State did nothing to save Jews, says Shatter

Thu, Sep 13, 2012, 01:00

THE GOVERNMENT in the 1940s did nothing to oppose the extermination of the Jews in Europe, Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter said yesterday.

He also warned that the international community today had to stand up to those such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran who not only denied the Holocaust but were actively seeking to destroy the state of Israel.

Opening a conference to mark the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved more than 50,000 Hungarian Jews from the death camps, the Minister said there were many who did nothing in the face of the industrialised genocide and destruction of European Jewish civilisation.

“Indeed the Irish government of the day sat on its hands. And even after the death camps were liberated, the Irish government denied Jews refuge in Ireland. To those who asked ‘What could I have done?’, the answer must be, ‘Look at what Raoul Wallenberg did’.”

Mr Shatter said the international community could have impeded the Holocaust had it acted in time but states neither spoke up nor acted against the mass murder. “Hitler and his henchmen always felt reassured that they could act with impunity when the international community kept silent in the face of Nazi outrages. Silence was interpreted as acquiescence. Thus acquiescence helped evil to flourish.”

He quoted Martin Luther King, who said: “The greatest tragedy of this generation which history will record is not the vitriolic words of those who hate, or the aggressive acts of others, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

The Minister told the conference, which took place in Trinity College Dublin, that anti-Semitism was not the exclusive property of fascism. “In the extremities of their sweeping arcs, right-wing extremism, left-wing extremism and religious fundamentalism intersect in their readiness to spread this lethal prejudice.

“Iran’s president Ahmadinejad has repeatedly threatened a nuclear holocaust against Israel while denying the Shoah. Moreover, modern anti-Semitism obsessively singles out Israel for disproportionate forms of condemnation that barely conceal a denial of Israel’s right to exist.”

Mr Shatter said it was a severe indictment of the international legal and political order that President Bashar al-Assad remained in power in Syria and was able to engage in the mass murder of Syrian people with impunity.

“It is morally absurd that Ahmadinejad still rules Iran, an active denier of the Shoah who has promised to use nuclear missiles to turn Israel to smoke and ash. And the silence of so many of the non-aligned states in the face of his threats must surely undermine their moral authority to speak on important issues of international concern,” said Mr Shatter.

The Minister recalled how Wallenberg, who came from a Swedish banking dynasty, responded to the invitation to go to Hungary on a special diplomatic mission in 1944 to save as many Jews as possible.

“Raoul Wallenberg had the option to sit out World War Two safe in neutral Sweden. But for him not to act against the genocidal evil would have been passively to accept that evil. For him, omitting to act would itself have amounted to the wrongful action of acquiescence. So he answered yes when he was asked to go to Budapest. He could not be a bystander to evil.”

As the Red Army advanced, Wallenberg left Budapest to meet it and brief commanders on what to expect when they entered the city. He was never seen again and is presumed to have died in Russian custody. “His unlawful, forced disappearance was itself a crime against humanity,” Mr Shatter added.

RAOUL WALLENBERG: HERO OF HOLOCAUST

RAOUL WALLENBERG was a Swedish architect and businessman who went on a special diplomatic assignment to Hungary in 1944 in order to save as many Jewish lives as possible. Wallenberg was born in 1912 to a comfortable banking family. He was approached by a humanitarian organisation, who asked him to go to Hungary, where Jews were being rounded up and sent to the death camps.

Sweden gave him a diplomatic passport and appointed him as legion secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest. In July 1944 he arrived in Budapest with 650 protective passports for Jews. He developed a special protective Swedish passport – the Schutzpass – whose avowed purpose was to render the holder immune to deportation. This action saved about 20,000 Jews.

With US money he rented 30 buildings. He designated them “extraterritorial buildings”, under a Swedish flag, to give their residents safe houses. He placed some 35,000 Jews in these buildings. He also stopped the Nazis from massacring some 50,000 Jews.

Israel declared Wallenberg a Righteous Gentile, a term from rabbinical Judaism used to describe non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews.

THE FOLLOWING IS THE FULL TEXT OF ALAN SHATTER'S SPEECH

Opening remarks at the Conference "Man Amidst Inhumanity" marking the centennial of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin, 12 September 2012, 9.15-9.30 am.

