A still from the documentary Passage to Sweden, which will screen as part of the annual Raoul Wallenberg Day for Civil Courage event on Jan. 21.
This year’s annual Raoul Wallenberg Day for Civil Courage gathering, on Sunday, Jan. 21, held at Congregation Beth Israel, will explore and honour civil courage in Scandinavia during the Second World War.
Just over 80 years ago, in late 1943, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes had to confront moral choices, when Denmark and Norway dealt with military occupation by Nazi Germany. Many people defied Nazi policies that threatened the human rights and lives of their fellow citizens and residents.
In Denmark, thousands of Christian Danes risked their own lives, cooperating in the dramatic, swift and secret rescue operation. The Jews, who faced deportation and certain death at the hands of the Nazis, were ferried to safety in neutral Sweden. Their homes and properties were safeguarded until their return after the war. Sweden welcomed and aided the Danish Jews, risking its own status as a neutral nation.
In Norway, the site of significant armed attacks by Nazi Germany, hundreds of Norwegian police officers refused the orders of Nazi occupiers, a collective action that led to their imprisonment at Stutthof concentration camp in Nazi-controlled Poland. There, the Norwegian police maintained their solidarity as they acted to reduce the suffering of their fellow prisoners, including many Jews, such as the late Jennie Lifschitz, who settled in Vancouver in the early 1950s.
Finland and the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) were also engulfed in the war, victims of the Soviet Union’s military occupation and, in the case of the Baltics, annexation and mass civilian deportations.
While Nordic peoples, like most Europeans, were not completely free of hostility toward Jews and other minorities, they offer a good example of civil courage, based on the belief that Jewish citizens and residents were their equals.
This year, at the local Wallenberg Day event, Vancouver Holocaust educator Norman Gladstone will speak about the remarkable rescue of Denmark’s Jewish population. Local researcher and author Tore Jørgensen will speak about the hundreds of Norwegian policemen, including his father, who refused to collaborate with the Nazi occupiers. Historian Gene Homel will introduce the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society and the City of Vancouver proclamation of Wallenberg Day.
As well, the documentary Passage to Sweden will be screened. The film covers the wartime courage of Scandinavians, including Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg, who acted courageously to protect civilians in Hungary, and was taken into custody by the Soviet army. His fate is unknown to this day.
The 19th annual Wallenberg Day on Jan. 21 at Congregation Beth Israel will be held at 1:30 p.m. Admission is free and donations will be gratefully accepted.
For more about the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, which organizes the annual event, visit wsccs.ca.
– Courtesy Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society
Marina Sonkina shares her experiences as a volunteer with the JDC in Poland last year, helping Ukrainian refugees. (photo by Masumi Kikuchi)
This year’s annual Raoul Wallenberg Day in Vancouver honoured the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for “its courageous support for Ukrainian refugees.”
“In addition to vast internal displacement, from a population of 41 million Ukrainians, eight million (mostly women and children, and some seniors) have fled to Europe and other parts of the world,” said Alan Le Fevre in his opening remarks.
Le Fevre is on the board of directors of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, which hosts the Wallenberg Day commemorations. This year, the event was presented in partnership with Congregation Beth Israel, and it took place at the synagogue on Jan. 22.
The JDC’s work helping Ukrainian refugees “continues its illustrious history,” said Le Fevre, noting that, “since its founding in 1914, the JDC has provided support for refugees whenever and wherever needed, propelled by Jewish values and a commitment to mutual responsibility.”
The City of Vancouver’s proclamation of this year’s Wallenberg Day was read by Deputy Mayor Sarah Kirby-Yung, attending on behalf of Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim. She was joined by Councilor Mike Klassen.
Kirby-Yung had helped celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year that morning, and still had on the red jacket she had worn for that event because the Asian community “has suffered much in the past few years, [with] anti-Asian hate and, sometimes, that plight has been very analogous to what our Jewish community has suffered” and one of the best things about the city, and what she sees in the work of the JDC, is “communities and cultures, and people of different faiths and backgrounds, who come together to stand against injustice and to support each other.”
WSCCS board member George Bluman introduced the afternoon’s guest speaker, Dr. Marina Sonkina, a local educator and writer. “Soon after Russia attacked Ukraine, Marina applied to volunteer with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as someone who speaks Russian, Ukrainian and other languages and as someone who has been a refugee herself,” he said. “Almost immediately, she was accepted and flew to Poland at the end of March.
“After arriving in Warsaw, about five hours later, Marina was at the Polish-Ukrainian border, where she served in a camp as a frontline responder, offering fleeing refugees medical and psychological support.”
Sonkina, who has relatives in Russia and Ukraine, said most of her family is out of Russia at this point.
“If we are talking about why didn’t Russians resist,” she said, “I think those more than one million people who left Russia when the draft, conscription, was announced, that is the only accessible form of not revolt, but saying no to Putin. Otherwise, it is pretty much a fascist state.”
While Putin is the person who launched the war, she wondered about others’ culpability: all those who overlooked Putin’s actions over the 22 years of his being power, which has seen him poison his opponents and annex Crimea, among other things. What was the West’s role, she asked, as they worked with Putin as a business partner first, putting his authoritarianism second?
In Warsaw, Sonkina was one of the people who met Holocaust survivors being extracted from Ukraine, to be housed in Germany. The next day, she worked in a refugee camp, where there were already more than two million refugees. (For more on Sonkina’s experience in Poland, read her account at jewishindependent.ca/helping-ukrainian-refugees.)
JDC helped everybody, said Sonkina. A moral responsibility to repair the world, tikkun olam, is part of JDC’s mandate and she saw this responsibility in action. She remarked on the goodwill of people from around the world, of a range of ages, who were helping in different ways, including taking refugees into their homes. The strength and independence of the refugees also left an impression on Sonkina – they didn’t want to take handouts, she said, and they wanted to know whether they could get jobs in the country that harboured them.
“One of the things that I quickly realized – a part of persuading them to go to this country or that was just the human contact that was so important,” she said. The refugees she met had experienced such trauma, and her acknowledgement of what they had gone through allowed some of them to cry. “It was sometimes hard,” Sonkina admitted, visibly emotional. “But there were also funny stories,” she added, sharing a couple of those stories before WSCCS board member Gene Homel took the podium.
An historian teaching about Europe in the 20th century for many years, Homel had been in Ukraine eight or nine years ago, and he echoed what Sonkina had said about Ukrainians’ “intense loyalty” – “the attachment to the land, culture and language” – but, he said, “I want to make the point that, in Ukraine today, the focus of loyalty is a civic one, it’s on the national state rather than ethnicity, it’s a pluralistic and multiethnic society that’s being created, forged largely as a result of Russia’s criminal attack on Ukraine.”
Homel provided a brief overview of the JDC’s work from its founding in 1914 to its current work with Ukrainian Jews and non-Jews, and he introduced businessman and philanthropist Gary Segal, who became familiar with JDC’s work in 2007, on a Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver trip to Ethiopia, led by JDC professionals. He’s been a board member since 2012.
“I marvel at the compassion, intelligence, resourcefulness and resolve with which the dedicated staff and volunteers carry on their sacred work,” said Segal, noting that JDC helps communities of all backgrounds and faiths, and doesn’t just respond to acute situations, but also to endemic poverty, food insecurity and the plight of refugees, as well as antisemitism.
“Since 1914, we’ve rescued more than one million Jews in danger, from places like Ethiopia, Yemen, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ukraine,” said Segal, who spoke about various JDC initiatives, including its medical programs in countries like Ethiopia.
It was on that 2007 trip that Segal met Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC’s medical director in Ethiopia, whose care for kids with severe spinal deformities (with Ghanaian spine surgeon Dr. Oheneba Boachie-Adjei) inspired Segal to get involved, too. He brought a young Ethiopian to Vancouver for back surgery and established in Vancouver the organization Bring Back Hope, which has raised some $3 million to support spine surgeries, preventative screening, and more. (See jewishindependent.ca/oldsite/archives/jan11/archives11jan14-02.html and several articles on jewishindependent.ca.)
Returning to JDC’s work in Ukraine since the war began, Segal noted that, to date, the organization “has cared for 35,000 vulnerable and elderly poor; it evacuated 13,000 Jews from Ukraine; provided over 40,000 refugees with food, medicine, trauma support; received over 19,000 incoming calls at the emergency centre; and provided over 1.3 million pounds of humanitarian assistance.”
