Review: To Save a People, by Alex Kershaw
In a corner of Apor Vilmos tér in District XII there stands a monument that takes the form simply of a wall featuring hundreds of names. These are the names of Hungary’s so-called Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who helped and protected Jews during the Hungarian Holocaust. Paradoxically, the most well-known Righteous Gentile associated with Hungary was not Hungarian but Swedish. His name was Raoul Wallenberg and he came to Budapest as a diplomat only in July 1944, when the vast majority of Hungarian Jews living outside the capital had already been deported and killed, mainly at the Auschwitz extermination camp.
Nevertheless, Wallenberg is justifiably credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Budapest Jews. He did that by issuing Swedish protective passes to all and sundry, which claimed that the bearer had a connection with Sweden and was thus under its protection. He wasn’t the only one to do that. Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz had been operating in a similar manner for a long time before Wallenberg appeared. The Vatican’s representative, Archbishop Angelo Rotta, was also active in saving Jewish lives in Budapest, as was the Italian Georgio Perlasca who got away with posing as a Spanish diplomat. There were others, too. So what made Wallenberg special?
Words and actions
Wallenberg was very much a “hands-on” rescuer. He didn’t just make protests to the Hungarian and German authorities, he went out of his way to turn up at hot spots, such as railway stations where Jews were about to be deported or houses with diplomatic protection that were about to be broken into by armed gangs of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross. Wallenberg would bravely stand up to those about to deport or attack Jews, loudly demanding their release. And many times it worked! Wallenberg was able to get his way in a verbal show-down, outsmarting his opponents by playing on their slavish obedience to even the appearance of authority and their submissive acceptance of documents with impressive-looking stamps and insignia. It seems remarkable but it really did work.
However, there was a further reason that eventually made Wallenberg more famous than the others. He disappeared in January 1945 during the siege of Budapest. Probably on the paranoid grounds that he was some kind of spy, he had been arrested by the Red Army and taken to Russia. After years of official silence, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko announced in February 1957 that Wallenberg had died in Moscow’s Lubianka Prison ten years previously. However, despite denials, many continued to believe for years that he could still be alive somewhere in the Soviet prison network. His case was one of the most intriguing stories rooted in the Second World War.
A subtitle on the cover of Alex Kershaw’s book tells us that it relates “The epic story of Raoul Wallenberg and his mission to save the last Jews of Europe”. And so it does. Yet many works have already been published about Wallenberg and the Hungarian Holocaust. So why another one? This book is not only easier to read than some of the others, it also actually includes much more than that subtitle suggests. There is the history of Wallenberg, brought up to date with the latest research and evidence about his fate.
There are also some very moving accounts given by survivors whom Wallenberg rescued. Their memories are at times heart-rending. In addition, as a counterpoint to Wallenberg’s tale, we follow the trail of Adolph Eichmann who came to Budapest in 1944, not long before Wallenberg arrived, to oversee the destruction of Jewry. The stories of the two men run in parallel and sometimes overlap. Each was among the other’s greatest enemies. And just as Wallenberg’s tale takes us well beyond 1945, so too we read about the fate of Eichmann, who was eventually tracked down by Israeli agents in Argentina, put on trial in Jerusalem and hanged in 1961.
For anyone new to the name of Raoul Wallenberg, and even for those familiar with it, Alex Kershaw’s book can be highly recommended.
Buy the book
To Save a People: The epic story of Raoul Wallenberg and his mission to save the last Jews of Europe
By Alex Kershaw
Paperback, illustrated, 290 pages
Arrow Books, 2011, GBP 7.99