More than 30 years ago, the NGO Casa Argentina en Jerusalem was founded to promote interreligious dialogue. At the initiative of Mr. Baruch Tenembaum, this private, non-profit Argentine institution has created The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF), the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, to inspire us all to honor, and when required emulate, the courageous example of a man that saved countless lives, in spite of immense hardship and danger. I’m honored to accompany Mr Tenembaum in this mission along with almost thirty Heads of State from all over the world.
On March 19, 1944, as the Nazi’s campaign of terror and genocide finally overtook my native land of Hungary, a young idealistic Swede made his way to Budapest to interpose his own frail body between the Nazi war machine and the persecuted, unarmed thousands facing deportation and annhilation in Auschwitz.
By the time Raoul Wallenberg arrived to Budapest, 500.000 Jews from the Hungarian countryside had already been taken to Auschwitz where the most perished. But Raoul Wallenberg’s arrival delayed the execution of the death sentence upon remaining 300.000 Jews of the cities long enough to enable some 100.000 of them -including my wife Annette and myself- to survive. It is on their behalf, and on behalf of their children and grandchildren that I have dedicated many years of my life to make Wallenberg’s story known and to honor this great man.
When I began my work for Wallenberg in 1975, I had two goals in mind. First and foremost, I wanted to free him from the horrors of the Gulag where he was languishing. The second goal was to make Raoul Wallenberg’s life and accomplishments penetrate the conciousness of mankind and to inspire all those who are touched by his story to become better, more unselfish, more caring human beings, willing to transcend the barriers of race, religion or nationality in their concern for others.
As Jews or Catholics, Australians or Hungarians or Americans, the only relevant concern for human rights that deserve respect is a concern that transcends religion, race, color or national origin. Raoul Wallenberg did not go to Budapest in 1944 to save Lutheran Swedes. He went there to save Hungarian Jews, with whom he had nothing in common except his common humanity. Raoul Wallenberg not only fought evil, but he also fought indifference, that is the twin of evil. Those who kill are murderers, but those who stand by and do nothing in the face of murder share a complicity in crime. Wallenberg’s message was loud and clear. We must fight evil, but just as hard we must fight indifference.
He started out issuing Swedish passports to all who managed to reach him at the Swedish legation in Budapest. He brilliantly negotiated with the Nazis and later the Arrow Cross gangsters (Hungarian Fascists) who ran Hungary in the final few months of the German occupation, until they recognized the validity of these fictional documents and exempted their owners from deportation and having to wear the yellow star.
He bought or leased 32 large apartment houses and succeeded in declaring them Swedish territory in Hungary. Thousands of people were crowded into these protected houses, many of whom he brought back personally from the forced marches heading towards the death camps. He rushed the saved persons to the protected Swedish houses in Budapest. He even brought people back from the railroads cars, pulling them out of deportation trains, and from the banks of the Danube river. He interposed his own body between the fallen victims and the machine guns that were leveled at them by the Arrow Cross guards.
When the Russians finally liberated Budapest in January 1945, he believed he was finally safe, and went to their headquarters to report and ask for food and medicine for the surviving victims. The Soviets didn’t believe his story. They were convinced that he was an American spy. They kidnapped him on January 17, 1945 and he languished in the Soviet Gulag until 1981, when I personally believe that he finally died.
Even today people ask me whether I think Raoul Wallenberg still lives. I personally do not believe that he is physically alive anymore, but I do believe that in the spiritual sense Wallenberg is more alive than most of us who are still around living our ordinary, day-to-day lives.
He is more alive than most of us, because of what he has done. He not only saved lives but he saved our faith in humanity. He continues every day to touch the lives of thousands of young people the world over, who, hearing or reading his story, testify that they have been inspired to become better human beings and to dedicate themselves to fight for the right of others who are still persecuted and oppresed all over the world.
Long after the sound and fury of the twentieth century have been relegated to the garbage heaps of history, the ideals and the memory of Raoul Wallenberg will live on. He will live on to teach future generations what I think is the single most important lesson of human history – that in order to survive, in order to create more livable condition in this world, we must accept the responsibility of becoming our brother’s and our sister’s keepers. This is the meaning of Wallenberg’s legacy and this is the meaning of our struggle for human rights across the globe.
* Tom Lantos, US Congressional. Co-Chair of the Human Rights Caucus. Co-Founder of the The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.