Friday, January 25, 2008

Raoul Wallenberg, Harald Edelstam and The Black Pimpernel in Vancouver

The 20th of January, the distinguished Swedish consul in Vancouver, Anders Neumüller, arranged a screening of the film “The Black Pimpernel”, about the Swedish diplomat Harald Edelstam, who saved numerous lives in Chile in 1973. It was the Raoul Wallenberg Day.
Before the screening two speeches were held, one small from me, Erik Edelstam, about the film and my father( held by Anders) and the other, a fantastic speech, by Ana Policzer, a daughter from a Holocaust survivor. Read the invitation:

(Vancouver, January 2, 2008) - On Sunday January 20, the Swedish, Jewish and Chilean communities will pay tribute to the Swedish hero Raoul Wallenberg with a first time showing in Canada of The Black Pimpernel at the Vancity Theatre, the cinema of the Vancouver Film Festival. The movie, that premiered in Europe and South America this fall, is about the Swedish Ambassador HaraldEdelstam who emerged as a hero during the 1973 military coup in Chile - in the spirit of Wallenberg - when he saved innocent people from execution while calling for humanity, justice and dignity to prevail.

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of as many as a hundred thousand people condemned to certain death by the Nazis during World War II. He disappeared on January 17, 1945, in Hungary and was subsequently imprisoned in the Soviet Union. The fate of Wallenberg, who is an honorary citizen of Canada, USA and Israel and who would have celebrated his 96th birthday this year, remains in a cloud of mystery. In Vancouver Raoul Wallenberg has been honoured with a plaque in Queen Elizaberth Park and the City of Vancouver has followed the example of so many places around the world by proclaiming a "Raoul Wallenberg Day" in January, around the time of his disappearance.

The speech by Erik Edelstam

The Swedish consul and my old schooltime friend, Anders Neumüller, asked me to write something about my father, Harald Edelstam, who is going to appear in the film you will see this evening. Since Anders is not only a good friend, but a very, very, good friend, I naturally jumped on the bandwagon to help him out to explain a little about the film, called The Black Pimpernel.

This nickname was given to Harald Edelstam during the war, by the distinguished Norwegian painter Henrik Sørensen, who thought about the film of the Red Pimpernel with Leslie Howard, that had had come out just before the war and became a success. The Black Pimpernel, referred to his very dark hair, a reminder of our “arrière grand mere”, who came from Kerala in India, a connection that we, in the Edelstam family, are immensely proud of.

My father Harald, let’s call him that, for all the simplicity, was a very modest man, who hated to show off and to be pretentious, except when there was something very urgent, like the brutality of the Pinochet Junta in Chile. He wanted to wake up the world and spread the information what really happened there. At the time nobody really knew what was going on in the prisons, torture centres and concentration camps. He took up the task and went around the world to spread the word about the atrocities in Chile. - Then he died one bad day, fed up with everything, the 16th of April 1989, two days before my birthday.

Harald had this feeling of justice, that no one stronger should bully the weaker, - as simply as that. This statement is the essence of human rights. At least as he saw it.
You have to help the weak and defenceless against the bullies, the state, the military or any stronger force (including meter maids [lapplisor] or gardiens des parcs [parkvakter]). And so he did all of his life. And he did it by breaking laws, regulations and unwritten laws of the Swedish Foreign Office. But thousand of people owe their lives to him, whatever you say. So it goes.

I must remind this distinguished audience, that the film you are about to see is a complete distortion of what really happened, the filmmakers are twisting history in a shameful way and think, to my horror, that they made a god job of doing it..
Yes – it was a coup d’etat, it was a Swedish Embassy and Harald Edelstam. Yes – it was a National Stadium, converted to a concentration camp, and a fight in a hospital about a fugitive.

But I can tell you, Ladies and Gentlemen, that the rest of the story is nothing but a sham. From the beginning I was approached by the filmmakers who presented a film script, which I immediately discovered was a complete disaster. The writer just made up a story about my father and did not bother to check the actual facts. In the film no personality corresponds with the actual persons. The woman who was brought to hospital, was not the mistress of my poor father, but an Uruguayan guerilla girl, who had the bad luck to get sick at wrong moment. She, Mirtha Fernandez, is now quite furious over the false allegations on her. Nothing corresponds to the real facts.

The tragedy of the film is that the reality is much more exciting and people are more elegant and brave that one could ever see in the movie. My father is pictured by the Swedish actor Mikael Nyquist, who never bothered to do some research about the personality of Harald. The result is a stiff person talking and moving like a robot, with very bad relations with his staff- completely wrong! My father was a very lively, energetic person, full of jokes and laughs. Chileans who have seen the movies are outraged.

We must never forget that my father fought for justice in an active way. Most people prefer to talk and hide away when reality is at the doorstep. My father took action and was the first to take in fugitives, jumping over the Embassy fence. He contacted his old friend Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister, by phone, and got his OK. The Foreign Office tried to get him recalled but never succeeded, until the Chilean Junta declared him “Persona Non Grata”.
By that time he had saved, directly and indirectly, thousands of people. 35. 000 came to Sweden.

