Speech by Mr Jan Eliasson to the Swedish ParliamentOn the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg´s disappearance.
Looking back at this life in his autobiography, from the perspective of an aging man, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said:
‘Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and an unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind, These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.’
Perhaps Raoul Wallenberg would not have chosen precisely these words if he were looking back over his life today. But Bertrand Russell puts into words what I believe were also Raoul Wallenberg´s strongest driving forces. And Russell also formulates the course wich Raoul Wallenberg would probably want all of us to take in today´s bewildering and violent world.
Most of what a know about Raoul Wallenberg comes from books, and from the thick dossiers at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. But many of the most important and finest things I know about Raoul Wallenberg I have learnt from his close relative, his friends and some of those who were saved from the Holocaust.
There are three concepts which have been etched into my memory, when I have been going through what I have read and heard about Raoul: action, passion and it goes without saying. I am going to attempt to describe Raoul Wallenberg as a person in terms of these three words. And I will also be using them as my starting point when I try to explain the example he sets.
What was Raoul Wallenberg´s action? We know that he saved the lives of tens of thousands of people, together with brave and loyal colleagues. We know that he helped to prevent the destruction of the ghetto in Budapest, thus also preventing the murder of a futher 60,000 people. And we know that he became one of the outside world´s witnesses-the eyes and ears of the international community- in an inferno on earth, at a time of horrific human degradation.
When we read his letters to his grandfather -we must remember that his father died before Raoul was born- we see few signs that he was preparing himself for a task or a role of this nature.
He had studied in America, worked in offices in Cape Town and Haifa, and he has discussed various possible careers in some detail with his grandfather. Was he to become an architect, a banker or a businessman?
From his letters, he seems to have been carefree, active, full of curiosity and ideas, and agreeably self-ironic. He once hitch-hicked from Michigan to Los Angeles, where his birthday coincided with the pomp and circunstance of the 1932 Olympics. ‘My birthday was a quiet affair, since I had asked the civic authorities not to go to any special trouble.’, he told his grandfather in a slightly bantering tone.
Nonetheless, in the years he spent in America, there were already signs that action was waiting for Raoul Wallenberg. On one occasion when he was the victim of a hold-up, he kept his sang-froid, requesting that he be driven to main road after he been robbed. Afterwords, he merely regretted that he had not made a better job of bluffing about how much money he had on him.
He was restless, waiting for something important to do, something meaningful. It is easy to understand that his heroes were Dumas´ three musketeers, and Pimpernel Smith, whose final words in the film were, incidentally, ‘I always come back.’
Nothing seemed to be difficult, or impossible for him. He even believed that he could tackle his incipient baldness if he shaved off all his hair. A man of action, certainly, but also a man who totally lacked a sense of prestige and who was not interested in appearances.
And then action and Raoul Wallenberg fused together in the summer of 1944. He had six months to save as many as possible of the 200, 000 jews who still remained in hungary- after the death or deportation of more than 600, 000. ‘When does the next train leave?’ he asked Nina and Gunnar, his sister and her husband, when he learnt in Berlin, on his way to Hungary, that the travel agency had given him a day of rest. He could not afford to waste a single hour.
Once he arrived in Budapest, he started to organize things at a hectic pace, designing new protection passports and buiding up a closely meshed network of contacts, ranging from members of the Jewish Council to the Foreing Minister, and from his laundress to the detestable Adolf Eichmann, whom he asked to dinner (which he subsequently forgot or subconsciouly suppressed, since he was so full of the thousands of other things which he had to do).
The spirit of action was something which expanded ceaselessly, slowly permeating him. When the thugs of the Arrow Cross -Hungary´s Quislings- took over in the autumn of 1944, the situation became unbearable and the cruelty almost indescribable. Raoul was like the Dutch boy who put one finger after the other in the various holes to stop the dam burdting. Many lives were saved as the result of meticulous planning, others by ruses and improvisations in various languages and in different keys.
But many, many people were murdered before his eyes. And often he arrived too late or was not able to intervene and stop the inferno. He saw people slip away, disappear, die -as when thousands of jewish women and children, clad in high -heeled or thin- soled shoes, were forced to trudge in the slush, day and night, without food and water for 150 miles to the border- and there a fraction of them were subjected to a roll-call, with traditional thoroughness, by Eichmann´s command.
