Raoul Wallenberg Day Keynote Address
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Good morning everyone.
I begin by acknowledging the Bunurong Peoples of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered. I pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
Today we meet to remember and celebrate the life of an extraordinary man, Raoul Wallenberg.
I acknowledge Councillor Marcus Pearl, representing the City of Port Phillip, and Dr Benny Monheit, President of B'nai B'rith Australia and New Zealand, and Mrs Denise Monheit.
Thank you for hosting this event marking the inaugural Raoul Wallenberg Day in Australia.
I also acknowledge:
- Dr Peter Schiff and Ms Judi Schiff, foundation members of the Raul Wallenberg Unit of B’Nai B’rith, and other members of the unit, responsible for Raoul Wallenberg Day and the decades-long effort to honour his memory in Australia
- Professor Frank Vajda AO, whose life was saved by the man we honour today, who has enriched Australia and the Australian medical profession, and who has done so much over his life to keep the memory of Raoul Wallenberg alive
- Ms Sue Hampel and Ms Jayne Josem, Co-President and CEO of the Melbourne Holocaust Museum; and
- Dr Tony Weldon, past chairman of Courage to Care
On a personal note, I also acknowledge my father, George Dreyfus, who composed In Memoriam, Raoul Wallenberg, a suite for clarinet and piano, in 1984.
I am deeply honoured to speak to you today.
People around the world have worked to ensure Wallenberg’s memory does not fade – not just because his heroic conduct must be remembered, but because his decision to act with humanity is an example to all of us – a powerful reminder that acts of humanity can change lives – and make the world a better place.
Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary from certain death by issuing them with a Swedish Government protective travel document of his own invention: a ‘Schutzpass’.
In Budapest he established nurseries, hospitals and a soup kitchen, and designated more than 30 “safe” houses, creating an international ghetto that kept Jews holding certificates of protection from neutral countries safe.
Wallenberg’s acts of humanity changed many lives, and not just the lives of those he saved.
Those he saved, and their descendants, have made the world a better place.
They have made Australia a better place.
They have made our home here in Melbourne a better place.
The presence of Professor Vajda today is a powerful testament to that fact.
Another example of the profound consequence of Wallenberg’s actions is the survival of Mr Erwin Forrester.
In November 1944, Erwin Forrester, then known as Erwin Fenyo, was just out of high school when he was rounded up with 2000 others by the Hungarian Arrow Cross and their German SS associates and forced onto a cramped train, usually reserved for transporting cattle. Their destination was the Austrian border to dig trenches.
Warned by a German soldier of his intended fate – a concentration camp once the work on the trenches was completed – Erwin escaped. He somehow hitched a ride on a German army truck to Budapest, only to be quickly arrested, charged with desertion and condemned to death by firing squad.
Prompted by one of the other prisoners claiming Swedish citizenship, Erwin told his captors “I am not a Hungarian citizen and therefore cannot be charged or punished”. His papers had been taken by the Arrow Cross he said, but if they asked the Swedish Embassy it would confirm his identity.
What he did not know was that the previous day, his mother, aware of her son’s perilous situation, had herself gone to the Swedish Embassy to beg for assistance and had even left the requisite photograph for an identity paper.
A number of hours later, back in his cell, Erwin was approached by a tall, imposing man in an overcoat and hat. He came close and whispered “We are going to save you!”.
The man was Raoul Wallenberg.
Sadly, Erwin, who many here today knew well, died in October.
I am indebted to his granddaughter Bec Carpenter, a senior official in my department, for giving me permission to quote from her tribute at his memorial service just last month.
Ms Carpenter told the memorial:
“Raoul Wallenberg’s determination to help as many Jewish families as possible to escape the horror of the Holocaust is the reason we are here today. Although the impact of Poppa’s bravery is hard to measure or comprehend, I know my family would not be here today if Wallenberg hadn’t intervened.”
Erwin’s story is just one story among the thousands of lives that Wallenberg saved.