Segal then brought his talk around to Raoul Wallenberg, Sweden’s special envoy to Hungary in 1944, who saved tens of thousands of Jews from deportation and death. “The original fund of $100,000 that [Wallenberg] received from the War Refugee Board came from the American Joint Distribution Committee and, when that was finished, he received additional funds from the JDC,” said
Segal, who concluded, “I would say, so much of what JDC does is giving hope. Hope is a powerful word, an essential element in everyone’s life…. Hope can give us the strength and the will to continue in our darkest moments, to aspire and believe that things can and will be better.”
On behalf of the JDC, Segal accepted, with thanks, the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Award from Le Fevre.
Other components of the afternoon included a few words from Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, a short documentary on Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen, who received the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of displaced persons after the First World War, and a compilation of JDC’s work in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
WSCCS board member Judith Anderson introduced the videos, giving more of Nansen’s background and achievements, including “the repatriation of 450,000 prisoners of war, mostly held in Soviet Russia” and “[in] response to a severe famine in Soviet Russia, Nansen directed relief efforts that saved between seven million and 22 million people from starvation.”
Anderson said, “The Nansen story is directly relevant to Ukraine. The headquarters for Nansen’s mission to Russia was in Ukraine’s Kharkiv, and Nansen donated part of his Nobel Peace Prize money to establish a major agricultural project in Ukraine.”
She thanked the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Nobel Peace Centre for permission to show the videos about Nansen and JDC staff members and directors – Shaun Goldstone, Solly Kaplinski and Alex Weisler – for compiling the material for the Ukraine Crisis video.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society is named after Wallenberg for his actions during the Holocaust, and Chiune Sugihara, who, as vice-consul in Lithuania for Japan during the war, issued transit visas that allowed thousands of Jews from Poland and Lithuania to escape. For more information on the society and to see videos of the Jan. 22 event, visit wsccs.ca.
Journalists in Canada do not face the sorts of threats – sometimes life-endangering ones – that colleagues in many other countries do. But other factors impinge on the right of Canadians to diverse and thorough reporting of contentious issues, says an academic on the subject.
Robert Hackett, professor emeritus of communication at Simon Fraser University, spoke on the civil courage of journalists as part of the annual Raoul Wallenberg Day in Vancouver. The virtual commemoration, sponsored by the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society Jan. 17, featured a number of recorded events, including the screening of two films.
In recent decades, there has been a return to “partisan media,” said Hackett.
“Media, going back a couple of hundred years, were initially partisan media, reflecting the viewpoint of particular factions or parties,” he said. “We see that returning with a vengeance since the 1980s, with Fox News and so on.”
The internet has lowered attention spans and the “growing entertainment orientation” of the news media has changed the way reporting is done. Contradictory forces have upset the journalism sector in recent decades, he said. On the one hand, concentration and monopoly have placed control of “legacy media” – daily news, for instance – in fewer and fewer hands, reflecting a narrowing of perspectives. On the other hand, digital media and journalism startups have led to a fragmentation of public attention.
As the revenue structures of journalism have become strained due to competition for advertising avenues, resources for newsroom staff have declined, with commensurate impacts on the quality of reporting. Journalists who are expected to pump out several stories a day are unable to do the sort of investigative work common a generation or two ago and so rely on media releases. General reporters have replaced beat reporters with deep contacts and extensive background knowledge in an area of expertise. These structural changes have been accompanied by growing cultural skepticism toward expertise and even the definition of truth, said Hackett.
“It’s a different cognitive world,” he said. “We no longer seem to even have a shared reality.”
Some of Hackett’s recent research, in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has focused on fossil fuel industries and their influence on Canada’s press. He sees Canada’s largest print media company, Postmedia, as a booster of fossil fuels.
While Canadian journalists are fortunate not to face some of the life-threatening risks of reporters in many other places, there remain serious challenges to the ideal of a free media.
“There is still a certain degree of legal harassment and risk, especially for freelancers who don’t have a big organization behind them,” said Hackett. “The cost of a lawsuit for defamation, even if it’s a spurious lawsuit, is prohibitive. It’s intimidating. I know for a fact that freelancers have said they aren’t proceeding with stories because of fears of being sued.”
In addition, he added: “We don’t have effective shield or whistleblower laws, by and large, that would allow journalists to protect their sources.”
The online event, marking the 16th annual commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg Day in Vancouver, also featured two documentaries.
