MONTREAL — The Hungarian people are committed to carrying forward the profound, inspiring legacy of Raoul Wallenberg for generations to come, Hungrary’s ambassador to Canada pledged at the recent annual Raoul Wallenberg commemoration.
“Not only Hungarian Jews are committed to preserving the memory of their saviour, but the overwhelming majority of Hungarians,” Pal Vastagh said to the audience of more than 100 who filled a Gelber Centre conference room to almost overflow.
The event was organized by the local branch of the Raoul Wallenberg International Movement for Humanity (RWIMH). While posted in Nazi-occupied Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg saved the lives of more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews by issuing “Schutz-passen” – transit passports that granted protective immunity to bearers and got them out of the country.
In 2001, Canada became the first country to make Wallenberg an honorary citizen and to designate Jan. 17 – the date in 1945 when he was arrested taken prisoner by the Soviets, never to appear again – as Raoul Wallenberg Day.
The commemoration of the Wallenberg legacy, however, took an unexpected, politically partisan turn after one of the speakers, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton) made reference to the “terrorist thugs” of Hamas while talking about his government’s commitment “to fight against the evils of racism, anti-Semitism and terrorism.”
Poilievre received a large round of applause after that comment, but his words were followed by a subsequent speaker, controversial human rights lawyer and Israeli critic Julius Grey, stating that he “disagreed” with what Israel was doing in Gaza and with what Poilievre had said.
Speakers, however, for the most part focused on Wallenberg’s immeasurable courage and on the duty of humanity to carry his legacy forward.
Vastagh spoke about to the numerous sites and events in Budapest that pay tribute to Wallenberg, including an opera called Raoul, which had its première last fall.
Mikael Eriksson, deputy head of the mission at the Swedish Embassy, acknowledged the “shortcomings of the Swedish response” after Wallenberg disappeared in 1945 while in Soviet custody. “We could have done more, put more pressure on the Soviet government to release him,” he said.
Other speakers at the event, hosted by Peter Rona, included CJAD talk show host Tommy Schnurmacher, whose late father was spiritual leader of Montreal’s Austrian-Hungarian Synagogue and who triggered a standing ovation for remarks that underscored the importance of “defiance” to tyranny.
Wallenberg Movement founder and president Vera Parnes gave several awards to individuals who have supported the Wallenberg cause, including Holocaust survivors Agnes Kent and Sam Orshan, who had met Wallenberg.
Until Feb. 12, an exhibition on Wallenberg and the work of the RWIMH is on display in the lobby of the Cummings House.