The Talmud teaches us:
“anybody who destroys a single life it is counted as if he destroyed an entire world, and for anybody who preserves a single life it is counted as if he preserved an entire world”
All Jews are familiar with these powerful words, and, as a result of the film Schindler’s List, so too is the rest of the world.
An exhortation to work for the common good of humanity is a consistent message in all major religions.
I know the commitment to contribute to something greater than ourselves, to maybe change the world, even in just a small way – perhaps even a sense of duty to pay our own good fortune forward – is a shared motivation for many of us.
It sees us strive in our chosen careers, volunteer in our communities and dedicate ourselves to our country, which we know gave so many of our families a refuge in a time of darkness.
Does this shared motivation, this collective commitment to do good and promote humanity, help explain something of the courage and the sacrifice of Raoul Wallenberg?
He was a diplomat from neutral Sweden, brought up in the Lutheran faith, who willingly agreed to be sent into a warzone and then, time after time, risked his life to save people he did not know and had no obligation to assist – no obligation, but a belief in our common humanity.
Throughout the war Hungary had been a fascist ally of Nazi Germany, but with mounting losses the country sought an armistice with western Allies. In response German forces occupied Hungary from March 1944, swiftly installing a pro-German government committed to prolonging the war and the deportation of Hungarian Jews to German-occupied Poland.
In less than two months a staggering 440,000 Hungarian Jews were rounded up and transported to the death camps, nearly all of them on trains sent directly to Auschwitz where they were murdered. By the end of July 1944, there were 200,000 Jews left in Budapest, Hungary’s last remaining Jewish community.
Into this maelstrom stepped Raoul Wallenberg.
As reports of the mass transportation and killings of the Hungarian Jews reached the West, the Roosevelt Administration made contact with a relief committee in neutral Sweden run by prominent Swedish Jews.
They needed someone who could use diplomatic cover to travel to Budapest.
That person was Raoul Wallenberg, who, according to his sister, had been inspired some years earlier by a British propaganda film featuring Leslie Howard as Pimpernel Smith, a Professor who rescued Jews from the Nazis.
Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944 and immediately set about trying to save as many lives as he could.
He issued "protective passports" which falsely identified the bearers as Swedish subjects who were therefore immune from deportation.
Wallenberg rented thirty-two buildings in Budapest and decorated them with Swedish flags and signs declaring them to be "The Swedish Library" and "Swedish Research Institute" and therefore subject to diplomatic immunity.
But Wallenberg’s efforts did not stop there.
There are accounts of him calmly interrupting firing squads to persuade the soldiers the people they were about to kill were Swedish subjects, of bribes paid, contacts made, all with a mixture of charm and guile.
He put himself in grave danger. He did what he could to save every life possible.
In 1989, in a tribute to Wallenberg in the House of Representatives, Prime Minister Bob Hawke recounted a story told to him by Joni Moser, who worked running errands for Wallenberg:
“when Wallenberg learned that 800 Jewish labour servicemen were being marched to the Gestapo concentration camp at Mauthausen … Moser and Wallenberg drove to the Hungarian frontier and caught up with the column. Wallenberg asked that those with Swedish protective passports should raise their hand. On Wallenberg's order, Moser ran between the ranks, telling everyone to do so, whether they had a passport or not. Moser explains that Wallenberg:
. . . then claimed custody of all who raised their hands and such was his bearing that none of the Hungarian guards opposed him. The extraordinary thing was the absolutely convincing power of his behaviour.”
While the exact number of people he saved will never be known, we do know that when the Germans finally surrendered to the Soviets in January 1945, over 100,000 Jews in Budapest had survived.
We know there are hundreds of thousands of people alive today who would not exist were it not for Wallenberg.
And we also know no single person was responsible for saving the lives of more Jews during the Holocaust than Raoul Wallenberg.
