‘Visas for Life: Righteous Diplomats’, a Holocaust day exhibition at Vienna UN headquarters, surprisingly evokes one’s strongest emotions; and these emotions have no connection to horrifying pictures of mass murders. Sadly, I’ve put the word ‘surprisingly’ here intentionally.
There are two groups of people: those who are too scared to see a Holocaust exhibition and those who have seen so many of them that it can hardly change their state of mind anymore. Often, it can hardly tell anything new to them either: if your plans for this weekend include a Holocaust exhibition, you probably already know that Shoa is a terrible tragedy which should not happen again.
The exhibition in Vienna kindly invites both groups to come. There is completely no Auschwitz there, but plenty of little-known, yet important and exciting stories instead. Promised.
‘Righteous Diplomats’ were different diplomatic officers, who used their positions and available means to save the persecuted Jews along with other victims of the Nazi regime. Fake visas and illegal hideaways acted as life saving tools. The ‘Righteous Diplomats’ were not exactly the same as the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ (though many of them were awarded this title). A collective image of a peasant hiding a fellow Jewish family in a barn obviously had less resources for a rescue than an ambassador. Lives of heroic diplomats was full of risk and often ended the way they expected the least.
Raoul Wallenberg, the most famous one from the list, has saved tens of thousands Jews working as a Swedish diplomat in Budapest. His tool were fake protective passports of ‘Swedish expatriates’ and illegal embassy buildings. Wallenberg knew he was suspected and Nazis could capture him anytime, so he slept in a different place each night. His prediction was not entirely accurate: he was captured by the Soviets and died imprisoned in 1947, somewhere in the Soviet Union.
Ariel de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese aristocrat and diplomat in France, whose signature was on 30,000 illegal free visas, allowing its bearers to escape the Nazi regime. Dishonor, disgraced and forgotten in the post-war Salazar Portugal, he died alone in poverty in 1954.
Some other diplomats, like Carl Lutz, Ho Feng-Shan, Chiune Sugihara, Giorgio Perlasca, Hiram Bingham IV and Jan Zwartendijk had a better fate. But what does unite them all? What is in common among a Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest; a Chinese diplomat in Vienna and his Japanese colleague in Lithuania, which have helped thousands of Jews to get to Shanghai and Japan; a disillusioned Italian fascist, working under a Spanish disguise; a noble American descendant of Protestant missionaries and treasure hunters and a Dutch director at the Phillips factories in Lithuania? Was there a common factor, which have turned all these different personalities into heroes saving thousands of lives?
Presenting the stories of the righteous diplomats, the exhibition highlights six keywords, attempting to identify the guiding powers behind the heroic actions. These words are ‘Cooperation’, ‘Ingenuity’, ‘Self-Sacrifice’, ‘Social Responsibility’, ‘Integrity’ and ‘Moral Leadership’. But can these concepts describe the real motives as good as the words of the diplomats themselves, which open each story presented at the exhibition?
‘Even if I am discharged, I can only act as a Christian, as my conscience tells me. If I am disobeying orders, I would rather be with God against men than with men against God’. These are the words of Aristides De Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese saviour of 30,000 French Jews and other persecuted persons. The main guiding power of the diplomats was their strong values, and only then the strong decisions. But what nurtures these values? Are there any requirements for embodiment of such values into one’s character? And, importantly, of what use are these stories and their motives to us, here and now?
As mentioned at the conclusion of the opening ceremony, apart from its direct meaning, the exhibition also has a universal message. It’s about the choice each of us has regardless any circumstances. It’s about our jobs, which assignments and constraints should not cross our moral values and personal interests, regardless of the possible loss or punishment. And if they do, it’s again about the choice we always have. And probably a bit of heroism too.