Wallenberg: an honorary Australian

May 6, 2013 by J-Wire Staff
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Former Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, has been made Australia’s first honorary citizen.

Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ECAJ Executive Director Peter Wertheim and Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott

Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ECAJ Executive Director Peter Wertheim and Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott

At a ceremony on Monday at Government House in Canberra, Australia’s head of state, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, said the certificate naming Wallenberg as an honorary citizen will be rotated between the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Center in Melbourne and the Sydney Jewish Museum.

In the presence of Opposition leader Tony Abbott, diplomats, Jewish community leaders and Holocaust survivors, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said it was “entirely fitting” that “this man of moral courage and heroic example” be named as Australia’s first honorary citizen.

Among the guests were Frank Vajda, who faced a firing squad and near-certain death in 1944 when Wallenberg arrived to secure his release. Also present was George Farkas, whose father John was Wallenberg’s right-hand man and escorted him on his missions handing out life-saving “Schutzpasses.”

“Frank Vajda and George Farkas have known of each other for years but they have not met until today,” Gillard said.

Speaking on behalf of the Jewish community, Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said: “By honoring the late Raoul Wallenberg with Australian citizenship, Australia is not only paying tribute to him, to what he achieved and what he stood for, but is also making a statement about who we are as a nation.”

Wallenberg was last seen in January 1945, aged 34, before he was arrested by Soviet forces.

The certificate of citizenship

The certificate of citizenship

He is an honorary citizen of the United States, Canada and Israel.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the Wallenberg story: “In the depths of the northern winter of 1945, Raoul Wallenberg disappeared.

We do not know his fate but it is thought he died later that year.

By this time, the war was over and the Jewish people saved by Wallenberg were counting the miracle of their survival and beginning to contemplate new lives in places of safety like Israel and Australia.

Wallenberg never saw our lovely land in his 34 years on earth.

And yet today we join his name with that of our nation as its first honorary citizen.

I believe this is entirely fitting: as a tribute to this man of “moral courage and heroic example”.

As a statement of the values Australians hold close to our hearts.

As an expression of our deep gratitude for all that our nation gained when so many saved by Wallenberg came to these shores.

Raoul Wallenberg would have been brilliant in any era.

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

He was physically brave.

He possessed strategic brilliance and peerless, nerveless negotiating skills.

But what makes his name live on is the way he employed these skills in the service of humanity.

He acted as though there were no strangers.

He lived as though every day might be his last.

That’s how Frank Vajda comes to be here with us in Canberra today.

As a nine-year-old in Budapest, Frank and his family had been reported to the authorities for not wearing the yellow Star of David.

A band of armed men came and seized them, and dragged them to a military barracks where they were lined up in front of a machine gun.

The soldiers were debating whether to shoot them on the spot or throw them into the Danube when some men in civilian clothing suddenly appeared – Raoul Wallenberg and his escort – who negotiated their safe release.

The escort was a man named John Farkas – a resistance fighter who was Wallenberg’s companion during those desperate days in Budapest.

Mr Farkas came to Australia in 1949, and lived an unassuming life until his heroism was uncovered by the ABC Four Corners program in the early 1980s.

In almost four decades, he had never spoken of his deeds until a journalist came to ask.

Mr Farkas passed away in 1987 but his son George is here among us, proudly bearing witness.

Frank Vajda and George Farkas have known of each other for years but they have not met until today: this story of courage reaching across decades, generations and continents.

So friends, we are here today to celebrate something exceptional in the human spirit.

Something that will keep teaching us lessons for as long as humans record their history.

Something for which we have profound gratitude because the deeds of one man secured, for tens of thousands, the most precious gift of all: the gift of human life.

As the last witnesses to the horrors of World War II leave us, it is vital, it is imperative, to keep alive the memory and example of individuals like Raoul Wallenberg.

That is why there are memorials to Wallenberg all over the world – in Budapest, Tel Aviv, London, Argentina, the United States and here in Australia.

But perhaps the most poignant monument is the one outside his birthplace in Sweden.

It is a bronze cast of his briefcase, standing on the cobblestones as though he had just put it down momentarily, its precious cargo of live-giving passports still inside, testament to the example of what one individual can do, even in the face of catastrophic evil.

An embodiment of the Jewish proverb reminding us that even when we are without choice, we can mobilize the spirit of courage.

Raoul Wallenberg’s fate may never be known for sure.

He has no grave.

But his legacy endures.

It is measured in the example he sets for our own and future generations.

But it is also measured in the tens of thousands of deaths he prevented through his actions.

Some of the individuals whose lives he redeemed became part of our first, great transforming wave of post-war immigration; among the first to pledge themselves to their new home after Australian nationality was formalised in 1949.

Now, seven decades later, Raoul Wallenberg will join them as an honorary Australian citizen.

This will be the first time this honour has been bestowed by our country.

