Harry Wu, human rights fighter: A giant among men
Harry Wu, human rights fighter: A giant among men

On May 25th, 2016, at the US Library of Congress, a Memorial Service was held for Harry Wu, in fact Wu Hongda, a giant among men, the conscience and strength of China, the free spirit of and for Tibet, a dear friend.

We are living with the fact of his sudden death for a month now, and it still does not seem real. It is surreal. Harry’s absence is just an impossible thing to comprehend and to live with. Because of what he did and who he was, unique and irreplaceable, the hole he has left by his departure from this world will be never closed.

He was the only human rights fighter of the many brave and distinguished people, members of that very small breed of political dissidents opposing totalitarian regimes, who did return to the places of his torture, seriously risking his life. Not just once, but four times.

Harry was on a self-imposed mission: he believed that since he was lucky enough to survive the Laogai, the Chinese version of the Nazi camps and Gulag, he had to do something about that horror which was screaming, but screaming in total silence around it, as we know.

Harry knew the locations of the Laogai camps that supposedly ‘did not exist for the West. He came there with super-zoomed cameras and he took many pictures, physical evidence of the ongoing extermination of millions of innocent people, including the highly efficient routine of the Laogai firing squads.

Only upon being confronted by this photographic evidence, did the West ‘awake’ to the truth on the Laogai, slowly and reluctantly, except for the few staunch supporters of  Harry’s, the most crucial of whom was the legendary late Senator Tom Lantos, whose family had been rescued from the Nazis in Budapest by Raoul Wallenberg and who was himself active in the Wallenberg rescue network and its risky and heroic work. Both Senator Lantos and after his death in 2008 his wife Annette and the Lantos Foundation were instrumental in making Harry’s work visible, heard and institutionalised.

The parabolas made for us by the Upper Forces are incredible. Seventy years after a boy Tom Lantos was running in ever-thickening danger through the streets of Budapest, we invited our dear friend Harry to support the new initiative, the Raoul Wallenberg International Roundtable. We did not do it because of Senator Lantos’ connection. We did it because we knew that our friend Harry would care about the man who did save so many, but has become a victim of the other big specialists in applied totalitarianism.

Harry did not just care. He would be coming personally from Washington to Budapest, he said; would speak at the forum. And he also, in his superbly elegant understated way, provided quite a substantial donation to the Initiative. He did it because of his gratitude to Tom and his family. He remembered that Raoul Wallenberg did save the Lantos family and that Tom was the one who was risking his life working with Raoul.

Seventy years later, world-famous Harry Wu, several times nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, founder of the unique Laogai Museum in the heart of Washington, tireless fighter on behalf of oppressed world-wide, wanted to come to Budapest, to honour Raoul Wallenberg and his family. Our friend did not make it. He died tragically, drowned while on vacation in Honduras, just three weeks before the conference in Budapest.

So I was asked to take his place in the Price for Activism panel during the Wallenberg Round Table, and the distinguished audience from all over the world, from Canada to Russia, saw the photos of Harry on the screen and heard his voice in the recorded interview from the mid 1990s in which he was sharing, very uneasily but shockingly honestly, the price for not agreeing to live on his knees. I told all those people about Harry, our friend, the man of exceptional bravery and absolute honesty.

We were sitting in the beautiful Pava Synagogue, built in the 1920s and as it happens the last one in Budapest until this very day. With one tenth of Budapest Jewry left there, and only a fifth part of it is officially recognizing itself as Jewish today, there is not that much need for new Houses of Prayer..

Having an honour to take Harry’s place in that panel, together with great Yosef Begun, survivor Vera Gara who is the age of my late mother and with Louise von Dardel and Marie Dupuy, the nieces of Raoul Wallenberg and daughters of his brother, tje great , modest and remarkable man, Professor Guy von Dardel, who spent all his life in attempts at "bringing his brother back’ as his daughter Marie told me, I was telling the audience about what has shaped Harry to become such fearless fighter for human life and decency after 19-years confinement in desperately brutal, absolutely cruel, ultimately crushing  Laogai.