Ambassadors, Dr Apor, ladies and gentlemen:

Thank you for your gracious invitation and warm welcome.

I compliment the Centre for European Studies, the Embassy of Hungary, the Embassy of Israel and the Embassy of Sweden on your making this important conference possible. And I am delighted to be here.

The 4th of August last marked the centenary of Raoul Wallenberg's birth, in Lidingo Municipality, which is to the east of Stockholm in Sweden.

Today, your conference "Man Amidst Inhumanity" celebrates the moral and physical courage of Raoul Wallenberg - one of the Righteous among the Nations — who saved some 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Shoah.

For every person who takes the equal dignity of human beings seriously, the life of Raoul Wallenberg has a distinct moral and ethical significance. He was a true modern moral hero.

To grasp what he accomplished, our starting point is 1944. President Roosevelt asked the United States War Refugee Board to help save the Jews of Hungary from threatened mass murder by the Nazis. The War Refugee Board then asked its representative in Sweden, Iver Olsen, to find a person to do the work.

The Board’s offices in Sweden were in the same building as the trading firm where Raoul Wallenberg worked. Wallenberg’s boss, Kalman Lauer, who was a Hungarian Jew, recommended him. And he was offered the job.

By this time, the Nazis had destroyed every other Jewish Community in occupied Europe. Even though he knew that Germany was losing the war, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann had arrived in Hungary resolved to murder every single Jew there.

Eichmann organised daily transports of 10,000 to 12,000 Jews to the death camps. In those camps, as Eli Wiesel says, there were only two sorts of people: those who were there to murder and those who were there to be murdered.

More than 400,000 Hungarian Jews from rural Hungary had been forcibly transferred to the death camps. Most of them were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Their suitcases with their names, their glasses, their hair, their clogs, their round bowls, still attest to their murders.

There were 230,000 Jews still in Budapest. Born to privilege - he was the child of a banking family — Raoul Wallenberg had the option to sit out World War Two safe in neutral Sweden.

But for him not to act against the genocidal evil would have been passively to accept that evil. For him, omitting to act would itself have amounted to the wrongful action of acquiescence.

So he answered "yes" when he was asked to go to Budapest. He could not be a bystander to evil.

Sweden gave him a diplomatic passport and appointed him as Legion Secretary at the Swedish Legation in Budapest. In July 1944, Wallenberg arrived in Budapest with 650 protective passports for Jews who had links with Sweden. The Swedish Legation had already been issuing provisional passports and certificates to Jews with links to Sweden.

Wallenberg immediately began to expand the rescue operation. He set up an office and ultimately employed over 300 Jews to run it. He told them that they should remove their yellow stars because they had Swedish diplomatic protection.

He developed a special protective Swedish passport - the Schutzpass - whose avowed purpose was to render the holder immune to deportation. This action saved about 20,000 Jews.

With American money, he rented some 30 buildings. He designated them "extraterritorial buildings" under a Swedish flag to give their residents safe houses. He placed some 35,000 Jews in these buildings.

As the Soviet army approached Budapest, the Nazis intensified their assaults on Budapest's Jews. Helped by local Hungarian Nazis, they organised their units around the Jewish ghetto for the purpose of carrying out a massacre. Wallenberg directly confronted the Nazi commander, warning him that if he authorised the massacre, Wallenberg would ensure that he was prosecuted after the war for crimes against humanity. The commander cancelled the assault. Wallenberg's actions helped to save over 50,000 Jews.

What stands out is Raoul Wallenberg?s choice to resist what was happening. In the parallel world of terrible evil created by Hitler?s reign of terror he was one of the good people who put their own lives at risk to help Jews. He did not look away. He did not turn his back and walk away. He was not indifferent.

He bribed, manipulated, confronted, threatened and annoyed the Nazis in order to save the lives of Hungarian Jews. He gave the Jews invented Swedish documents, hid them in safe houses, and pulled them out of death marches or from the river Danube or off trains bound for the death camps.

His work endangered his life. His car was blown up. The Nazis fired their rifles over his head. He had to find safe places to sleep at night. But he did not search for fudge formulas to deny the imperative to act.

