Jens Orback: Seventy years without Raoul Wallenberg
Speech given by Jens Orback, secretary general of the Olof Palme International Center, in Tel Aviv, January 15th 2015.
It is sometimes said that man is defined by the choices he or she makes. But it is not until we stand in a difficult situation that we really know how, or if, we will act. On the very day Raoul Wallenberg disappeared he told his colleague and friend Per Anker: To me, there is no other choice.
Excellences, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends. We are here today to remember the deeds of Raoul Wallenberg who disappeared in Budapest in the middle of January 1945. This month also marks 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.
When Raoul Wallenberg issued thousands of Swedish protective passports to Hungarian Jews, it was an irregular behaviour by a Swedish diplomat. His disappearance, was unfortunately followed by weak efforts from the Swedish government in finding out about his destiny. A destiny that reminds us of the two dreadful undemocratic ideologies of the last century – he challenged the national socialists and was taken by communists.
Today anti-semitism is still present around us. Not the least in Europe. Last week’s horrendous attacks in Paris are a strong reminder that anti-semitism and other forms of intolerance must be condemned and fought tirelessly. And that we must defend freedom of expression in every way, to protect our open and democratic societies.
How can we support those in danger because of their beliefs and origin? How can we prevent disaster? How can we prepare ourselves for situations that we are utterly unprepared for?
I think it is possible to prevent catastrophes. We can do that by creating circumstances and societies for our better selves. By creating a society built on decency characterised by compassion and care between people. And a state has an obligation to provide security for its citizens.
And I hope we can prepare as well. By telling and re-telling central historical events that never should be forgotten. The Holocaust is such an event. We need to tell that story over and over again.
Let me also tell you about another famous Swedish man who is a teller of stories. Or rather he is portraying them. His name is Stellan Skarsgård and today he is probably the best known living Swedish actor. Mr Skarsgård played Raoul Wallenberg in the movie Good Evening Mr Wallenberg, and I remember him telling me then that the role touched him. Deeply. A couple of days ago I told him that I had been given the honour to greet you at this conference. He is now filming a TV-series in Great Britain but sent me an e-mail that I would like to read to you. And I quote from my inbox:
“When we were shooting Good Evening Mr Wallenberg in Hungary 1989 in what once was the actual ghetto of Budapest, the boarders between fiction and reality were broken down when we were confronted with old survivors who came up to me who played Wallenberg, and smiled, and cried and touched me. And I felt ashamed. I was embarrassed because I was using their lives to make something as trivial and trifling as an art-house film that would never be able to give even a glimpse of the horrors they had lived through.
But the old Jews that came up to me all knew that I was just an actor. They were moved by what I represented and I represented a man that had had an enormous importance in their lives. A man who’s power as a symbol had not diminished in 44 years.
The greatness of a man like Raoul Wallenberg doesn’t lie in his risking his life for his ideas, people do that all the time for the most stupid ideals and beliefs and with the most horrible consequences. The really admirable thing he did was that he, in a situation where most people let go of any ounce of civilization and humanity, refused to follow and become brutalized. He insisted that humans were equally worthy of a life and that empathy and solidarity with the powerless was not only worth standing up for but a necessity if we still wanted to call ourselves humans.
That’s why he is still alive, and still an example to follow….”
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends.
Let me conclude by sharing two sayings that came to me when reading Mr. Skarsgårds e-mail about Raoul Wallenberg.
The word is a dwarf, the example is a giant.
Raoul Wallenbergs example is much more than braveness.
Raul Wallenberg is an example of a basic moral standpoint, the golden rule that we can find in religions and moral philosophy on how to live.
Love your neighbour as yourself.
Wallenberg saw and acted in accordance with this ethic, an act of solidarity and humanity – for his next, including those in the Ghetto in Budapest. An action that showed us how much an individual can accomplish.
As individuals we do not know how we would have chosen or will choose in the future but we can prevent and we can prepare. We can prevent by interfering before it is too late and we can prepare by telling the story of a man who lived up to some of the last words we heard from him: To me there is no other choice.
His name is Raoul Wallenberg.
Text: Jens Orback