Dear friends, I hope you will have a nice evening, even if the film is a mess. But Harald Edelstam will hopefully live on, thanks to his good example. Three years before Raoul Wallenberg, at the Swedish Embassy in Berlin, he tried to persuade the Swedish ambassador Arvid Richert that they should issue provisional passports (skyddspass) to Jews he happened to hide in his apartment. But the ambassador yelled at him and accused him of trying to get Sweden involved in the war. – So, in fact, Harald Edelstam was the first Swedish diplomat to try to help people and was also the first Swedish diplomat to be declared “Persona Non Grata”.

For the moment I am just finishing a big biography of my father. It is tale of the life and times of Harald Edelstam, a person who lived through two wars and who died just months before the Berlin wall fell...
Thank you!

The speech by Ana Policzer

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Ana Policzer. On behalf of the Second Generation Group, I would like to welcome you to this afternoon's screening of The Black Pimpernel.
The Second Generation Group is a support group for children of Holocaust survivors. For the past several years the group has sponsored events in Vancouver in honour of Raoul Wallenberg Day. As the child of a Jewish Hungarian survivor, I am honoured to be here today to say a few words.
Before I do, I'd like to thank Consul Anders Neumueller and the Vancouver Holocaust
Education Centre for co-sponsoring this event.
My father, Adam, was born in Miskolc, Hungary, a few months before WWII broke out. In
August 1939, my grandfather, Janos (Janci), fearing what was to come, left Hungary in search of a safe haven for his growing family. He arrived in Chile in late August or early September 1939.

My grandmother, Anna, didn't want to travel with a young baby, and stayed behind until Janci was settled in the New World. But because the war began within days of Janci’s arrival in Chile, Anna and her baby were forced to remain in Hungary.
The first few years of the war were relatively peaceful for the Jews of Miskolc – my father has memories of a fairly normal childhood in those early years living in his aunt and uncle's house.
But that all changed in the spring of 1944. The Nazis invaded Hungary, and the deportation of Jews began on a massive scale. 12,000 were deported daily. In a few months, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported; most of them perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the morethan 10,000 Jews deported from Miskolc, only 105 returned. One in three Jews who died in Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.

We've heard about Wallenberg's heroic efforts to save thousands of Hungarian lives. There are people in this room today who would not be here were it not for his great humanitarian work.
And yet, it is a travesty that he could have saved so many thousands, but they seem so few when compared to the hundreds of thousands, the millions, who died. It is a testament to his humanity, and a scar on all those who stood by.

My grandmother and her family didn't have the good fortune to be among those saved by
Wallenberg. Some of Anna’s family died before the deportations even began – in air raid bombings, or murdered by the fascist Hungarian commandos. By the time the Jews of Miskolc were deported, only three women in our family remained in Miskolc – and my father.
Anna asked a Christian family across the street to care for her little boy, which they did, at times risking their own lives to save him. Anna, her sister and her teenaged niece were deported to Auschwitz, then Stutthof, and then to a tiny forced-labour camp in the middle of Poland where they died in the fall or early winter of 1944.

In the meantime, Janci, my grandfather, was beginning to make a life for himself in Chile. A good friend of his from university had immigrated to Chile many years before, so it was an obvious destination when it came time to leave Hungary. By the time he left Europe in August 1939, Chile was also one of the last countries in the world accepting Jews.
Canada and the U.S. were turning Jews away; in fact, Canada only took in somewhere around
5,000 European Jews before WWII. In contrast, Chile welcomed Jewish refugees with open arms. It was among the last safe havens remaining in a world gone mad.
No doubt Janci spent those years desperate for news of his young family. After the War ended, my father – now aged six – made the long journey to Chile and met his father for what was essentially the first time.

My father grew up in Chile, became an architect, and became involved in the social rights movement that swept the world in the 1960s. He and my mother were supporters of Salvador Allende, a socialist who was elected as the president of Chile in 1970.
The challenges for Allende's minority Socialist government were extreme. The United States government led a concerted campaign to topple the democratically elected government. On September 11, 1973, the U.S. backed the military coup d'état that ended Chile's long-standing democratic history and began a long reign of terror headed by General Pinochet. It was a chaotic time in Chile. People were rounded up by the thousands and sent to concentration
camps. Many were tortured, many disappeared.

My father spent a year and a half as a political prisoner. How he came to be arrested leads me to tell you a bit about the man whose story we're about to see.
The early weeks and months of the military government were the worst. The country was
under siege. There was a strictly enforced curfew – anyone caught on the street after curfew could be shot. Those who had supported Allende's government were declared enemies of the state. Many thousands of people fled the country fearing for their lives.
Chile had a safe passage agreement with other Latin American countries, but not with Europe. Nevertheless, in the early months Chile had an informal agreement with most embassies to allow those who had taken refuge in an embassy to leave the country.

