Nearly 200 people gathered in Stockholm on Saturday to light candles and mark the 70th anniversary of the disappearance of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.
“It’s important to be here and to remember, not only because he saved the lives of Jews, but also because he is a model of civic courage,” said Lisa Ronnback, 42, who attended the memorial with her daughter.
The commemoration was for “Raoul, and for all those who have made a difference,” said Michael Wernstedt, president of the Raoul Wallenberg Academy, a leadership program.
“These past weeks, events have shown that it’s important to defend democracy,” Wernstedt said, urging demonstrators to light a candle “for all those who spread light.”
Wallenberg was sent as a special envoy to the capital of Nazi-controlled Hungary in 1944, and by early 1945, he had issued Swedish papers to thousands of Jews, allowing them to flee the country and likely death.
Several months before the war ended, the Soviets invaded Budapest and summoned the Swede to their headquarters on January 17, 1945. He was never seen again.
In 1957 Soviet authorities produced a document claiming that a prisoner by the name of Wallenberg had died a decade earlier, but researchers and his family reject this account.
Wallenberg’s 93-year-old half-sister Nina Lagergren, who attended Saturday’s memorial, told AFP previously: “It is possible to find the truth.”
In Israel, several streets are named after the diplomat and his legacy is commemorated at Yad Vashem, the country’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
The government honored Wallenberg in 1986 when he was granted honorary citizenship and named as one of the “Righteous Among Nations,” an honorific reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust.
Writing in The Times of Israel to mark the occasion, Canada’s former justice minister Irwin Cotler noted: “Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, was a beacon of light during the darkest days of the Holocaust, and his example remains so today. Prior to his arrival in Budapest in July 1944, some 430,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz in the space of ten weeks – the fastest, cruelest, and most efficient mass murders of the Nazi genocide. Yet Wallenberg rescued more Hungarian Jews from the Nazis than any single government, notably saving 20,000 by issuing Schutzpasses, documents conferring diplomatic immunity. He even went to the trains as mass deportations were underway, distributing Schutzpasses to people otherwise consigned to death. Other diplomatic missions followed suit, saving thousands more.
“Wallenberg saved an additional 32,000 by establishing dozens of safe houses in a diplomatic zone protected by neutral legations. He organized hospitals, soup kitchens, and childcare centres, providing human dignity along with the essentials of life. Moreover, when thousands of Jews were sent on a 125-mile death march in November 1944, Wallenberg followed alongside, distributing improvised Schutzpasses, as well as food and medical supplies.
“To Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi desk murderer, who organized the mass deportations to Auschwitz, Wallenberg was the judenhund, the Jewish dog; to thousands of survivors and their families – many of whom have shared their stories of Wallenberg’s bravery with me – he was a guardian angel.
“Finally, with the Nazis preparing to liquidate the Budapest ghetto as the war neared its end, Wallenberg warned Nazi generals that they would be held accountable and brought to justice, if not executed, for their crimes. The Nazis desisted, and 70,000 more Jews were saved.”