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Shelley Faintuch

 
SHELLEY FAINTUCH:CANADA's RAOUL WALLENBERG DAY

“I could never return to Stockholm knowing that I failed to do everything within my human power to save as many Jews as possible.” Raoul Wallenberg

Shelley Faintuch,Jan 17, 2012

In the face of injustice, iniquity and just plain old “evil”, young and old alike are sometimes daunted by the prospect of “doing something right”. Some of us think that others around us will do something, so there is no need to act (the bystander effect). Others feel the desire to act, but they might lack the wherewithal, the knowledge or the confidence to do the right thing. While many will thus find themselves paralyzed in the face of overwhelming evil, an extraordinary few possess the moral instincts to act swiftly. In so doing, they provide us all with a model for heroism which we would be remiss to ever forget.
 
 Raoul Wallenberg is just such a hero. Wallenberg, the man who saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis during the Holocaust, disappeared on January 17th 1945 – dying several years later in a Soviet prison. Canada chose to honour him as its first honorary citizen in 1985. In 2001, Parliament declared January 17th “Raoul Wallenberg Day”, an occasion to recognize his humanitarian deeds and honour his legacy. Indeed, even with the passing of more than six decades, Wallenberg’s superhuman effort during the Holocaust inspires awe.
 
By the spring of 1944, the Final Solution had almost been completed and the war was coming to a close. Nonetheless, Hitler ordered the occupation of Hungary and sent Adolf Eichmann to Budapest to implement the murder of the country’s 800,000 Jews. The round-up was swift: by summer only some 250,000 remained. But this time, the world was watching. The American War Refugee Board (WRB), established by Roosevelt to provide humanitarian aid, sent Iver Olsen to Sweden to help save Hungary’s Jews. Wallenberg’s name was proposed to Olsen as a possible leader in the effort. While at first rejected for his youth and lack of experience, Wallenberg was appointed in July of 1944 to the Swedish legation in Hungary.
 
Despite his intelligence, conscience, and solid business background, Wallenberg was not a trained diplomat. He had virtually no experience dealing with the Nazis, no experience in rescue, nor did he have any immediate contacts with the Nazis in power. Yet Wallenberg’s ingenuity quickly revealed itself, securing the salvation of thousands.
 
 Wallenberg began by issuing shutz passes, fictional protection documents that had no official status whatsoever. He knew how the Nazis were impressed by pomp and ceremony, so these official looking documents were enough to impress the Nazi authorities and confer protective Swedish citizenship. He established a soup kitchen, hospitals and nurseries to service the besieged Jewish community. He built houses, thirty of them in total, that were under the “protectorate” of Sweden that ended up housing approximately 15,000 Jews. He helped prevent the liquidation of Jews from the ghettoes in Pest. And wherever the Jews were sent by the Nazis, he followed in an effort to distribute as many schutz passes as possible, even bargaining for their release. He dogged the death marches and the deportation trains, cajoling in any way he could to procure the freedom of doomed Jews. Per Anger, then Swedish head of the legation in Hungary, later credited Wallenberg with saving the lives of one hundred thousand Jews.
 
 What ultimately made Wallenberg act – and how can we relate to this today? After all he was a Swede from the privileged class, a businessman and a diplomat. His was a harrowing era, a time and place entirely foreign to our own world. How is Wallenberg’s experience instructive for an elementary student, a teenager, or an adult facing a bully, a crisis, or a breach of human rights?
 
Perhaps the most important note to be taken, is that Wallenberg was conscious-driven, not interest-driven. He was deeply affected by the plight of Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe he met in pre-state Israel (then under a British Mandate). However, acting out of conscience is sometimes not enough. Wallenberg himself gave us the key to his success: “I could never return to Stockholm knowing that I failed to do everything within my human power to save as many Jews as possible.”
 
 What we learn from Wallenberg is not that you have to be rich to make a difference – a lot of Europe’s wealthy did nothing. You do not have to be famous – he was virtually unknown outside of the business world. You don’t need to be a person of influence – he did not know Nazi leaders before he started. But what is essential, is an incessant drive to make a difference. You do need to act out of conscience, even when it does nothing to advance your personal interests. And you need to devote your entire energy and will to the task at hand: you never know how much time is available. It is precisely the power of one individual, the power that we all have within us to make a difference, that was demonstrated by Wallenberg. That is the lesson of Raoul Wallenberg Day – a lesson all people of conscience, young and old, can and should heed.
 
 Shelley Faintuch
 
Is the Winnipeg representative for the Canadian
Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs
 
Community Relations Director
Jewish Federation of Winnipeg
 
 Associate Director, Local Partner Services
 Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs

mailto:[email protected]

C300-123 Doncaster Street

 
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