Remembering Raoul Wallenberg


Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the 1945 disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, the Second World War-era Swedish diplomat whom the United Nations has called "The greatest humanitarian of the 20th century."

Raoul Wallenberg
(1912 - ?)

In recognition of this hero of humanity, Jan. 17 is now officially commemorated as Raoul Wallenberg Day.

Indeed, this Swedish non-Jew, this Saint Just of the nations, this first of our honorary citizens, is the embodiment of the Talmudic and Islamic adage that whoever saves a single life, it is as if they have saved an entire universe. This lost hero of the Holocaust confronted the Nazi killing machine in Hungary and showed that one person can make a difference; that one person can resist; that one person can prevail over radical evil. Wallenberg's incredible heroism included:

  • The granting of Shutzpasses — diplomatic passes that provided protective immunity — to Jews at risk in Budapest. He also influenced other governments to follow his example.

  • His establishment of protective havens in Budapest — the "international ghetto" as it came to be called. Once again, he inspired other legations to follow his example, and with this initiative alone, some 32,000 people were saved.

  • Wallenberg's rescue of thousands from deportation and death in October, 1944, when Hungary's Arrow Cross Nazi puppet government unleashed a wave of murderous deportations and atrocities. At railway stations, he once again provided Shutzpasses to those at risk, thereby removing them from trains that were about to deport them to a certain death.

  • In November, 1944, as thousands of Jews, mainly women and children, were sent on a 125-mile death march, Wallenberg followed, distributing food, medical supplies and improvised documents.

  • Wallenberg's last rescue was perhaps the most memorable. As the Nazis were advancing on Budapest late in the war, threatening to blow up the city's ghetto and liquidate the remnants of some 70,000 Hungarian Jews, Wallenberg put the Nazi generals on notice that they would be brought to justice for their war crimes, and perhaps even executed. The result was that the Nazis desisted from their final assault on Budapest, and tens of thousands were saved by the courage of one person.

This lost hero of the Holocaust confronted the Nazi killing machine in Hungary and showed that one person can make a difference; that one person can resist; that one person can prevail over radical evil.

To the Jews, Wallenberg was always a guardian angel. To Adolph Eichmann, the bureaucratic desk murderer responsible for the Final Solution for Jews in Hungary and elsewhere, Wallenberg was the Judenhund Wallenberg, the "Jewish dog."

All of us should take this opportunity to learn about, reflect upon, and be inspired by the unparalleled heroism of this great humanitarian. In his protection of civilians during armed conflict, he symbolized the best of the human spirit. In his warnings to the Nazis, which foreshadowed the Nuremberg principles that would emerge following the war, he epitomized something else, too: the mechanisms of humanitarian law. Raoul Wallenberg was not only a great humanitarian. He also taught us that we each have an indispensable role to play in the struggle for human rights and dignity.

We must remember always that human rights begin with each of us — in our homes, in our workplace, in our human relations, in our daily capacity for acts of care and compassion, in our daily capacity to make life better for some victim of discrimination or disadvantage.

This then must be our task: to speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard; to bear witness on behalf of those who cannot testify. We need to live human rights — to become the implementers of international human rights law. That is what the protection ofhuman security is all about.


Irwin Cotler, "Remembering Raoul Wallenberg." National Post, (Canada) January 17, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Irwin Cotler is the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal and the former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada. He is a professor of law (on leave) from McGill University and served as chairman of the International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg. Conferences dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg are being held today at McGill University in Montreal and later this week at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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