Tuesday begins a yearlong celebration of the life of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who chose not to be indifferent when faced with great evil.
Raoul Wallenberg was born 100 years ago into a family of great wealth and influence. He could have remained safely in neutral Sweden during World War II. Instead, as first secretary at the Swedish Legation in Budapest in the summer of 1944, Wallenberg acted. Without concern for his own safety, he worked tirelessly to save thousands from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
By the summer of 1944, more than 400,000 Jewish Hungarians had been put in trains and sent away, most to their deaths. Wallenberg began issuing Swedish “protective passports” to the remaining population of Jewish Hungarians. His inventiveness and determination to provide protection to as many Jews as possible are credited with saving the lives of some 100,000 people.
Of course, Wallenberg was not alone in taking such action. Others chose to risk their careers, and their lives, to defy official protocols and repressive laws to rescue Jews. Many were censured, punished or killed for their acts of courage.
As a result, at Israel’s Holocaust memorial site, Yad Vashem, you will find today planted along the Avenue of the Righteous not only Raoul Wallenberg’s tree, but also the trees of 2,000 others, as well as 18,000 names engraved in the walls in remembrance of those who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Why did they do it? All of these heroes seemed to have shared the sentiment of the martyred Lutheran pastor and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. … Not to act is to act.”
Raoul Wallenberg’s mission was an example of American-Swedish cooperation for the common good. His work in Budapest was partly financed by the United States.
In 1981, to honor that work, the United States awarded Wallenberg honorary American citizenship. Wallenberg fought for values cherished in both Sweden and the United States. Together, we have long cooperated to protect and promote human rights at home and abroad.
Perhaps the most important part of Wallenberg’s legacy lies in its lessons for the generations to come. It is incumbent on us to pass on his story to those who come after us not as part of a distant heroic myth, but as an example of the values that should inform the way we live our lives.
In January, 2000, Stockholm acted as host to an International Forum on the Holocaust. The final sentence of the declaration of that forum stated: “Our commitment must be to remember the victims who perished, respect the survivors still with us, and reaffirm humanity’s common aspiration for moral understanding and justice.”
Today, as we remember Raoul Wallenberg’s life and work, we reaffirm our common aspiration for moral understanding and justice.
Hillary Rodham Clinton is the U.S. secretary of state. Carl Bildt is foreign minister of Sweden.