There were many who did nothing in the face of the industrialised genocide and the destruction of European Jewish civilisation. Indeed the Irish Government of the day sat on its hands. And even after the death camps were liberated, the Irish Government denied Jews refuge in Ireland. To those who asked, "What could I have done?", the answer must be, "Look at what Raoul Wallenberg did."

When the Soviets occupied Budapest after the defeat of the Nazis, Wallenberg's efforts to save Jews attracted their attention. He approached the Soviets and requested them to consider his plan to help the Hungarian Jews recover their rightful stake and dignity in Hungary. Under Soviet escort, he returned to his own office after making this request. He told his colleagues that he had to go back to the Russian headquarters. He told them that he was not quite sure whether he was going there as a guest or as a prisoner.

He was never seen again as a free man.

The Soviets refused ever to account in an honest and verifiable way for the fate and whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg.

He was arrested for no legitimate reason, never accused of any real crime, and never accorded a proper trial. Wallenberg disappeared into the Soviet prison system. His unlawful forced disappearance was itself a crime against humanity.

We must be clear in our consciences that what the Soviets did to him was because of what he did and proposed to do for Hungarian Jews. His objective was to persuade the Soviets to restore full civil, political, and economic rights to the dispossessed Jews, to help them reconstruct their lives. He was "disappeared" not despite this moral heroism but because of this moral heroism.

It is absurdly and savagely unjust that the man who gave help to so many was himself denied help when he needed it, that the man who sought to give the victims of inhumanity some humane legal protection was himself deprived of even minimal due-process protection, and that the man who saved so many from forcible disappearance was not himself saved from forcible disappearance.

The passage of time will never erase this injustice done to Raoul Wallenberg.

Moreover, the passage of time can never excuse suppressing any evidence that may shed light on his fate.

The value of today's conference is that it contributes to ensuring that the act of memory does not become passive. It actively helps to keep the truth of the Shoah ready at hand in our cultural memory. This act of memory - this zachor - is a moral act.

Elie Wiesel cautions us, "Whatever you do, remember the moral dimension. If you study engineering or architecture or the arts or music, literature, whatever you do in your life, remember always that there must be a moral dimension."

The pursuit of knowledge divorced from moral values cannot enhance humanity. In relation to the Shoah the moral dimension is an imperative to defend the historical truth against profaning histories. The pursuit of knowledge should be mindful of certain moral facts.

First, we cannot find a meaning in the Shoah. No one can speak on behalf of the silent figures we see on black-and-white film reels walking in line to the gas chambers, marked for death by their yellow stars, who ultimately finished up in the crematoria where they were turned into smoke and ash. We cannot gather their tears or screams and turn them into words of explanation.

It trivialises the Shoah to say that we can find meaning in it.

As Primo Levi wrote, there was no why in Auschwitz.

But we must not forget exactly what happened - that is a moral imperative. What happened was a unique historical event. True, the Shoah was the culmination of a millennium of murder - from 1096 when the Crusaders liquidated Jewish communities on the march to the Holy Land right down to the Shoah when 6 million Jews were murdered and European Jewish civilisation destroyed. But the singularity of the Shoah lies, as George Steiner teaches us, in its execution by highly intelligent and cultured members of an enlightened society, who listened to Schubert and read philosophy in the evening, and killed men, women and children in the morning. He describes the scene in which the cries of Belgian Jews, taken by trains along the tracks passing by the concert hall, were simply ignored as the audience continued to enjoy the music. Using its perverted science, education, the arts, industry, economics, law, medicine and coercive power, that "enlightened" society mercilessly pursued its objective to liquidate a whole people, the Jews.

Second, we must defend the truth about the Shoah against the profaning of history and the perverting of language. There are those who deny the Shoah. When General Dwight Eisenhower saw first hand the horrors of the death camps, he called the world's press to witness what he had seen. He said, "I know that some day there is going to be somebody to come along and say that this is all myth — that this never happened."

To create as many witnesses as possible, he ordered all his soldiers to witness the horror. He also had German civilians who lived nearby paraded through the camps.

The essential moral point is that we must never fall into the trap of assuming that there are two points of view on whether the Shoah happened.

And yet there are still people who assert that the Shoah was a hoax. What do they seek to achieve? They seek to revive fascism unhinged from the horror. As Deborah Lipstadt says, "If you want to make fascism a viable contemporary political alternative, you have to do away with the Holocaust."