A Dark Place was produced by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Representative on Freedom of the Media. It follows female journalists around the world and the threats they receive online in reaction to their reporting on contentious stories. Threats of rape and murder, as well as other forms of intimidation, are almost ubiquitous. One study said that 60% of female journalists have experienced some form of online harassment or threats, according to the film. A panel discussion featured the film’s director, Javier Luque, and Arzu Geybulla, an Azerbaijani journalist who endured harrowing harassment and accusations of being a “traitor” for coverage of conflicts in the Caucasus.
The other documentary, Mohamed Fahmy: Half Free, by filmmaker David Paperny, follows Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who was jailed in Egypt for his reporting on the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo. Fahmy’s experience is one of many that journalists face daily in conflict zones and under repressive regimes, risking their freedom and their lives to report on events. Fahmy spent 438 days in an Egyptian prison before being pardoned by the country’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Fahmy is now an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.
Alan Le Fevre, a director of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, welcomed participants to the annual event, which highlights the Second World War heroism of Raoul Wallenberg and Chiune Sugihara.
Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Hungary, issued “protective passports” that identified bearers as Swedish subjects awaiting repatriation, thereby preventing their deportation from Hungary to death camps in Poland. Wallenberg disappeared in 1945 after the Soviets invaded Hungary. In 1957, the Soviet Union released a statement dated 1947, saying that Wallenberg had died of natural causes that year. Reports that Wallenberg was seen alive after 1947 have added to confusion and controversy around his fate.
Sugihara was vice-consul of the Imperial Japanese legation in Lithuania. At risk to his career and his life, Sugihara issued thousands of transit visas permitting Jews to travel through the Soviet Union to Japan and across the Pacific. Ostensibly, because a destination was required for a transit visa, the holders were destined for Curaçao. Many of those who escaped ended up on the West Coast of North America and there are several Vancouver families who owe their lives to “Sugihara visas.”
Prof. George Bluman speaks at the 15th annual Raoul Wallenberg Day commemoration, Jan. 19. (photo by Masumi Kikuchi)
Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara was honoured in Vancouver this month with a lecture on his wartime heroism – by a man who owes his life to the actions of Sugihara when the diplomat served as consul for the Imperial Japanese government in Lithuania, near the start of the Second World War.
George Bluman, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of British Columbia, spoke at the 15th annual Raoul Wallenberg Day commemoration Jan. 19, which was held at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. The annual event is presented by the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society and took place 75 years and two days after Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Hungary whose actions saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews, was last seen alive. The actions of Sugihara, vice-consul of the Japanese embassy in Kaunas, Lithuania, paralleled those of Wallenberg in that he issued visas and took extraordinary actions to save the lives of the threatened Jews of Europe.
Bluman’s parents, Nathan and Susan Bluman, fled to Lithuania after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. There, they received transit visas from Sugihara, which enabled them to travel through the Soviet Union to Japan. They then obtained temporary permits to enter Canada and they were aboard the last ship sailing from Japan to Vancouver prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
An estimated 15% of Sugihara survivors became Canadians, many of them remaining in Vancouver, including the Bluman family, which has come to number 23, now including great-grandchildren of Susan and Nathan. It is estimated that Sugihara’s actions facilitated the escape of thousands of Jewish refugees.
In addition to the Sugihara descendants living in Vancouver, Bluman noted an additional local connection. On his way to Europe for the series of diplomatic postings that would lead to his heroic acts, Sugihara and his wife Yukiko arrived by ship in Vancouver in 1937, then took a transcontinental train to the East Coast to board another ship, which would take them to Europe.
A 2017 poll in a Tokyo publication rated Sugihara as the most important Japanese person ever. “Why?” Bluman asked. “Against advice from his superiors in Tokyo, he issued transit visas to Japan that ended up saving about 2,100 Jewish refugees who otherwise would have been likely murdered. Those saved included my parents as well as one of my uncles and his wife.… Perhaps as many as 40,000 people owe their lives due to the extraordinary heroic deeds of Sugihara.”
Two diplomats from the Netherlands played crucial roles in Sugihara’s heroics, Bluman said. After the Nazi occupation of that country, in May 1940, an anti-Nazi Dutch government-in-exile was established in London and remained in charge of all Dutch embassies. The anti-Nazi Dutch ambassador in Latvia, L.P.J. de Decker, dismissed his pro-Nazi Lithuanian honorary consul, replacing him with Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch engineer heading Philips electronics in Kaunas.
“Two young Dutch rabbinical students approached Zwartendijk, requesting documentation to go to Curaçao, a Dutch colony in the West Indies, with the aim of traveling east through the Soviet Union, Japan, the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal to tiny Curaçao, an island off the coast of Venezuela, about one-sixth the size of Metro Vancouver. They also sought permits for their mostly Polish classmates.
“Why Curaçao?” asked Bluman. “Because no visa was required to enter Curaçao. The local governor had sole authority to permit entry. But this was rarely granted. Zwartendijk was given permission by de Decker, the Dutch ambassador in Riga [Latvia], to issue permits to Curaçao to their fellow rabbinical students that stated, in French, ‘A visa for entry is not required,’ leaving out the condition of the governor’s permission. Moreover, Zwartendijk courageously agreed to issue such permits to all Jewish refugees who applied for them.”
A delegation of Jewish refugees approached Sugihara about obtaining Japanese transit visas, a necessary step for the scheme’s success.
“Without permission from Tokyo, and after getting Soviet approval, signed by Stalin, for refugee transit through the Soviet Union, Sugihara issued transit visas valid for a stay of 10 days in Japan, based on the seemingly sufficient Zwartendijk Curaçao permits,” said Bluman. “Zwartendijk signed 2,300 such permits, until his office was forced to close on the day Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union.… The scam worked.”
With the annexation of the Baltic states to the Soviet Union, all foreign embassies were ordered closed. Though Zwartendijk left, Sugihara managed to stay on for a further four weeks to continue writing transit visas – even for Jews who had not obtained a visa from Zwartendijk.
“These Jews included my parents, who approached Sugihara’s office six days after Zwartendijk had left,” Bluman said.
Ultimately, about 80% of the Jewish refugees issued Sugihara visas survived and about three-quarters made it to Japan. Almost half carried on to Shanghai, China, to wait out the war.
Sugihara’s diplomatic career effectively ended in Romania, where he was posted at the end of the war. When the Soviets occupied Bucharest, Sugihara and his family were imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp for 18 months.
Back in Japan in 1946, Sugihara was dismissed from diplomatic service and spent the next several decades in low-key positions in Japan and Moscow. His retirement from service was ostensibly a matter of downsizing, but some have speculated that his heroic insubordination was a cause.
Only in 1968 did Sugihara learn that most of the Jews he had helped had survived. In 1985, he was recognized by the state of Israel, receiving the Righteous Among the Nations award from Yad Vashem, as well as perpetual Israeli citizenship for himself and his family. Zwartendijk was posthumously honoured in 1997. Sugihara died in 1986, at the age of 86. Bluman retains close contact with the family in Japan.
“In my family,” Bluman concluded, “there is one great hero we always carry in our hearts and to whom we will be forever grateful: Chiune Sugihara.”
After Bluman’s presentation, attendees watched the film Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara. Earlier, Alan La Fevre, president of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, welcomed guests, including the deputy mayor of the city of Vancouver, Christine Boyle, who read a proclamation declaring Raoul Wallenberg Day. Diplomats from Japan and Ukraine were in attendance.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society was formed in 2013 by members of the Swedish and Jewish communities. The society continues the legacy of the annual Wallenberg Day events in Vancouver, recognizing and honouring individuals who, at great personal risk, have helped others by acting against unjust laws, norms or conventions.
Chiune Sugihara, 1941. This year’s Raoul Wallenberg Day event includes the screening of Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara. (photo from Vilnius-Green House exhibit)
On Sunday, Jan. 19, the 15th annual Raoul Wallenberg Day event pays tribute to courageous actions by diplomats Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Chiune Sugihara of Japan. During the Second World War, they engaged in selfless acts of civil courage, at grave risk to themselves and their families, to rescue many tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
This year, the Vancouver-based Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society focuses on the story of Sugihara. The event features a showing of the biographical film drama Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara. As a consular official for Japan in eastern Europe during the Second World War, Sugihara saved thousands of refugees by issuing transit visas that allowed people to escape Nazi German forces. Once reviled in Japan, today Sugihara is considered a hero, with museums and a memorial site.
The keynote speaker on Jan. 19 is George Bluman, a local descendent of Sugihara visa recipients and an international expert on Sugihara’s life. Some of those saved by his visas ended up in Vancouver and other parts of Canada.
When possible, the Civil Courage Society also presents an award to an individual associated with British Columbia who, at significant personal risk, helped improve the lives of others while defying unjust laws or norms, past or present. Past recipients include Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh, Chief Robert Joseph and Mary Kitagawa. Their stories inspire Canadians to act with courage and live by their moral values.
This year’s event – sponsored by the estate of Frank and Rosie Nelson, and supported by several organizations and volunteers – is being held at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, and it begins at 1 p.m. Admission is free; donations are appreciated. A reception follows. For more information, visit wsccs.ca. New volunteers and nominations for the Civil Courage Award are always welcomed.
Ujjal Dosanjh will receive the inaugural Civil Courage Award at the 10th annual Raoul Wallenberg Day on Jan. 18. (photo by Patrick Tam)
In honor of the 10th annual Vancouver Raoul Wallenberg Day, the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society will present its inaugural Civil Courage Award to the Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh on Jan. 18.
WSCCS was formed by members of the Swedish and Jewish communities in 2013, with the goal of continuing the legacy of the Wallenberg Day in Vancouver and commemorating Raoul Wallenberg, Chiune Sugihara and others like them through the establishment of an award for civil courage. The award is given to an individual associated with British Columbia who has helped improve the lives of others and society while defying unjust laws, norms, conventions or unethical behaviors of the time and place. The choice of Dosanjh as a recipient was unanimous in the panel of three, which includes Thomas Berger, a Canadian politician of Swedish descent and retired Supreme Court justice, Georgia Straight publisher Dan McLeod, and Thomas Gradin, honorary Swedish consul, former hockey player and a scout for the Canucks. Dosanjh was selected as the award recipient “for his actions as a critic of sectarian violence and his advocacy for social justice, often at great risk to his personal safety. As a critic of extremism and champion of liberal democracy he has been a great benefit to Canada and an inspiration to us all.”
Dosanjh is well known as Canada’s first Indo-Canadian provincial premier and for his roles as attorney general, federal health minister and a member of Parliament until 2011. Back in 1985, after the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple in the Punjab to flush out Sikh extremists, Dosanjh warned the Canadian government that sectarian violence could spill over into Canada. His warning fell on deaf ears. Four months later, on June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 was bombed, killing 329 people, 280 of whom were Canadian. In the wake of this tragedy, Dosanjh consistently and publicly denounced violence as a means of establishing an independent Sikh homeland in India.
As a result these calls, Dosanjh has been subjected to death threats since the 1980s, he was attacked and severely beaten with a metal bar outside his law office and he had a Molotov cocktail thrown into his constituency office in 1999. He recalls a Facebook page set up in 2010 to discuss openly how to execute his murder. Despite these harrowing encounters, Dosanjh said he has always felt “safe enough” living in Canada. “Canadians are a peace-loving people who respect each other’s right to speak, no matter how distasteful one’s remarks might be,” he said. The threats subsided after 2010 but by then he had learned to live with them. “You can’t let these threats beat you into fear,” he added.
In an interview with the Independent, Dosanjh said he was “totally humbled” when he learned he would be receiving the award a few weeks ago. Though he’d not heard of the WSCCS, he was familiar with the story of Raoul Wallenberg. “To be honored in his name is something I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams,” he confessed. “I’m extremely honored to be associated with Wallenberg’s name, though what he did was under much more difficult circumstances and, therefore, all the more important. Still, to be acknowledged in your own lifetime for things you stood for, that some may find disagreeable, is great because it’s good to have friends.”
Dosanjh is presently writing a memoir and said though he misses the “gut and thrust” of politics, he has no longing for the weekly commutes to Ottawa and, prior to that, to Victoria.
WSCCS will present the award at the Wosk Auditorium at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on Sunday, Jan. 18, 1:30 p.m. B.C. lieutenant governor, the Hon. Judith Guichon, will attend the ceremony, which will include a screening of the film The Rescuers by Michael King, which tells the story of 13 heroic diplomats who saved tens of thousands of lives during the Second World War. Admission is by donation.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Left to right, Henry Ross-Grayman, Thomas Gradin and Mayor Gregor Robertson. (photo by Wendy Fouks)
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.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society will mark Vancouver Raoul Wallenberg Day on Jan. 19 with the screening of the documentary Nicky’s Family, about Holocaust hero Nicholas Winton.
