Posthumous acclaim for a hero of the age : Inside Parliament

Peers seek citizenship for Wallenburg All-day opening welcomed
Click to follow
Indy Politics
The 50th anniversary of the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved 100,000 Jews from the Nazis in Budapest, was commemorated in the House of Lords yesterday. Peers called for him to be made an honourary British citizen.

Wallenberg's fate following his detention by the Red Army as it liberated the Hungarian capital in January 1945 remains a mystery. But the courage he showed in carrying out his rescue mission, even pulling Jews from cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz, marked him out, in the words of Lord Braine of Wheatley, as "more than a hero of our times".

"He symbolises the central conflict of our age, the determination to remain human, caring and free in the face of unspeakable tyranny. What Wallenberg represented in Budapest is nothing less than the conscience of the civilised world."

For several years after the war the Soviet Union denied knowledge of Wallenberg's whereabouts, then in 1957 the Swedes were informed he had died of a heart attack in Moscow's Lubyanka prison in 1947. But the Soviets said the documentation had disappeared except for a hand-written note. Reports of sightings of Wallenberg in prisons and camps extended to the mid-1980s.

"Is it possible that Raoul Wallenberg could still be alive? Well, it is not impossible," said 82-year old Lord Braine. "If he was alive today he would only be two years older than myself. Spartan conditions have on occasions proven beneficial to long life."

Some 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz in sealed cattle trucks. The total would have been over half a million had it not been for Wallenberg's ingenuity and audacity, issuing impressive Swedish "passports" and setting up safe houses.

Lord Braine, backed by other peers, urged the Government to follow the example of the United States and make Wallenberg an honorary citizen.

Swedish-born Baroness Robson of Kiddington, a Liberal Democrat, said Wallenberg was the most courageous man she had ever heard of, while Lord Archer of Sandwell, for Labour, said the debate was a reminder that the file was still not closed.

"It is possible even now that someone, somewhere may learn of our concern and be able to shed further light on what became of Wallenberg."

Lord Archer said the Swedish diplomat was not the last person to disappear and whose disappearance could be laid at the door of the regime under which they lived. "This debate may serve as an opportunity to send a message to tyrants the world over - you may cause your victims to disappear, you may protest you have no answers as to what became of them, but don't delude yourself that the inquiring voices will sink into silence."

For the Government, Lord Lucas of Crudwell said the Swedish-Russian group inquiring into Wallenberg's fate would publish a first report later this year. Every rumour and scrap of information was being checked out but progress had been slow. "We understand there has been no major breakthrough."

Promising to draw the attention of Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, to the call for honorary citizenship, Lord Lucas said history contained many people who had killed 100,000 people but he knew of no other example of someone who had saved so many. "The evils that Raoul Wallenberg fought are with us today. We need to remember what one person can do against even the most terrible regime we have known."

The Commons, meanwhile, was bent on the less noble business of enabling pubs and clubs to stay open all Sunday afternoon.

It is an issue which would once have attracted the thunder of Bernard Braine, who, as an MP, campaigned against alcoholism. But, as George Howarth, a Labour home affairs spokesman, observed, "from the perspective of the mid-1990s, there does not appear to be a great deal of moral heat left in the argument." Sunday was now a day of leisure for most people rather than specifically a day of worship, he said. "Many, myself included, are able to combine both."

The Licensing (Sunday Hours) Bill will enable pubs and clubs to open between noon and 10.30pm without the need to close between 3pm and 7pm as at present. Moving the Bill's Second Reading, Michael Forsyth, Minister of State at the Home Office, said it was over six years since the 1988 Licensing Act permitted pubs to open on weekday afternoons.

"At the time serious concerns were expressed about the adverse consequences which all-day opening might have in terms of increased drunkenness, crime and disorder. But there had been little increase."

Mr Forsyth said the change would boost tourism and be welcomed by visitors from abroad who found Sunday closing "incomprehensible". Licensing justices would, however, be able to restrict opening times if there were problems of nuisance and disorder.

Dennis Skinner questioned whether there was any great demand to change the law. "It could be that the Tory party have responded to the fact that brewers give large sums of money to party funds, and it is the brewers that have put forward this idea and it is the minister who is carrying out their wishes.''

But Mr Forsyth said if the Labour MP went back to his Bolsover constituency he would find many people welcoming the change. "Mr Skinner doesn't seem to notice any demand for anything unless it is written on placards borne by militants walking to Hyde Park."

Comments