“When I was inside there ( in Laogai), I tried to understand: why this system has been made? What they are trying to achieve by this excruciating cruelty? What’s their ultimate goal, too?” – Harry told us many times during so many of our conversations throughout almost twenty years of our friendship. He needed to understand. He was just 19 years old, a boy from a very good family of upscale Shanghai bankers. He was not a dissident of any sort at the time. He and his large family, as so many others in communist China, fell victims of a quota. Arrests were planned for a certain percent of a bourgeoisie in the communist paradise, with lives taken and destroyed in mega-quantities.

When released and making it, by chance, to the West, Harry kept striving to get to the bottom of that ugliest of nightmares that was and is  reality for millions. He was an avid reader, and he came across Sunflower, the challenging book by Simon Wiesenthal, he, too, living with the dilemma he placed in his Sunflower for all of us to see, but without a definite answer to his questions.

For Harry, the Wiesenthal book was ‘a volcano’s eruption’, he told us. Being very himself, Harry booked the next flight to Vienna and came to see Wiesenthal. Simon was a very shrewd man, he saw people deep down in a matter of seconds. He talked to Harry in his office of the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna for hours.

Harry learned from Simon Wiesenthal on all possible aspects of the Nazi policies and practices of genocide. He never forgot these lessons, he told us. Whenever we were in his changing offices, the book with Wiesenthal's signature for Harry always was there and in a close proximity. “I still need it “, – he kept telling us.

Honesty, laconism, and depth – those were some of the qualities of our friend. Harry’s laconism was the one of the best, most beautiful, Chinese porcelain’s qualities: pure, elegant and classy. 

Then Harry started to learn about Gulag, the predecessor of Laogai. He would talk often with the great Vladimir Bukovsky, the man who disclosed to the world the dark secrets of Soviet punitive psychiatry, among the other horrors of Soviet totalitarianism.

To Michael, Harry became like a brother. Michael was born in Gulag, in the infamous Valley of Death. His father was a political prisoner, as my grandfather was, too. After Stalin’s death, Michael’s family had been exiled to Kazakhstan, and Harry also knew the country well enough. Harry and Michael spent many hours together, in that organic brotherhood that does not need a lot of words.

And in Michael’s view, there was no more natural home for his Year 1953 painting picturing Gulag than the Laogai Museum, the purpose of Harry’s life during the last decade of it. Harry could not believe that Michael would part with that painting – and how right he was. The work had been in front of Michael in his studio for good 20 years. “But for you, Harry, I will do it. It is your painting the same as it was mine”, – Michael said to his dear friend. And they hugged, with no more words said.

 But it was not always about the past and its horrors. We were often to be seen laughing and sharing memories, talking about everything, from landscapes to football, and books, and art, and people, and plans, and journeys.

Harry used to tell us that every single day in Laogai was a miracle and a victory . He felt exactly like many inmates of the Nazi camps did. He found himself inside that giant crushing machine, being astounded by the limitless cruelty, devastated by non-stop tortures, both physical and moral ones, insulted by sadistic humiliation which has been the ruling principle of the Chinese version of applied totalitarianism. But there was a spark of light inside Harry, a living memory, legacy of his very good family that did save him for the world, for us.

Harry was saved in his incredible ordeal because of the main thing: he understood the value of human life. He got it right. The Creator was with him in this, and Harry always remembered that. 

Harry had been nominated for the Noble Peace Prize several times. Very few people on this earth deserve it to the degree he did, but he never got it. It happened to other great people  such as Simon Wiesenthal or Vaclav Havel. We believe that perhaps, there is a time for introducing a new Harry Wu International Award for Bravery of Heart. The Award should be given for uncompromising courage, real caring and saving lives, fighting for freedom and decency with all one’s being.  No money should be allocated for this prize, but the art piece of Crystal Heart, to symbolise everything that Harry was about.

And we, saying farewell to our dear friend, will be living with these memories, with the light of his disarming, even childish smile, his quiet laugh. He never learned to laugh loudly, understandably, and we will live with gratitude for his outstanding bravery, his uncompromising fairness, and his all-consuming devotion to decency.

A great life of a great man. We do hope that his legacy will help us and the generations ahead, in the same way the lives and legacies of Raoul Wallenberg, Tom Lantos and Simon Wiesenthal affected and influenced the noble life of Harry Wu.