Hamilton Holocaust survivor honours man who saved his life

Ernest Mason was 10 years old on the September day in 1944 when Raoul Wallenberg saved his life.

City to honour Raoul Wallenberg

Ernest Mason shows a photo of himself (left) and his brother when they arrived in Hamilton from Hungary. Mason was saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who the city will honour. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Ernest Mason was 10 years old on the September day in 1944 when Raoul Wallenberg saved his life.

Mason's Jewish family was seeking asylum from the Hitler regime. Millions of Jews had already been exterminated by then, including Mason's older brother Laszlo. Wallenberg gave Mason's family Swedish citizenship papers and put them in a safe house, where they remained until the end of the Second World War.

Mason, now 79, got a chance to give a little of that back Wednesday when he helped convince Hamilton city council to honour the vanished Swedish humanitarian — a man who helped save an estimated 200,000 Hungarian Jews.

"This is an important day for Hamilton," says Madeleine Levy, shown with Mason after their presentation to Hamilton city council. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"In the autumn of 1944, me and my family were destined to die," said the Dundas resident. "If it wasn't for Raoul Wallenberg, who personally took us by hand, my children and my grandchildren and I would not be here today.

"For the past 70 years, I've been searching for a way to say thank you. I believe this morning you can help me do that."

Mason spent much of 1944 in hiding with his family. His father and older brother Laszlo were sent to a work camp, where his brother was killed. Another older brother went to Auschwitz, while his older sister lived with a friend, posing as a Christian.

Mason lived with his mother and 18-month-old brother near Budapest in the fall of 1944, posing as Christian for six weeks before they left for fear they were endangering their host family.

His mother headed to the Swedish embassy, where rumour had it they could get citizenship papers. But the line was impossibly long, and Jews were not allowed on the streets after 4 p.m.

Died in captivity

Carrying Mason's little brother, his mother led the boys around to the back of the embassy, looking for an alternate way inside. That's when his mother found a man in a gated garden. She spoke German to the man through the fence, and he let them inside. Mason later learned that was Raoul Wallenberg.

Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands of Hungarian Jews. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum) (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Wallenberg disappeared in 1945, captured by the Russians. He is believed to have died in captivity in 1947, although some believe he lived imprisoned into the 1980s. His body has never been found.

He's honoured around the world now, including with a park in Saskatoon and a monument in Vancouver. But there's nothing in Hamilton.

Council agreed after listening intently to Mason's presentation to somehow honour Wallenberg. Staff will come back with options in early January.

Mayor Bob Bratina said honouring Wallenberg will inspire Hamiltonians. "I'd like us to give some profound thought to the best we can do."

The power of one

Madeleine Levy from the Hamilton Jewish Federation's holocaust education committee led the presentation. She said Wallenberg is an example of "the power of one."

"Not everybody can save 100,000 Jews, but one person can stand up to a bully on a playing field," she said. "One person can work at a soup kitchen."

Mason moved to Hamilton as a teenager. He is a father of two and a grandfather of four, and gives talks about the Holocaust at local schools.

The memory of the war still looms large. Until six years ago, he said, he had recurring nightmares.

"Villains have a long life span. Heroes don't," he said. "I want anything that will keep his name alive for future children."