MONTREAL — A century after he was born, Raoul Wallenberg was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Montreal last week in a city hall ceremony witnessed by a few of the tens of thousands of people who owe their life to the Swedish diplomat.
Mayor Gérald Tremblay was uncharacteristically emotional after listening to the testimony of Agnes (Lörinczi) Kent, one of the Hungarian Jews Wallenberg rescued. Now 84 and living in Montreal, Kent and her mother survived thanks to being sheltered in 1944 in one of the 32 “safe” houses Wallenberg set up in Budapest.
They lived, but the young Kent was not spared from listening to the hellish noise of countless other Jews being executed on the banks of the Danube River nearby, nor from the death of her deported father.
“My heart today is brimming with gratitude,” she said.
Her son, Bruce Kent, observed that he and his two daughters who were also present would not be here today without Wallenberg’s courage.
He also warned that antisemitism is resurging in Hungary today, and deplored that the current government paid tribute to the fascist wartime Arrow Cross leaders.
The rare honour of citizenship was extended by the city as part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Wallenberg’s birth, and as a highlight of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre’s (MHMC) annual Holocaust Education Series, which continues until Nov. 4. The theme this year is “The Righteous,” and focuses on those who came to the aid of Jews during World War II.
Tremblay used the occasion to urge every person to recognize the humanity of the other. He lamented the “hatred” in the world today and the inaction of countries that signed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“My Bible says ‘Love they neighbour as thyself, for the love of God. That’s what life is all about,” Tremblay said. “We are all human beings. We have a tendency to forget who we really are.”
He called Wallenberg a role model who will never be forgotten, and he said that Montreal, with its 120 communities speaking 80 languages and living in peace, is also an example for the world.
Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler called on the present Russian government to “finally open the archives” that, he believes, will reveal what happened to Wallenberg after he was arrested by the Soviets on Jan. 17, 1945.
Cotler was a member of an international commission that concluded in 1990 that the Soviet Union’s contention Wallenberg died in the gulag in 1947 of natural causes was “a tissue of lies.”
Cotler said “credible” evidence exists that Wallenberg was alive as late as the 1980s. “The burden of proof remains with the Russians to rebut this.”
The ceremony was chaired by Marvin Rotrand, the majority house leader on city council, who noted that he is the child of Holocaust survivors from Poland.
He lauded Wallenberg for having “stood up to evil, exemplifying the best in humanity, saving over 100,000 Jews almost singlehandedly.” That evil included a fascist Hungarian regime that was as “antisemitic and brutal as the Germans.”
MHMC president Larry Nachshen recalled that Montreal was the home of the late Vera Parnes, founder of the Raoul Wallenberg International Movement for Humanity. She made preserving Wallenberg’s legacy the cause of her life, the last two decades of which she spent in Montreal.
He and Kent agreed that Parnes, who died in 2010, would have been very proud if she had lived to see this recognition of Wallenberg, which will serve to inspire future generations.
In a statement, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs commended the city for this gesture. “[Wallenberg’s] is not only manifested in the many lives he saved, but in the ultimate lesson that one individual can make a difference.”