Presentation of the Raoul Wallenberg awards.
Madrid, 9 December 2002.
Hertzl Inbar, Israeli Ambassador to Spain.
A few years ago, while serving as Ambassador to Asia for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, I had lunch in a small and cozy restaurant with Sugihara’s widow and son. Sugihara was the Japanese ”Wallenberg” or Sanz Briz. He served as the Japanese General Consul to Riga during the Second World War and he gave shelter and issued visas to thousands of Jews. These visas were, in reality, a passport to life for them.
During the meal his son told me that when the first Jews started to arrive at the building and the gardens of the consulate, his father gathered the family (the son was 10 years old at that time) and told them that from that moment onwards, dozens of people would be residing at the consulate. He told his family that they would be making use of the same quarters, they would be sharing the same provisions and he warned them that many of the new guests had different customs, strange clothes and that they spoke a language which the family would not understand. The father urged them all to be patient and kind. The son asked him: ”Father why are we doing this?” Sughiara simply answered: ”Because it is the right thing!
The entrance to Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, is surrounded by a terrace on which trees were planted. It is an avenue constructed in memory of the Righteous among the Nations. A tree was planted for each one of the gentiles who risked their life to save Jews. There are a few dozen trees, maybe a few hundred. One of them was planted to commemorate Raoul Wallenberg, one to commemorate Sugihara and one in memory of Sanz Briz.
A short distance away, in a thick forest, a tree was planted for each one of the victims of the holocaust, six million trees. How different the story of Europe and mankind would have been if instead of hundreds of people, thousands had done the right thing! Maybe instead of millions of trees we would remember millions of survivors in Israel. But it did not happen that way and we remember the righteous for their just behavior and heroic acts and we revere them for what they did.
A film, directed by Roman Polansky and based on Spilman´s book, ”The pianist”, has just been released. The writer tells us the story of how he survived in the Warsaw ghetto. He describes his hourly fight for survival and his daily struggle to overcome his miserable existence and remain a human being.
In a related, though different level, the recent Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertesz, derives philosophical and metaphysical conclusions from his personal experience during this infamous chapter of human history.
European civilization went back to zero in Auschwitz, said Kertesz. Have we moved beyond that point today? Maybe we have. But the return of old ghosts: xenophobia, racism and even anti-Semitism create a growing and justified worry. However, history has also shown that there are always human beings who have the moral disposition and courage to do the right thing when circumstances require it.
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation aims to promote the Wallenberg, Sugihara and Sanz Briz legacy – to do the right thing – the humane and the ethical, even in moments of danger. The members of the foundation and those who believe in its cause will have succeeded in their mission when doing what is correct stops being an act of heroism.
Almost six decades have passed since the Second World War, since the holocaust. However, many people in Europe are tempted to ignore the past and thus avoid responsibilities. Albert Camus said in his book ”The Myth of Sisyphus”: ”We are not entirely responsible because we did not start history, but we are not entirely innocent because we are forced to continue it”.
Thanks again to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and to all people here tonight for joining us on this occasion.