In 1943, Raoul Wallenberg saw Pimpernel Smith, a British anti-Nazi movie starring Leslie Howard. The movie is about the rescue of Jews from concentration camps. Wallenberg told his sister that this was “the kind of thing he would like to do.”
Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman who had made several visits to Budapest, would soon get his chance. It was more than a cinematic fantasy.
In the summer of 1944, he returned to Hungary, where 800,000 Jews were facing deportation and death. Between May 15 and July 4 that year, 437,402 Hungarian Jews had already been sent to Auschwitz.
Wallenberg reached Budapest on July 9. As a special envoy of the Swedish government, he issued Jews a protective passport. When necessary, he bribed the Nazis to honour it.
Later, he acquired 32 buildings in Budapest and established them as safe houses for Jews. “I cannot leave thousands of people without help,” he said.
He couldn’t and didn’t. He used every means possible to save Jews, at great risk to himself. Once he got up on the roof of a train filled with deported Jews and handed them passes through the windows. The Nazis, dumbfounded with his audacity, let the Jews go free.
He eventually became a wanted man, sleeping in a different place every night. On Jan. 17, 1945, he was arrested by the Russians, who had invaded Hungary and driven out the Nazis. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery.
For 192 feverish days, though, he had saved tens of thousands of Jews from death. His courage was staggering. He showed how one man can make a difference. In our hyperbolic world where “hero” is a cliché, he was the genuine article.
It is why Raoul Wallenberg is revered today.
In Canada, Wallenberg is particularly celebrated. Parliament conferred citizenship on him in 1985; next month, on the 68th anniversary of his arrest, the government will issue a postage stamp in his honour. We also observe Jan. 17 as Raoul Wallenberg Day.
That Canada does as much as it does to honour Wallenberg today is an enduring irony. No country did as much to question — even demean — his humanitarianism than Canada in 1944. In fact, while Wallenberg was risking his life to save thousands of dispossessed Jews, the government of Canada would save none. “Worse,” says Irving Abella, “it thought the whole effort to rescue Hungarian Jewry was something of a fraud.”
Abella, one of Canada’s leading historians, is the co-author (with Harold Troper) of None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948. First published in 1982, their seminal book on Canada’s rejection of European Jews has been re-released.
As Abella observed recently, it is useful to contrast how Wallenberg and the government of Canada approached the plight of the Hungarian Jews. They were worlds apart.
While Wallenberg was fighting in Budapest to save as many Jews as he could, the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King was resisting the suggestion that it take any Jews at all. The cabinet decided, in fact, that no Jews would be admitted to Canada, though it did agree to maintain 500 to 1,000 refugees in Turkey or Switzerland, if they could get there.
Vincent Massey, Canada’s high commissioner to London and a future governor-general, had warned that the campaign to save Hungarian Jews was “an American ploy.” It was “naked political hucksterism” designed to help re-elect Franklin Roosevelt in an election year; FDR was trying to get Canada to accept Hungarian Jews so the U.S. wouldn’t have to.
Of course, Massey was only one craven voice from a big, empty country that admitted only 4,000 Jews from 1933 to 1945, among the worst records in an unsympathetic world.
Canada was a white, Christian, parochial country in 1944, in which, Abella says, Jews were “pariahs, demeaned, despised and discriminated against.” He is right, and vestiges of institutional anti-Semitism lingered in Canada until the 1960s.
The heroism of Wallenberg and the veneration he inspires today are a measure of the open, tolerant, progressive country Canada has become. Seventy years ago we were something else entirely, and our appalling indifference was an evil of another order.
Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.