But we must realise too that anti-Semitism is not the exclusive property of Fascism. In the extremities of their sweeping arcs, right-wing extremism, left-wing extremism and religious fundamentalism intersect in their readiness to spread this lethal prejudice. Iran's President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly threatened a nuclear holocaust against Israel while denying the Shoah. Moreover, modern anti-Semitism obsessively singles out Israel for disproportionate forms of condemnation that barely conceal a denial of Israel's right to exist.

There are also those who relativise the Shoah. They try to place it in an excusing or reductive historical perspective. They assert that because genocide has happened throughout recorded history, Hitler's "Final Solution" was nothing special. What the German Nazis did does not stand alone in history, and, in the 20th century, Stalin did it first with his purges and Gulags. Or, as Robert Faurisson argued, in a book for which Noam Chomsky wrote an introduction, what happened to the Jews was a tragedy not intended by the Nazis as an act of genocide, and, in any event, genocide on the scale the Nazis are accused of was not technically feasible. Others argue that the German Army was really fighting to prevent Communist domination of Europe and the fate of the Jews was an incidental outcome.

On this view, the Shoah is merely one of countless examples of man's inhumanity to man.

And there are those who trivialise the Shoah. If the word "holocaust" is used as a metaphor to describe mishaps or poor outcomes it robs the word of its moral force. When Philip Morris put advertisements in magazines seeking to identify smokers with ghettoised Jews, the corporation profaned the word and drained it of moral imagination. The advertisement had a map of Amsterdam with an area near the traditional Jewish quarter cordoned off and marked "Smoking Section".

It is important to actively oppose these phenomena: the Shoah denied, the Shoah relativised, and the Shoah trivialised. We cannot deal with the future if the past is denied, relativised, or trivialised. Without a true understanding of the past there can be no secure civilised future. We must not lose the words we need to speak honestly about what the victims of the Shoah suffered.

To say that the Shoah was a singular event is not to engage in a sort of moral bookkeeping that claims that Jews have suffered more than any other group. We must neither forget nor try to rank the sufferings of all victims of genocide. And we must be courageous enough to speak to the threats in our own time.

It would be an unforgivable flight from responsibility not to ask why the United Nations and the international community are not doing more to stop mass murder or threatened mass murder in the world.

I recognise that the design of the United Nations is intended to provide the world with a comprehensive public-order system. But I cannot see how the power to veto a humanitarian-intervention resolution by the United Nations Security Council - a power that is vested for historical reasons in an exclusive club of five permanent members - can morally validate political inaction in the face of barbarism.

It is not enough to bear witness. We must also honour our fundamental moral obligation to protect our common humanity against inhumanity.

Remember: the international community could have impeded the Shoah had it acted in time. But states neither spoke up nor acted against the mass murder of European Jewish civilisation.

Hitler and his henchmen always felt reassured that they could act with impunity when the international community kept silent in the face of Nazi outrages. Silence was interpreted as acquiescence. Thus, acquiescence helped evil to flourish.

And so the Nazis and their collaborators were able to use the fires of the Shoah to turn European Jewish civilisation to smoke and ash.

Martin Luther King in more recent times put the point this way, "The greatest tragedy of this generation which history will record is not the vitriolic words of those who hate, or the aggressive acts of others, but the appalling silence of the good people."

It is a severe indictment of our international legal and political order that Assad remains in power in Syria and mass-murders Syrian people with impunity. It is morally absurd that Ahmadinejad still rules Iran, an active denier of the Shoah who has promised to use nuclear missiles to turn Israel to smoke and ash. And the silence of so many of the non-aligned states in the face of his threats must surely undermine their moral authority to speak on important issues of international concern.

In "the appalling silence of the good people", Raoul Wallenberg's brave humanity stood out. He knew that to remain free we must preserve the rule of law. True, the Nazi empire of terror was not lawless. But its arsenal of laws was used by educated people - lawyers and judges - to license oppression, slavery and mass murder. Wallenberg knew that to live under the rule of law in its right substantive sense, we must value our fundamental rights and freedoms, bear the responsibilities they entail, and constantly renew the democratic attitude of equal concern and respect for all people.

