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Australia’s first honorary citizen: Raoul Wallenberg

May 9, 2013 | Sharyn Mittelman

Australia’s first honorary citizen: Raoul Wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg: Passport photo from 1944

AIJAC welcomes the Australian Government’s decision to honour Raoul Wallenberg as Australia’s first honorary citizen at a Canberra ceremony on Monday. The tribute not only pays respect to Wallenberg’s heroic legacy of moral courage but it also makes a tremendous statement about Australian values.

Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Nazi-occupied Hungary who led a mission to save the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews in the final months of the Holocaust. Wallenberg saved lives by issuing Jews with Swedish protective passports, and he also acquired 32 buildings to use as ‘Swedish houses’ for thousands of Jews to provide them with extraterritorial status. (For more information on Wallenberg and his heroic actions see here.)

On May 6, the Australian Government held an Honorary Citizenship Ceremony for Wallenberg at Government House in Canberra. At the ceremony, both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made particularly poignant speeches that paid tribute to Wallenberg’s enduring legacy. The Prime Minister said:

“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. 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.”

The Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott also welcomed Wallenberg’s honorary Australian citizenship and declared that Wallenberg “should be a citizen of every country which respects human dignity”:

“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.”

The framed certificate naming Wallenberg as an honorary citizen will be rotated between the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre in Melbourne and the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Australia now joins other democratic nations – United States, Canada, Hungary and Israel – who have also named Wallenberg as an honorary citizen.

Sharyn Mittelman

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