The memory of this Holocaust hero will forever be a blessing for those who cherish justice and humanitarian values
Today, as Canada marks Raoul Wallenberg Day, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) pays tribute to the inspiring legacy of the late Swedish diplomat who risked his life to save nearly 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Defying the Nazis in Hungary in 1944-45, Raoul Wallenberg’s humanitarian heroics will be forever celebrated as a shining example of the difference one person can make in the face of hate and injustice.
Such was the magnitude of his righteous actions that the United Nations described Wallenberg as “the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century” and Canada named him its first honorary citizen in 1985. Similarly, both Israel and the United States conferred the same honour on him.
Toward the end of the Second World War, Sweden appointed Wallenberg as Special Envoy as part of a rescue operation to save a number of Hungarian Jews from being deported to the death camps. By the time he arrived in Budapest from Stockholm in July 1944 to take on his new role, the Nazis had already murdered more than 450,000 Hungarian Jews, with the intent to kill many more.
Wallenberg quickly expanded his original assignment to save far more Jews than the Swedish government originally planned. To that end, at personal risk, he issued thousands of protective passports and purchased local buildings which he put under the Swedish flag to shelter Jews. As the situation continued to worsen for Jews in Budapest, Wallenberg used unconventional methods, including bribery and blackmail, to finance and run his huge rescue operation. Never backing down from intimidation and threats, he eventually employed 340 people in his office to help in his expanding efforts, widely considered the largest humanitarian initiative for Jews under Nazi occupation.
In mid-October 1944, conditions became even more dire, with the establishment of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross regime in cahoots with Hitler. Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, returned to Budapest and immediately ordered the deportation of the city’s Jews, declaring protective letters null and void. Wallenberg and his colleagues protested and succeeded in having them reinstated, while Arrow Cross officials persisted with their persecution of Jews. With the deportation of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps then on hold for technical reasons, Eichmann organized death marches of Jews to the Austrian border. Undaunted, Wallenberg and a group of foreigners followed the marchers in their vehicles, distributing food, clothing and medication and even removing many Jews from the marches by claiming they were his “protected” Jews. He continued to distribute Swedish passes, even when Arrow Cross guards threatened him with their guns.
In early 1945, as Soviet troops lay siege on Budapest, Wallenberg remained in the city with the “protected” Jews. He threatened the German commander and Arrow Cross leader against going ahead with their plan to harm the remaining Jews. Just before the Soviets entered Budapest, he told a Swedish colleague: “I’ve taken on this assignment, and I will never be able to return to Stockholm without knowing inside myself that I’ve done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”
Tragically, soon after, on this date 78 years ago, Russian soldiers took Wallenberg into custody, never to be seen again. For many years, the Soviets claimed they had no knowledge of his fate. In 1956, Moscow finally stated Wallenberg had died in a Soviet prison in 1947. Compounding the mystery, the Soviets have always refused to reveal the details of his arrest and death.
Today, his memory lives on in many countries that have erected memorials to this great man’s legendary work and named institutions and public squares after him. On this Raoul Wallenberg Day, the FSWC team joins many other Canadians in reflecting on the life-saving actions of one of the most heroic figures of the Holocaust and drawing inspiration from the exemplary values that guided his efforts to save Jews from the Nazis.