It is good therefore that Dr Robert Rozett will speak to the question, "Why Raoul Wallenberg?" Tim Cole will examine the "geographies of rescue" in which Raoul Wallenberg strove to create safe refuges in the then lethal racist urban space. Tanja Schult will tackle the memory of Wallenberg in Art and Popular Culture. Dr Maria Schmidt will consider the dilemma of man amidst inhumanity. Gabor Tallai assesses the place of the Holocaust in the Hungarian School Curriculum. Dag Sebastian Ahlander and Yaakov Barzilai will in a figurative sense bring Raoul Wallenberg home to us.

Your conference will pursue important themes. The theme of art and the Shoah is most vexing to the moral imagination. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote that the Shoah "has changed the basis for the continuity of the conditions of life within history." The fundamental question for artists is: How do you represent the truth of the Shoah in responsible memory?

History is anchored to a factual record. The historian probes with an eye to marshalling events into a coherent and truthful narrative. And law too is anchored to a factual record. After World War Two, realising the role that the law could play in accomplishing an accurate and reliable record of the Shoah, the Allies agreed upon a judicialised response in Nuremburg to Nazi crimes. Telford Taylor, Chief Prosecutor at Nuremburg, argued that the fact-finding trial process would provide a public forum for historical education.

The claim that the idiom of art, for example, imaginative literature in the forms of prose or poetry, can safeguard historical truth is contested.

There is a sharp conflict of views.

I do not have in mind art that comes directly from people who experienced the horrors of the Shoah, for example, the poems of Paul Celan. Or art that does not represent the Shoah but has acquired an additional valence because the artist was the victim of Nazi crimes. I have in mind, for example, the linoprint of "Moon Landscape" by Petr Ginz, who was taken from the Prague Ghetto and murdered in Auschwitz in his 16th year. The late Colonel Ilan Ramon brought the art work into space with him in 2003 on the shuttle Columbia that sadly perished.

For art about the Shoah I suggest that the key questions are: Is it possible for the artist to search for historical clarification in the world of fiction and imagination? If you aestheticise the Shoah do you then trivialise it? Is there a real and substantial risk that the very act of fictionalising or creating something new can be exploited by those who assert that the Shoah was a made-up propaganda device? And: Can the artist avoid becoming a voyeur?

Lawrence Langer argues that the artistic imagination can serve the interests of responsible memory. He wrote that "only art can convey the fullest meaning of the Holocaust experience." For him the artistic imagination has the power to help people to grasp the enormity.

Theodor Adorno has been read as saying that writing a poem about Auschwitz is barbaric. His point is that the power to create art must be overwhelmed by the enormity of the genocide, cruelty and enslavement. The imperative is not to imagine but to record the facts.

I bring up these questions simply to make the point that the question of imaginative creation in relation to the Shoah bristles with hard questions. Can art about the Shoah become a muscle of true moral memory? Or is it more likely to become a tool of inevitable distortion? The discussion you will have is therefore important.

The challenge is to keep faith with the civilised values Raoul Wallenberg lived and died for.

We can do this by working to make practical advances in the protection and promotion of human rights and equality in our world, in the treatment of war victims by adversaries in times of armed conflict, and in the treatment of refugees who seek haven from persecution.

In Yad Vashem, along the Avenue of the Righteous — which is dedicated to remembering those who risked their lives to save Jews from the Shoah — a tree grows in Raoul Wallenberg's memory.

And in the Mishnah, there is the thought that to murder a person is in effect to cause a whole world to perish, and that to save another person's life is in effect to save a whole world. In Budapest, during the six months he worked there, from July 1944 to January 1945, Raoul Wallenberg saved a single human life, a whole world, one-hundred-thousand times.

In a world where there are people who deny the Shoah or relativise the Shoah or trivialise the Shoah, where there are people who incite or seek to create the conditions or weapons for a further genocide against the Jewish people, remembering Raoul Wallenberg and the victims and survivors of the Shoah is itself a deeply meaningful moral act of memory.

I wish this moral act of memory - this zachor — your conference — success.

The historical fact of the Shoah can only be kept alive in memory through acts of memory. In your important act of memory today, even as you remember the evil inhumanity, you memorialise the human good.

I wish the work of your conference well.

Thank you.

Alan Shatter TD Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence.