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26 Feb 1996 : Column 695

Raoul Wallenberg

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Ottaway.]

10.16 pm

Mr. David Amess (Basildon): "Hero" is an apt word to describe someone who saves the life of another person. There is no word in the English dictionary to describe someone who saved the lives of more than 100,000 people, which is what Raoul Wallenberg did in 1944.I am not Jewish--I am a member of the Roman Catholic faith--but I would have been proud to have been born a Jew. People of my generation cannot believe the atrocities that occurred during the second world war--and we thought that we would never see such atrocities again. Sadly, wicked people in this world are carrying out certain atrocities.

The purpose of tonight's Adjournment debate is to pay tribute to Raoul Wallenberg. In 1944, the United States War Refugee Board was established in response to President Roosevelt's desire to save innocent victims of the Nazis. The board saw in Hungary an opportunity to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews--practically the last surviving remnants of jewry in Nazi-occupied Europe--who were facing extermination.

Raoul Wallenberg--a young Swedish diplomat, who was born in 1912 into a wealthy and influential family of bankers--was approached by the War Refugee Board to represent it in Budapest. He agreed, and in July 1944 he went to Budapest as the official representative of the board and the first secretary of the Swedish legation. When he arrived in the city, its Jewish population of 230,000 were confronted with the prospect of imminent deportation to Auschwitz for extermination--a fate that more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews living outside Budapest had already suffered.

Wallenberg's task was to save as many Jewish lives as possible. On his arrival, he immediately began to issue the certificates for Jews who already had visas for Sweden. In addition, he invented on the spot what was to rescue approximately 100,000 people--the schutz-pass, or protected passport.

Almost daily, Wallenberg visited the railway stations in Budapest whence Jews were being transported to Auschwitz in sealed cattle trucks. He watched carefully. Speaking with the authority of a Swedish diplomat,he would order the Germans to open the doors of the wagons so that he might check that none of those inside held Swedish passports. Once inside, he would distribute his schutz-passes or accept any document, however trivial, that bore Hungarian script, which the Germans could not understand--library cards, driving licences, receipts.

In November 1944, Adolf Eichmann ordered that all remaining Hungarian Jewish women and children be rounded up and marched 125 miles to the Austrian border, from where they would be transported to Auschwitz. The Germans devised that gruelling one-week trek in the bitter cold, for which no food or winter clothing was provided, as a means of killing as many of the marchers as possible through exhaustion and starvation.

On hearing of the exodus, Wallenberg drove along the route passing out food, water, clothing and, of course, Swedish schutz-passes. A skilled negotiator, who understood that an air of authority was enough to dissuade most

26 Feb 1996 : Column 696

Germans from challenging him, he succeeded in acquiring several properties, which he established as Swedish sovereign property by flying the Swedish flag and which thus benefited from Swedish diplomatic protection.

In the dying days of the German occupation of Budapest, the Nazis decided to liquidate the Jewish ghetto. The conditions in the ghetto were appalling--families were separated, there was a lack of food and clothing and people were dying of starvation and disease. On hearing of the Nazis' plans, Wallenberg confronted the German commanders and told them that he would personally ensure that they were hanged as war criminals if they proceeded with their plans--a credible threat, given that the German army's retreat in the east was gathering pace and Russian artillery could be heard in the distance as they advanced towards the city. The plan was halted, thereby saving an estimated 70,000 more lives.

On 17 January 1945, Raoul Wallenberg was driven to the Russian commander, who was leading the troops approaching Budapest, to obtain supplies for the surviving Jews. He never returned. There has been controversy about what happened to him. I, like other hon. Members, cannot be certain. The only person who could have told us was Andrei Gromyko, who I believe took that knowledge to his grave.

The purpose of the debate--I have received support from both sides of the House--is to allow us to join together in providing a tribute to Raoul Wallenberg. I am delighted to say that many people have inspired the Wallenberg appeal. It is a project of the International Council of Christians and Jews, administered by the holocaust educational trust.

Ten years ago, I knew little about Raoul Wallenberg. Several people, including Danny Smith of the Jubilee Campaign, and Paul Lennon, inspired my original interest. From that moment, I was so moved by the man's achievements that I decided to bring them to the attention of the House. In 1989, I tabled an early-day motion,which was signed by almost 100 Members of Parliament.On 22 March that year, I introduced a 10-minute Bill entitled the British Nationality (Honorary Citizenship) Bill. It was not opposed, but there was not enough time for it to pass through its stages in this House and the other place. On 8 January 1990, I introduced another private Member's Bill, the Wallenberg (Memorial) Bill, which aimed to persuade the powers that be to set aside a piece of land for a monument.

All of that is now of no consequence becauseSir Sigmund Sternberg, Maurice Djanogly and Lionel Altman have established a wonderful committee, which involves a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. We have launched a very successful appeal and, so far, raised almost half the money that is required.The tribute would be a prestigious and imposing monument to Raoul Wallenberg and would be erected in Great Cumberland place on a landscaped semi-circular piece of ground donated by Westminster city council--for which I thank Councillor Davis. It will stand in front of the Marble Arch synagogue, close to the Swedish embassy.

The project will cost £100,000 and a British sculptor of international repute, Phillip Jackson, has been commissioned to create the monument. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will examine my final points carefully.

26 Feb 1996 : Column 697

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): My predecessor, Lord Braine--who was a former Father of the House--said in another place that Wallenberg symbolised the

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Lord Braine, whose human rights work is so widely known and acclaimed?

Mr. Amess: I certainly will. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, my noble Friend Lord Braine of Wheatley and I attended the funeral of our beloved agent Barbara Allen this morning. I was reminded then of the wonderful work that my noble Friend has done in supporting the Wallenberg appeal.

My hon. Friend the Minister may be interested to learn that we have applied for an award from the Arts Council lottery board, which is progressing at the moment. On the Saturday one week before holocaust day in April, rabbis in synagogues throughout the United Kingdom--including Westcliff in Southend--will launch special appeals to their communities in an effort to raise money to meet the £100,000 target.

I pay tribute to the interest and help that we have received from the Swedish and Hungarian ambassadors. Finally, I pay tribute to all hon. Members--this is not a party-political matter--many of whom are present this evening, who have supported the effort to build a monument to Raoul Wallenberg. I hope that a person of great note will be asked to unveil it. I hope also that future generations, not only from this country but visitors to London from all parts of the world, will look at the monument and recall that, at a time when so many individuals did not achieve great things, one very great man saved more than 100,000 lives and sacrificed his own.

10.29 pm

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I am honoured to speak some words of praise in memory of Raoul Wallenberg.

At a recent meeting in the House I met a lady who belonged to a group of people from Hungary who considered it their duty to keep alive the memory of Raoul Wallenberg. She told me that she had met a number of people who had been saved by that remarkable man. They described him as a gallant young man who stood out from the crowd and who, with enormous self-confidence and nerve, issued false documents that gave them protection and a passport to life. I echo all that the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) said. Raoul Wallenberg provided a shining light in the evil darkness of that time. We owe it to him and to the thousands he saved to make certain that that light never goes out.

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