But in early December 1973, a diplomatic event took place that had deep repercussions across the country, and for my family in particular. A young woman from Uruguay who had sought refuge in the Swedish embassy needed emergency care. The Swedish ambassador to Chile, Harald Edelstam, made an agreement with the military to allow her to go to the hospital without being arrested. However, while she was in the hospital, soldiers came to arrest her.
Edelstam was with her as she lay on a stretcher. The captain in charge held a gun to Edelstam's head and demanded that he hand the young woman over. A fight ensued between 15 soldiers and 3 Swedish diplomats; Edelstam ended up on the floor hanging on to the young woman's stretcher, declaring it to be Swedish territory.
The next day, the military government ordered Edelstam to leave the country. It also ordered all embassies closed to prevent any more people from seeking refuge. The embassies didn't close immediately, however – it took a few days to fully implement this new policy. In the interim, the military ordered all access roads to Santiago's embassies to be blocked and heavily guarded.
This wasn't highly publicized.

Meantime, my parents had a friend who was in danger. My dad offered to drive him to the French embassy, where my parents had a close contact.
They weren't expecting the roadblocks.
My dad and his friend never made it to the embassy; both were arrested on the spot. When my dad was finally released a year and a half later, we left for Canada. To give you an idea of the randomness by which people were arrested, my parents’ friend – the one in danger who needed asylum – was released the day after they were arrested.
If Edelstam hadn’t taken a stance that day in the hospital, perhaps my father wouldn’t have been arrested – or, just as likely, he would have been arrested later, under equally unpredictable and random circumstances.
But if Edelstam hadn’t taken a stance that day, there would be one less hero for a little girl growing up in exile to be inspired by as she struggled to make sense of the world around her, of the legacy she inherited. Edelstam's courageous and selfless act in that hospital room set off a chain of events that eventually led to our arrival in Canada, which had by then become a global safe haven.

So, are these just stories about one family's dramatic history through some of the great tragedies of the 20th century? About how lives and actions are interconnected? Am I here simply to share some anecdotes about a family with ties to two human tragedies that are long over? That happened so long ago, you might be thinking ... interesting stories, thank God we're in Canada and don't have to worry about these sorts of things. It could never happen here.

Well, when my grandfather arrived in Chile, it was considered a safe haven. Perhaps one of the last safe havens for European Jews at that time. Chile was a model democracy, the longest standing democracy in Latin America. Its armed forces were disciplined and honourable.
Immigrants settled in quickly, and their children soon became full-fledged Chileans.
At the same time, Canada actively discouraged European Jews from immigrating here. You've likely heard of the SS St. Louis, the infamous ship full of Jewish refugees that left Hamburg in May 1939, was turned away from Cuba, from the U.S., and from Canada; it eventually returned to Europe. We also know all too well about Canada's less than inclusive immigration policies early last century.

Chile's standing as a model democracy, as a safe haven, was overturned in the blink of an eye. Civil liberties long taken for granted were annihilated. All of that history as a democratic and tolerant country meant nothing.
We can never take for granted the freedom we enjoy. We assume that our civil rights and liberties are inalienable; yet we need to be vigilant and speak out when we witness attempts to undermine them. The thousands who were tortured, killed, and disappeared in Chile, the tens of thousands of exiles, did just that. Like the many resistance movements in Nazi-dominated Europe 30 years before, they had the courage to stand up for justice, and they reminded the rest of the world of its collective responsibility to do the same. How many more could have been spared the cruelties of the Chilean or the Nazi dictatorship had there been more Edelstams, more Wallenbergs, more people willing to take a stance against the inhumanity?
30 years before his time in Chile, Edelstam was a Swedish diplomat in Norway. There, he helped members of the Norwegian resistance escape the Nazis. He would drive people in the middle of the night to the Swedish border where they could escape to safety.

Today's film about Edelstam on Raoul Wallenberg Day is a reminder that anyone can rise above the insanity around them and do what is morally right and just. Wallenberg was not alone. His country mate, Harald Edelstam, helped in his own way. We also know about the people saved by Oskar Schindler; and there have been many other righteous people not only during WWII, but throughout history, willing to risk their lives to save innocent people.
My family wasn't saved by Wallenberg, or by Edelstam; but my father owes his life to the willingness of ordinary people – in Hungary as well as in Chile – who were willing to take risks to do what they thought was just, humane, and right.
May we all be humbled by their courage, and inspired by their example.
Thank you.

I gave this introductory talk at the Vancouver premiere screening of the 2007 film The Black Pimpernel.
My brother Pablo, a political scientist who has spent many years studying and analyzing Chilean politics and history, gave me ideas on how to frame the talk, and made a few helpful editorial suggestions. My dad gave me the background story, which I’ve heard in different forms throughout my life.

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