And I cannot imagine a more fitting individual upon whom to bestow it.

I conclude by expressing my gratitude to the Governor-General for this magnificent act of state to enshrine this most righteous of human beings in our national family forever.”

Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott had this to say:

“It would have been so easy to have looked the other way. Millions did. They concluded that there was nothing that could be done in the face of such evil, or that perhaps nothing much was really happening after all, or that some of the victims might have somehow had it coming. But others did what they could to help.

Of all the examples of resistance to Nazi tyranny, Raoul Wallenberg’s is perhaps the most flagrant. He remonstrated with death squads; he distributed thousands of Swedish passports to people awaiting deportation to death camps. He badged whole buildings as Swedish diplomatic institutions to help shelter the Jews within. In an era when executions were on an industrial scale, his was an industrial scale rescue effort and it ultimately cost him his life.

Raoul Wallenberg matters today, nearly 70 years after he disappeared into a Soviet camp because, in part, of the contribution those he rescued from the Holocaust have made to Australia. Australia owes so much to Jewish people, especially to those who came as refugees from war-torn Europe, some of whom Wallenberg himself saved, such as Frank Vajda, who is here today.

Mostly though, Wallenberg matters because of the importance of good example. Passivity in the face of evil can so easily become complicity. Wallenberg refused to accept that nothing could be done, that nothing could be done to help those who would be victims.

That’s why he now belongs to everyone. To Jews, to whom he was one righteous among nations. To Christians, for whom he might be seen as the ultimate Good Samaritan. To all people of goodwill who accept the golden rule to do to others as you would have them do to you, but often lack the courage to live by it.

It’s a privilege to support this act of citizenship. Raoul Wallenberg should be a citizen of every country which respects human dignity. He does not rest in our land, may he always rest in our hearts.”

Peter Wertheim, the executive director of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry added: It is indeed fitting that the late Raoul Wallenberg is being recognised as an honorary Australian citizen, the first time Australia has bestowed such an honour.  Raoul Wallenberg had a special kind of courage that enabled him to stand against the tide of events at the end of World War II and stare down the raw racist savagery of the Hungarian Nyilas movement – the Arrow Cross – and their uniquely evil Nazi masters.

The late US Congressman, Tom Lantos, who was saved by Raoul Wallenberg, observed:v“This heroic young diplomat left behind the comfort and safety of Stockholm to rescue his fellow human beings in the hell that was wartime Budapest. He had little in common with them: he was a Lutheran, they were Jewish; he was a Swede, they were Hungarians. And yet with inspired courage and creativity he saved the lives of tens of thousands of men, women and children…”

I would go further and say that in confronting hatred and defying the apparatus of mass murder Raoul Wallenberg set an example that is as relevant as ever to the contemporary world.

If, as Edmund Burke observed, all that it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to say and do nothing, Raoul Wallenberg demonstrated that the reverse is also true.   All that it takes to thwart evil is for one good person to stand up to it, to work against it and to inspire others to join in doing so.

By honouring the late Raoul Wallenberg with Australian citizenship, Australia is not only paying tribute to him, to what he achieved and what he stood for, but is also making a statement about who we are as a nation –   a nation which treasures personal freedom, abhors tyranny, upholds justice, respects human dignity, stands up for the underdog, gives refuge to the persecuted and loves life.

For Australians, these are not just words.  As we are reminded each year on Anzac Day, which we commemorated only 11 days ago, these are values which Australians have fought to defend in many parts of the world whenever called upon to do so.

The qualities of courage, compassion and basic human decency which underpinned Raoul Wallenberg’s actions are the very qualities by which we, as Australians, define our own national character at its best.

On behalf of the Australian Jewish community, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry warmly commends the Prime Minister for her decision to recognise the extraordinary achievements of Raoul Wallenberg by the conferral of honorary Australian citizenship.  We further express our gratitude to Her Excellency the Governor-General for hosting this ceremony and to the Leader of the Opposition for attending and speaking at this event on behalf of the Coalition and providing today’s proceedings with the imprimatur of bipartisanship.

In that spirit, may I express the hope that every member of the Australian Parliament will join the Prime Minister and some 125 parliamentarians from more than 40 countries across the democratic world in signing on to the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism as a gesture of solidarity with Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic stand against this ancient and pernicious form of racism.

Finally, may I thank all those who have done so much over many years to perpetuate and honour the memory of the late Raoul Walenberg, including Professor Frank Vajda AM, George Farkas, Jan Anger, Karl Duldig, Erwin Forrester and many people at the Sydney Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, the Raoul Wallenberg Unit of B’nai B’rith Australia/New Zealand, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Community Councils of Victoria and Western Australia, the ACT Jewish community and the Australasian Union of Jewish Students..

Today’s proceedings powerfully affirm the work you have done and remind us how fortunate we are, and how proud we all should be, to call ourselves Australians.

 

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