We know of the lives he saved, yet we know little of what happened in the final days of his own life. We don’t know where his final resting place is, if indeed he has one, a fact that will forever cast a stain on the actions of the former Soviet Union.
We know that as Budapest fell to the Soviets, Wallenberg was called to the headquarters of the Soviet General Malinovsky. His last known words were "I'm going to Malinovsky's ... whether as a guest or prisoner I do not know yet.” He was just 32 years old.
It seems clear that Wallenberg was murdered by the Soviets.
When, and where, has never been confirmed.
There is no grave where we can honour him.
The lives of those saved, together with their descendants, remain his everlasting memorial.
Recognition and Wallenberg's Legacy
Wallenberg is recognised by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations”. Israel granted him honorary citizenship. So too has Canada, Hungary, and the United States of America. In Argentina, Ukraine, Peru, the Netherlands, Poland, Georgia, Germany and Austria there are streets, parks and plaques all bearing his name – such is the well-founded impetus to never forget his name.
I was Attorney-General in 2013 when Prime Minister Julia Gillard recommended to the Governor General, Quentin Bryce, that Wallenberg be recognised as Australia’s first honorary citizen.
I am proud of the part I played in advancing the pursuit of honorary citizenship for Raoul Wallenberg.
It was a just cause in pursuit of which I amplified the voices of many others.
Many of those who spent years advocating for this recognition honour us with their presence today.
At the ceremony at Government House bestowing honorary citizenship Prime Minister Gillard said:
“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.”
In honouring Wallenberg, we are reminded of our shared obligation to protect those who are vulnerable and act in the interest of humanity.
As Attorney-General in the Albanese Government I am determined to continue in the proud Labor tradition of advancing human rights and strengthening the legal frameworks that protect us all from discrimination.
To that end, the Government is committed to extending anti-discrimination protections to more Australians – including laws that prohibit discrimination against, and the vilification of, people on the basis of their religious beliefs.
This work is already progressing.
Last November I asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into the exemptions for religious educational institutions in the Sex Discrimination Act and a number of related issues.
The ALRC will provide its advice to Government by 21 April 2023.
I am pleased that Justice Stephen Rothman AM, who I am sure is no stranger to many of you, is leading this inquiry as a part-time member of the ALRC.
Justice Rothman is an eminent lawyer with a longstanding involvement in the Jewish education sector. He is ideally positioned to lead this work.
The ALRC’s inquiry is a crucial first step towards implementing all of the Government's commitments to extending federal anti-discrimination protections.
In delivering on those commitments, the Government will seek to encourage a public discussion that is respectful, constructive, accepting and unifying, and recognises the wealth and value of Australia's diversity, including its diversity of religious faiths.
Last year, to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Deakin University released a national survey that revealed a worrying trend about our nation’s collective knowledge of the Holocaust.
It found almost a quarter of surveyed Australians had little to no knowledge of those horrific events, with younger people less likely to know its true scale and impact. For a nation which is home to one of the largest Holocaust survivor populations per capita this concerned me a great deal.
At a time when anti-Semitism and denial of the Holocaust is on the rise, fuelled by a toxic mix of xenophobic nationalism, populist politicians exploiting fear and hatred, and the limitless reach of the worldwide web, we must concentrate our efforts on memory and education.
Remembrance, such as the retelling of inspiring stories of humanity like those of Raoul Wallenberg and Erwin Fenyo, as well as the tragic histories of those who did not survive, is fundamental to tackling hatred. Few can truly hate when they learn the truth of the suffering of the innocent, and the heroism of the bold in the face of catastrophic hatred and adversity.
The passage of years means very few of the Hungarian Jews who had direct contact with Wallenberg remain among us. This makes the work of many in this room even more critical.
It is fitting, as we recommit to our remembrance mission, that we recount Wallenberg’s story again, and again, and again.
Now, Raoul Wallenberg Day provides such an opportunity on an annual basis.
The story of Raoul Wallenberg shows that even in the face of evil, one person can make a difference for all of humanity.