There was a full house at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre for the community’s marking of Wallenberg Day on Jan 19. Sponsored for the first time by the newly formed Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, the annual event was the natural outgrowth of the placement of a plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park in 1986. It was revived at the 20th anniversary in 2006 as a cooperative effort between the then honorary Swedish consul, Anders Neumuller, and the Vancouver Second Generation Group.
Each year, the event pays tribute to courageous and heroic actions inspired by the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, and the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara. Both men, at grave risk to themselves, their families and their future, chose to follow their own personal moral code and save the lives of large numbers of Jews during the Second World War.
Mayor of Vancouver Gregor Robertson read a proclamation naming the day “Raoul Wallenberg Day in the City of Vancouver.” He said, “There are always heroes in our midst and elevating their place in society and celebrating and having discussion … is absolutely critical in a civil society.”
This year, the heroism of Englishman Sir Nicholas Winton was highlighted in the movie Nicky’s Family. This emotionally powerful film told the story of how Winton saved the lives of more than 600 Czech children just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The film documents how his actions have inspired young people to engage in direct acts of tikkun olam.
British Consul Rupert Potter honored Winton, saying, “I have never introduced a film to quite so full a house as this, which, I think, is testament to the content and the importance of the subject and what the film represents….”
There was an especially moving moment when members of the audience who owed their lives to the heroic actions of people such as Wallenberg, Sugihara and Winton were asked to stand. This action made the impact of these men clearly visible, showing that one person can make a profound difference in the world.
Naomi Taussig, the cantor of Temple Sholom Synagogue, spoke about the miracle of how her father and uncle were saved by Winton. She said, “Where would I be but for the actions of a single man who chose to do something when he could have done nothing at all? I feel a responsibility to live proudly as a Jew, honoring my grandparents, Emil and Irma. I try to live kindly, with compassion and intention. Nicholas himself says we must live ethically, and do whatever we can – no matter how small. We must take action rather than believe we are too insignificant to make a difference.”
I, too, owe my life to the actions of a diplomat. Against the orders of his government, Sugihara gave out visas to Jews, allowing them to escape certain death and travel to Japan. My mother was a recipient of such a visa. Had she not received it, I would not be here today. Last year, I traveled to Japan and had the honor of meeting with Sugihara’s granddaughter to express my deepest gratitude for the actions of her grandfather. It was a heartfelt meeting that I will remember for the rest of my days.
We need these stories to remind us of the inherent good that lives within people. We need to educate, to pay tribute, to remember and, finally, to inspire people today, as well as future generations, to act with courage and live their values in a way that contributes to the healing of the world.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society is passionate about wanting to leave a legacy encouraging others to engage in behaviors inspired by Wallenberg, Sugihara and people like Winton. We are looking for people who, at significant personal risk, have helped improve or save the lives of others by going against unjust norms or conventions. Over the coming year, the names of suggested individuals who meet the criteria (including being associated with British Columbia, even if their actions may have taken place outside of the province) will be reviewed. Next year, at the annual Wallenberg Day event, we hope to present an award for civil courage to acknowledge heroic acts in today’s world. For more information, contact the society at [email protected].
Deborah Ross-Grayman is an artist, writer and Sugihara survivor descendant committee member of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society.