Posted Fri, Jan 14, 2011

On January 17, 1945 Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Red Army in Budapest, Hungary and disappeared, his fate unknown, into the Soviet gulag. What he was doing in Budapest in the first place is a tale of selfless heroism and extraordinary courage and underscores why in 1985 Canada bestowed upon Wallenberg its first honorary Canadian citizenship.

In March, 1944 Hitler tired of the dilatory efforts of Hungarian leadership to eliminate the Jews of Hungary and dispatched the notorious overseer of the Final Solution, Adolph Eichmann, to finish the job. Mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau soon began in earnest. In the face of this crisis, the United States and neutral Sweden agreed to a rescue mission of the Jews of Budapest, the last remaining large Jewish community in Europe. After careful consideration they ultimately determined that Raoul Wallenberg was the best man for the job. Wallenberg was the scion of a wealthy Swedish family—Swedish Rockefellers, according to one description— was well-educated, multilingual and with a career in banking and commerce on the Continent, well-versed in the workings of the Nazi bureaucracy. Granted freedom of action, Wallenberg eagerly accepted the challenge to go to Budapest to, in his words, “save a nation”.

Under cover of the bogus position of First Secretary of the Swedish legation, Wallenberg capitalized on his “diplomatic” status to work his magic. With ingenuity, guile and determination, and at tremendous risk to his personal safety, (Eichmann reportedly told him that “even diplomats can have accidents”) Wallenberg stood up on behalf of the Jews of Budapest to Eichmann and his successor and the minions of the Nazi bureaucracy.

Perhaps Wallenberg’s best-known initiative involved the “Schutzpass”, a protective passport that the Swedish legation had been issuing only sporadically prior to Wallenberg’s arrival. Although they had no legal basis, Wallenberg immediately grasped their potential. He redesigned the Schutzpass into a much more impressive, even formidable document, testifying that the bearer was under the protection of the Swedish Embassy. He issued them by the thousands and the bluff saved countless lives.

By the time the Red Army liberated the city, Wallenberg had saved some 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Unfortunately, the Soviets viewed Wallenberg’s humanitarian selflessness with suspicion, likely believing he was an American spy. They arrested Wallenberg on January 17th and the man who had so valiantly fought the first of the two worst tyrannies of the twentieth century immediately became a prisoner of the second.

The connections between Canada and Raoul Wallenberg are remarkably deep and wide. Perhaps the most personal link lies in those who survived the Holocaust thanks to Wallenberg’s direct efforts and then made Canada their adopted home after the war. In a larger sense, the values that Wallenberg lived by and exemplified resonate deeply with Canadians. His essential humanity, commitment to principle, profound sense of justice, courage and concern for others impelled him to leave the safety of Sweden to risk his life to save others from evil and tyranny.

In 2001, Canada gave concrete expression to this sentiment in declaring January 17th as Raoul Wallenberg Day, to “honour the courage, character and humanity of an exceptional individual.” Now ten years on, this has become a day for serious reflection across Canada on the critical importance of freedom, democracy, human rights, equality and, above all, the profound impact for positive change that a single person of integrity can make in the world.

On Monday, January 17th, as we mark the 66th anniversary of Wallenberg’s capture, it is well that we consider the shining example he provided in one of history’s darkest hours. It may be that Raoul Wallenberg not only rescued Jews but humankind itself.

Wallenberg was once called “an example of moral and physical courage which defies description”. That may be true but we must strive to honour Wallenberg’s legacy by emulating his actions and committing to living by his values. The world today desperately needs all of us to be a little like Raoul Wallenberg and step up for justice, freedom and equality. That is something we should all ponder on Raoul Wallenberg Day and, indeed, every day.

Eric Vernon is the Director of Government Relations and International Affairs for Canadian Jewish Congress in Ottawa (evernon@cjc.ca)

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.