Remarks at the Raoul Wallenberg Birthday Commemoration

Remarks by Ambassador Colleen Bell

at the Raoul Wallenberg Birthday Commemoration

August 4, 2016


Distinguished guests, Mayor Toth, State Secretary Ijgyarto, Deputy Speaker Jakab, esteemed diplomatic colleagues, and all our friends, including those from Hungary’s Jewish communities, welcome, and thank you for joining me this afternoon to commemorate the life and work of Raoul Wallenberg.  And to Jozsef Sebes and the organizers of this event from the Raoul Wallenberg Association, thank you for inviting me here today, and more importantly thank you for the work that you do both individually and as an organization that embodies Wallenberg’s best ideals.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to speak at the Budapest Holocaust Memorial for a conference sponsored by the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative.  That was an eye-opening experience for me.   I heard many speakers – including some of you here today – describe the absolute heroism of Wallenberg’s actions during the War.  The focus of that conference was on Wallenberg’s disappearance and fate.  Today, for his birthday, I’d like to address his legacy and what his life has to teach us about how to confront the challenges we face today in Hungary and around the globe.

And those challenges are many!  Last week I took a trip down to the Serbian border and saw first-hand the growing humanitarian crisis of hundreds of migrants living in unsanitary conditions in temporary camps.  Most of the migrants are families with children.  I listened to heartbreaking stories of families being separated, people becoming injured or ill along the journey, and the sheer desperation of ordinary people seeking a safe and secure life.  The political issues surrounding the migration crisis, and the conditions that created it, are complex and there is no simple solution to resolve them.  The humanitarian crisis, on the other hand, is much more clear.  People are suffering, and solutions exist to ease that suffering.  In the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg, and according to his example, we must all work together to find and implement solutions.

The treatment and integration of the Roma population here and throughout Europe is another example of a serious challenge we face today.  Two days ago I spoke at the Roma History and Culture Center to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the Roma Holocaust – the Parrajmos.  I spoke about how that horrible event was not just the result of the Nazis and their collaborators, but it was also due to hundreds of years of discrimination and persecution.  Sadly, discrimination is still widespread.  Prejudices against Roma people permeate society, discriminatory housing policies drive Roma families from their homes, and school segregation denies Roma children brighter futures.  In the face of these daunting and deep social problems, I have seen heroic people and organizations take bold initiatives – as Raoul Wallenberg did – to fight for their rights and for their futures. The United States stands with them in that fight.

Finally, much of the world continues to wrestle with the history of anti-Semitism, with the perceived limits of national identity, and specifically with the Holocaust.  The reverberations from that cataclysmic period continue to shape politics and discourse in many corners of the world, including here in Hungary. We still see attempts by some to re-write the history of the Holocaust, to deflect and displace responsibility for the murder of over 500,000 Hungarian Jews.  But I honestly believe that we are seeing progress.  When I travel to places like Kisvarda and Mad and see the resurgence of Jewish culture that was wiped out during the War, or when I talk to leaders of the Jewish communities about their fruitful partnership with the Hungarian government to restore historic cemeteries and correct textbooks to accurately reflect Jewish history in Hungary – I am heartened by this progress.

Today, as we celebrate the birthday and the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg, I think about how we can all be inspired by his selfless heroism and try to find that same spirit within ourselves in every decision we make.  When somebody is victimized, whether they are a migrant, Roma, Jew, or anyone else, we all have the moral responsibility to stand up against their victimization.  This is never easy, and sometimes it comes at great cost.  And yet, that is the extraordinary legacy of Raoul Wallenberg, who made the ultimate sacrifice doing the right thing.

Happy birthday, Raoul, and may we all do our best every day to live up to your legacy.  Thank you.