I am sure that in these situations he thought of the danger in delay, the damage caused by waiting too long and not acting in time, of being forced to focus on putting out the cruel flames instead of looking for arsonists and the causes of the fire. Arriving in time, to forestall and take preventive action, is basically a question of respect for life and respect for human dignity.
It was with this that Raoul formulated a plan, together with his co-workers, in the last weeks in Budapest, for the rebirth and rehabilitation of the scattered remaining jews in Hungary. He planned for tomorrow, for survival, in order to plant the trees that must grow. I am convinced that he had this plan in his rucksack -he did not have a briefcase- when he got into the black limousine in route for the Russian headquarters exactly 50 years ago today.
To move on to my second keyword: passion not only Bertrand Rusell´s compassion, but also Raoul Wallenberg´s fervour and capacity to amuse his fiends with quick-fire macabre humour, in spite of the horrors, and to inspire other people to great exploits, to work day and night. It was a case of ’saving as many lives as possible, to snatch as many as possible from the clutches of the murderers,’ as he wrote in a letter in July 1944.
In Wallenberg, passion and compassion lived, side by side, in symbiosis. Both are necessary for action and results. The American Wallenberg Committee has characteristically chosen as its motto the words of Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’.
But for Raoul Wallenberg there was no choice. There is no decisions-making process in the face of evil. The phrase ‘it goes without saying’ became Raoul Wallenberg´s invisible companion.
He did not questions whether he should go to Hungary. He did not ask any questions when he was awakened in the middle of the night in Budapest and took his bicycle to the ‘Swedish Houses’, with the streets filled with loudmouthed supporters of the Arrow Cross, who were running amok, raping or trading in human beings. He knew which path he had to walk. He had an unfailing moral compass.
Thus, Raoul Wallenberg also set an example. He was one of us, a man who showed that action is possible and necessary. He showed that we do not always need to be prepared or to take deliberate decisions to do what is right. He showed that we can all rise to the occasion, which can then take over and inspire us to superhuman effort. He showed that powerlessness does indeed exist but that it can be overcome by tackling one problem at a time and by always working and planning for a better future, for a new sense of fellowship.
One of the books I read describes a long conversation Raoul had with a young girl about the League of Nations. He seemed much more interested in what the League of Nations -the United Nations of that time- should do than in the girl. His sister Nina also noted this.
This episode comes to mind when we look around the world today, searching for a Raoul Wallenberg. He would be needed in Pol Pot´s Cambodia, in Idi Amin´s Uganda, in the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, in Somalia in 1992, in the genocide of Rwanda and in the nightmare of Bosnia. Many were there but were we too few?
Where was the action, the passion and ‘it goes without saying’?
Raoul Wallenberg lives on. We must not give up in our efforts to have a full account of his fate. We had strong expectations that a new, open and truthful Russia would help us achieve this clarity.
Let us hope that today´s Chechen tragedy will not stop the ultimate triumph of the forces of democracy and openness.
Russia can show that these forces cannot be conquered, either by producing Raoul Wallenberg or the whole truth about him. This can be achieved in the Swedish-Russian Commission which, since 1991, has been systematically examining documents and available information.
The central issue is not the Wallenberg case or affair. It is Raoul Wallenberg as a human being. And, in the final analysis, the end of the cold war should be a matter of focusing on human beings.
We should stop viewing nations as pawns on a geopolitical chessboard but instead see them as societies with people who have a right to political freedom, to economic and social justice and to a life in dignity for all.
For me, this is Raoul Wallenberg´s message. That is why Raoul Wallenberg lives on. During his work in Hungary in the reign of terror, in the ghetto and on the streets, he looked the victim in the eye and tried to erase all the power games, all the prejudices and all the hate that encompassed this individual human being.
He saw the forces of evil, but he never gave up hope and never stopped taking action.
What more do we need today?
* Jan Eliasson was Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs of the UN, 1992-1994 and has been Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Sweden since October 1994.