Now 104 years old, Winton lives in England (where he was born). The story of his heroism during the Holocaust starts in 1938, when he was a stockbroker. Receiving a letter from a friend in Prague about the plight of Jews in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, he traveled there to assess the situation for himself. Shocked at what he witnessed, he established an organization to aid children from Jewish families, setting up office in his hotel room in Prague, from which he eventually expanded.
The director of Nicky’s Family, Matej Minac, said in an interview on Czech Radio in 2003: “When he came here to Prague, and wanted to rescue all these children, and he had a plan how to do it, everybody was telling him – you know, it’s absurd. You can never manage it. The British won’t let the children in. The Gestapo won’t let the children out. You don’t have the money, so how do you want to do it? It’s crazy. And Winton said that anything that is reasonable can be achieved.”
After Kristallnacht, in November 1938, the British Parliament approved the entry of refugees younger than 17 into the country, if they had a place to stay and a warranty was paid. Knowing this, Winton left his friends in Prague to manage the gathering of the children there and returned to London, where he started a campaign to find foster homes and the necessary guarantees for as many children as he could.
Winton also organized for the Jewish children to be transported on trains and then on to ferries to England, where the foster families met them. The operation later became known as the Czech Kindertransport. It lasted until the official start of the Second World War on Sept. 1, 1939, by which time 669 of “his children” had arrived in England. He kept records of the names and addresses of the children, their parents and their foster families. Most of the Jewish parents in Prague perished during the Holocaust.
Winton never told anyone of this enterprise. Fifty years after the fact, his wife found a suitcase in the attic with all his wartime documentation. She contacted the BBC, and they sent letters to the addresses of the foster families. Several dozen people responded. Most of them didn’t know the identity of their rescuer. His “children” and their children and grandchildren now number more than 6,000.
A 1988 TV program about the reunion of Winton and dozens of the children he had saved started a snowball of recognition; among the honors, Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
In the late 1990s, Minac was searching for a theme for his next film. The Czech director read Pearls of Childhood by Vera Gissin, in which she mentions Winton and his rescue operation.
“I was astonished,” said Minac in the aforementioned radio interview. “That’s exactly what I needed for my story. I wrote a film treatment and I asked one lady, Alice Klimova, whether she could translate it into English. She said: ‘Matej, I think you have a few mistakes in your treatment, especially the scene in the train station, when the children are leaving for Britain.’ I said: ‘How do you know?’ And she said: ‘I know because I was one of those children, of Winton’s children…. I was only four-and-a-half years old. I don’t remember it so well. Why don’t you call Nicky, Nicky Winton?’ And I said: ‘How do you mean Nicky Winton? He’s still alive?’ She said: ‘Yes. He’d be very happy to talk to you, he’s a nice person, and I’m sure he would help.’ Two months later, I visited Nicky. We spent a beautiful afternoon together, and I knew that I can’t do only one film … but I will have to do also a documentary….”
In the end, Minac made three movies about Winton: one feature, All My Loved Ones (1999), the documentary The Power of Good: Nicholas Winton (2002), which won an Emmy Award, and Nicky’s Family (2011), which includes reenactments and never-before-seen archival footage, as well as interviews with Winton and a number of those he rescued.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, which is hosting the Nicky’s Family screening and reception here, incorporated in April 2013, Deborah Ross-Grayman, one of the society’s founding members, told the Independent. “This was the natural outgrowth of the Raoul Wallenberg Day event, which began in 1986 with the placement of a plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park. It was revived on the 20th anniversary in 2006, as a cooperative event sponsored by the honorary Swedish consul, Anders Neumuller, and the Vancouver Second Generation Group…. We formed the society in order to be able to formally present an award for civil courage, and so acknowledge and support such heroic acts today.”
She added that approximately 50 diplomats from different countries risked their lives and careers to save the lives of Jews during the Second World War. “We have shown films highlighting the acts of Wallenberg, Sweden, and Chiune Sugihara, Japan, [whose visa saved Ross-Grayman’s mother’s life] as well as people from Chile, Portugal and Spain. Wallenberg saved approximately 100,000 people and Sugihara saved approximately 6,000. Their names stand as a symbol for all such courageous and heroic acts.”
Nicky’s Family will screen at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Rothstein Theatre on Jan. 19 at 1:30 p.m.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].