By Professor Dennis R. Shaughnessy
If you’ll allow me the liberty of stepping out of the social enterprise space and into the social justice arena with this issue…
The controversy over resettling Syrian refugees and admitting immigrants from certain countries into the US brings to mind for me the story of Raoul Wallenberg. That story, which is not broadly known in the US, has been a recent source of inspiration. Wallenberg was and is a social justice hero with an entrepreneurial bent, and on a scale few of us could envision for ourselves.
At a time of intense debate over resettling refugees and restricting immigration, as well as recent stories of desecration of Jewish cemeteries, a story that involves the US War Refugee Board seems especially relevant. President Roosevelt created this Board at the request of then Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. to address the murder of European Jews by the Nazis. Perhaps we can draw some parallels between these Hungarian Jewish victims or refugees and many of today’s displaced Syrian war refugees.
Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish citizen, who was a small business owner when the US government recruited him to join the US War Refugee Board. With no diplomatic experience and at just 32 years old, Wallenberg quickly accepted his appointment and his charge, which was to travel to Budapest, Hungary in the spring of 1944. Hungary was under German occupation, and the Nazi war machine was actively engaged in rounding up Jews to send to Auschwitz and other camps.
The US War Refugee Board reportedly gave Wallenberg a simple but clear directive: “just do what you can” for the Jewish “war refugees” residing in Hungary. And so he did—quickly, creatively, and efficiently. Wallenberg acted with an unwavering sense of moral duty to insure that innocent lives were protected from Nazi tyranny, with human rights respected and individual dignity restored to victims.
Upon arrival in July 1944 to Budapest, Wallenberg created a blue and yellow “protection pass” that he carried around the city in his briefcase, providing them to thousands of Jews in danger of being sent to the camps. While he affixed Swedish stamps and seals on his newly created “protection pass” document, it’s believed that these passes were never formally authorized by the Swedish, US or German governments. He nevertheless convinced Hungarian and German authorities that he indeed had the legal and diplomatic power to save Jews from an otherwise certain death. In just a five-month period, despite threats on his life from the authorities Wallenberg boldly distributed his “protection passes” to tens of thousands of Jews, rescuing them from a certain death in Auschwitz or other camps.
Wallenberg was finally apprehended by Russian soldiers in late 1944. The Russian government apparently determined that he was a spy and should be imprisoned. His whereabouts and well-being went unknown for decades, until he was finally declared dead in late 2016, though his body was never found.
A US government estimates more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews were ultimately saved by Wallenberg’s “trumped up” protection passes.
Wallenberg showed enormous courage, refusing to accept what to him was clearly morally unacceptable, regardless of the personal risk. Unable to cause change at the government policy level, he took it into his own hands to simply do the right thing, one person at a time, for as long as he was able.
Now, I’m not suggesting that people today should proceed to break the law on behalf of refugees and immigrants denied the right to resettle or travel. What I am suggesting is that it’s good to be reminded from time to time of compelling examples of moral courage in service of others. While perhaps each of us can’t take the stand and have the impact that Raoul Wallenberg had, we can commit to finding the opportunities to stand for what is morally right in the area of refugee resettlement, immigration and anti-Semitism, on the scale in which we live our lives. That might mean a call to your elected representative, signing onto a petition, participating in a march, or reaching out to and volunteering for or contributing to local refugee resettlement and immigration organizations.
Finally, one last piece of the Wallenberg story—his briefcase. His followers have created and planted bronze replicas of the briefcase in which he carried his “protection passes” around the city of Budapest each day in the summer and fall of 1944. These bronze statues are located in Stockholm, England, Hungary and outside of the United Nations in New York. (Wallenberg also has a street named in his honor alongside the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.) Each briefcase sculpture serves as a reminder that simple acts of morality, compassion and kindness can restore dignity to the lives of many, especially those who suffer as the innocent victims of war, poverty and discrimination.
Perhaps one day there will be a bronze Wallenberg briefcase, if not on our campus, then somewhere else in Boston, to remind us what one person acting with moral courage can do to change the world.