In September 2011, I created the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission whose mission is "to remind the world never to forget" what Raoul Wallenberg whose commitment to humanity will forever be part of our consciousness. We set out on a course with a stated goal of advocating to the Congress of the United States to award the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award, to Raoul Wallenberg on the occasion of his centennial in 2012. The Commission also engaged with other activities such as the co-naming of public streets, educating our young generation and imparting the most important lesson of all: defying cruelty is possible with WILL.
Raoul Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat whose heroism saved the remnants of Hungarian Jews during waning days of the Holocaust. Wallenberg produced protective passports and provided shelter to Jews that remained in Budapest He is credited with saving an estimated 100,000 lives. Wallenberg provided tens of thousands of "shutz passes" and identified "safe houses" with the Swedish flag over them that housed tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest, the last remnants of Hungarian Jewry in 1944. Wallenberg also challenged the German Nazis by warning them "that to depart the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz would guarantee them to be charged as war criminals."
What I did not expect was the diversity of the leadership that this effort would attract. From its very inception we attracted Representative Gregory Meeks, an African-American Democrat from Queens, NY, to sponsor the legislation along with Representative Nan Hayworth, a conservative Republican from upstate NY. The Senate effort is being led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, and Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois. Their efforts at securing their colleagues in the Congress is part and parcel of spreading the lessons of Wallenberg: defying conventional wisdom: when everything is almost lost one person can change the course of humanity.
The Congressional Gold Medal effort is now inspiring Members of Congress who were never aware of this chapter of WW2 history. The War Refugee Board was established by President Roosevelt with funding provided not only by the US Government but from the American Joint Distribution Committee known as the "Joint" -- the agency that I grew up hearing about from my grandmother telling me that after the War "they came to the rescue" after there was no one left. Incidentally my grandfather, the previous Liska Rebbe, was saved by Wallenberg and later transplanted the Liska Chassidic Dynasty here in the US. My wife, Gabriella, grew up in Budapest in the neighborhood where many Jews still live in the "Jewish triangle," which is the area where the ghetto was enclosed during WWII.
The Wallenberg Commission is uniting many individuals from across the globe; it brought back many memories to Peter Rebenwurzel, who was born in Budapest and now lives in the US, whose late father provided canned goods to the Jews in the Budapest Ghetto -- the same goes for Erol User, a Jew from Istanbul, Turkey, who is committed to human rights but it has also allowed for Leon Goldenberg of Brooklyn, NY, who was born after the Holocaust that "perhaps if there would have more Wallenbergs, his siblings who he never knew (but never forgot as well ) would be alive." Wallenberg's heroism also brings passion into the mission of Ken Abramowitz of NGN Capital who doesn't allow the world to forget the vulnerability and unfair treatment of Israel in the world arena. It also encompasses the determination of Ryan Karben to ensure Jewish continuity. Members of the NY City Council, most notably Councilmembers David Greenfield and Brad Lander, were also inspired. They introduced legislation to co-name 13th Avenue, the most traveled thoroughfare in Borough Park (neighbored in Brooklyn that is home to the largest amount of "Wallenberg survivors and their descendants), "Wallenberg Way." I was also pleased that Flushing Bank, upon establishing a branch on 13th Avenue, graciously agreed to assume the role of corporate sponsor of the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration.
At the end of the day, The Wallenberg Commission is a testament to Project Witness. Project Witness, under the leadership of Ruth Lichtenstein, has the mandate is to teach and tell the children of today what happened to their great-grandparents. It is also why Sigmund Rolat cannot forget about the history of 1000 years of Jews "living" in Poland. This is why I created the Wallenberg Commission and I feel that its mission is already fulfilled. I eagerly await the day when we will gather under the great dome of the United States Congress and have President Obama and our Congressional leaders speak to the American people so that Raoul Wallenberg, who will finally have the answer he asked in a Soviet jail: "does the world remember me"?
For many, Raoul Wallenberg is a few pages in a history book; for us the children and grandchildren of those that he saved, Raoul Wallenberg is the reason that we were able to once again believe in humanity.
Some might consider Wallenberg an angel in the disguise of a human. However, I will go a step further: the Jewish sages teach us that a person's character consists of traits which can manifest itself either in a positive fashion or negative. When a person elevates himself/herself and overcomes the evil inclination and conducts himself in a positive manner, he elevates himself above the status of an angel. Hence, Raoul Wallenberg soared to the lofty heights that a human being can achieve. With his actions and perseverance and being instrumental of saving thousands of lives, Wallenberg demonstrated the ability of man to overcome and defeat the powers of evil. For us, the Jewish people, this means that all generations that were born out of the individuals that he rescued is all to his credit.
Ezra Friedlander is CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public affairs company based in NYC and Washington DC that spearheaded the creation of the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission. For further information visit www.TheFriedlanderGroup.com/Wallenberg.