Today, August 27th, is a historic day. For the first time, Sweden is observing a memorial day to honour the legacy and the courage of Raoul Wallenberg. In the summer of 1944, some 400,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to the death camps. An industrialized genocide, devilishly planned in minute and cruel detail. Thanks to Wallenberg and his colleagues, thousands of Jews in Budapest survived the war.
Wallenberg himself died imprisoned in the Soviet Union’s Lubyanka prison – he had been abandoned by his home country Sweden.
It is deeply symbolic that Wallenberg sacrificed himself in the fight against one of the 20th century’s most repugnant ideologies – Nazism – but then fell prey to a second ideology – Stalin’s disgusting Communism. But survivors and eyewitnesses have lived on to tell his tale.
At the end of July, the Simon Wiesental Centre launched the “Operation Last Chance” campaign in Germany. The posters said “Late, but not too late. Millions of innocents were murdered by Nazi war criminals. Some of the perpetrators are free and alive. Help us bring them to justice”. But just like so many of the Nazi executioners are no longer alive, neither are the survivors from the Holocaust. They have become fewer and fewer as time passes.
These eyewitnesses have used their strength and courage to tell their stories indefatigably despite the pain. They have told school children about their time in hell, and the path back to life. They have told them about the importance of fighting dictators. There are few of these eyewitnesses left with us today.
When I went to school myself, and later on in politics, I can bear witness to the fact that there is no better history lesson than when you are invited to take part in a survivor’s story, or when you visit the places where historic events took place. The mother who lost her husband, her son, and her father in Srebrenica in 1995. The girl left a sibling-less orphan by the Rwanda genocide in 1994. The father who was the sole survivor in Halabja in 1988.
When I was a high school student, I listened to Ferenc Göndör speak about his time in Auschwitz. I also listened to his message that we must fight the evil of tomorrow.
The new Swedish school curriculum introduced in 2011 for junior high school students contains clear instructions about explaining not only the what, but “the reasons and the consequences” of both world wars. “Repression, ethnic cleansing, genocide. The Holocaust and the Gulag.” Every year, thousands of Swedish students visit memorial places for the victims of the Holocaust across Europe. I hope these trips will be extended in the future.
We know that we will soon have no more survivors and eyewitnesses to tell us about the atrocities of Nazism, which means we must find ways to make sure their testimony is carried forward to future generations. That is why I as democracy minister have given the Forum for Living History the task of collecting eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, of crimes committed by Communist regimes and other crimes against humanity.
These stories can be used in our schools to teach and offer insight into our shared history. Thus we can strengthen our understanding of intolerance, its causes and effects, which in turn allows us to strengthen democracy.
The lack of historical knowledge is widespread and the forces of hatred have taken root in today’s Europe that has come to be characterized by the financial crisis. Anti-Ziganism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia and anti-Semitism is gaining ground in extreme-right and populist political parties. Muslim women are attacked for wearing headscarves; neo-Nazis question the Holocaust; and Roma are treated as second-class citizens.
The fact is, not since since World War II have we had so many racist parties take up seats in our elected assemblies across the 28 member countries of the EU. The fascists, Nazis and the extreme-right in Hungary and Greece are particularly visible.
Anti-Semitism is also on the rise. Researchers at Tel Aviv University annually make a tally of hate crimes against Jews – the attacks increased by 30 percent in 2012 compared to the year before. The crimes include everything from physical violence to vandalism of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.
France topped the list with 373 registered anti-Semitic crimes, including that assault in Toulouse against a Jewish school when a French Islamist shot and killed three young children and a rabbi. That same year, a Jewish-owned store in Sarcelles was attacked with hand grenades.
At home in Sweden, the Jewish community’s assembly hall in Malmö was once again subject to vandalism.
The European parliamentary elections on May 25th, 2014 will become a test of our values. We must defend, more than ever, the values of freedom, democracy and human rights that form the foundation of the Union.
It is late, but not too late to turn this depressing trend around. The stories passed on by eyewitnesses to Europe’s darkest hours are central to enforcing and passing on this message. If our children don’t learn about their own history, it will become impossible to nurture a shared story. A story that feels all the more pressing today than it has in a very long time.
We all put our hopes Raoul Wallenberg being honoured on this memorial day. Canada, Argentina and the USA have already set aside a special day to remember his legacy. The eyewitnesses, their children and grandchildren carry his legacy into the future by telling their stories.
Birgitta Ohlsson is Sweden’s Democracy Minister. This article was originally published in Swedish <a href="http://www.aftonbladet.se/debatt/article17359118.ab” target=”_blank”>in the Aftonbladet newspaper. Translation by The Local.