, "Swedish Rockefellers," according to one description. He was well-educated, multilingual and, with a career in banking and commerce on the continent, well-versed in the workings of the Nazi bureaucracy. Granted freedom of action, Wallenberg eagerly accepted the challenge to go to Budapest to, in his words, "save a nation".
                Under cover of the bogus position of first secretary of the Swedish legation, Wallenberg capitalized on his "diplomatic" status to work his magic. With ingenuity, guile and determination, and at tremendous risk to his personal safety, (Eichmann reportedly told him that "even diplomats can have accidents"), Wallenberg stood up on behalf of the Jews of Budapest to Eichmann and his successor and the minions of the Nazi bureaucracy.
                Perhaps Wallenberg’s best-known initiative involved the "Schutzpass," a protective passport that the Swedish legation had been issuing only sporadically prior to Wallenberg’s arrival. Although they had no legal basis, Wallenberg immediately grasped their potential. He redesigned the Schutzpass into a much more impressive, even formidable document, testifying that the bearer was under the protection of the Swedish Embassy. He issued them by the thousands and the bluff saved countless lives.
                By the time the Red Army liberated the city, Wallenberg had saved about 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Unfortunately, the Soviets viewed Wallenberg’s humanitarian selflessness with suspicion, likely believing he was an American spy. They arrested Wallenberg on Jan. 17 and the man who had so valiantly fought the first of the two worst tyrannies of the 20th century immediately became a prisoner of the second.
                The connections between Canada and Raoul Wallenberg are remarkably deep and wide. Perhaps the most personal link lies in those who survived the Holocaust thanks to Wallenberg’s direct efforts and then made Canada their adopted home after the war. This includes people such as Dr. Erwin Koranyi who personally received six Schutzpass from Wallenberg for his family. Dr. Koranyi has lived in Ottawa for 40 years.
                Raoul Wallenberg Park in Nepean also attests to the admiration and respect that our community holds for this great beacon of humanitarianism.
                In a larger sense, the values that Wallenberg lived by and exemplified resonate deeply with Canadians. His essential humanity, commitment to principle, profound sense of justice, courage and concern for others impelled him to leave the safety of Sweden to risk his life to save others from evil and tyranny.
                In 2001, Canada gave concrete expression to this sentiment by declaring Jan. 17 as Raoul Wallenberg Day, to "honour the courage, character and humanity of an exceptional individual." It has become a day for serious reflection across Canada on the critical importance of freedom, democracy, human rights, equality and, above all, the profound impact for positive change that a single person of integrity can make in the world.
                On Sunday, as we mark the 65th anniversary of Wallenberg’s capture and begin the 25th anniversary year of his honorary Canadian citizenship, it is well that we consider the shining example he provided in one of history’s darkest hours. It may be that Raoul Wallenberg not only rescued Jews, but humankind itself.
                Wallenberg was once called "an example of moral and physical courage which defies description." That may be true but we must strive to honour his legacy by emulating his actions and committing to living by his values. The world today desperately needs all of us to be a little like him and step up for justice, freedom and equality. That is something we should all ponder on Raoul Wallenberg Day.

Eric Vernon is director of government relations and international affairs for the Canadian Jewish Congress
~ democratically elected, national organizational voice of the Jewish community of Canada


Wallenberg has inspired many, including in his native Sweden, where is maintained the "official" site,
and the Raoul Wallenberg Academy for Young Leaders:

                When the Soviet Union fell, many countries opened which were closed before. The borders disappeared. Optimism and belief in the future spread over the world. What happened instead was that long suppressed ethnical, religious and regional conflicts arose. New and dangerous regimes saw daylight. The information technology got its breakthrough and world trade increased. These developments have gone faster and the world has grown more complex. Global risks are considered bigger than ever, due to increased criminality, increased environmental pollution, increased terrorism, increased weakening of cultures, the vulnerability of the financial systems.
                Responsibility for our future increasingly rests on the shoulders of trade and industry leaders in accordance with the increasing globalization and the nations' decreased influence. A nation can in general only decide within its own borders while a multinational company can have an influence in several different countries.
                To find the solutions to this a leader who has been formed during these rapid development is needed. A leader who has the courage to take new directions, who understands cooperation between state, trade and industry, organizations and individuals whixh is necessary in order to form a better and more secure world.
                Raoul Wallenberg was such a leader.
                Raoul Wallenberg Academy for Young Leaders would like to provide a new generation with knowledge about the important role of leadership.