Recalling heroic deeds
Raoul Wallenberg was born 100 years ago in August 1912 in Kappsta, Sweden. He disappeared on 17 January 67 years ago. The date and circumstances of his death remain shrouded in mystery. What is certain, however, is that the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest from deportation and death will never be forgotten in Sweden, Hungary and Israel in particular.
From left: Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Israeli Cabinet Minister Yossi Peled and Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi opened observances in Budapest on Tuesday, the anniversary of the day in 1945 that Wallenberg was last seen after being arrested by the Soviet Red Army.
Centenary of his birth
On the anniversary of his disappearance, in the centenary year of his birth, the opening of Raoul Wallenberg Year was celebrated in several cities around the world. The Hungarian National Museum in Budapest opened its Wallenberg exhibition titled For me there is no other choice. At the opening ceremony this week, the room quickly filled up, there were barely enough chairs, and photographers were tightly packed in the back row.
Among those who travelled to Budapest for the opening of the special year were Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Israeli Minister Yossi Peled. They were welcomed by Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who in his opening speech remarked that the ties of friendship between Hungary, Sweden and Israel are reflected in Wallenberg’s person. His person and his deeds should not only be remembered but should also serve as an example for our morality and our idea of man, Martonyi said. He quoted the motto of the Wallenberg Year: “We must not let ourselves be driven by history. We must stay human amidst inhumanity.”
Peled’s life illustrates the inhumanity of that time. Every day he thinks of his father, who was killed in Auschwitz and whom he never got to know. (He was adopted by a Christian family and brought up in Belgium.) He is working to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive around the world and not only in Israel.
The opening heard that Wallenberg’s legacy, including two awards, makes clear that remembering should inspire, rather than be an end in itself. A Wallenberg competition for schoolchildren is aimed at enabling young people to connect this history of the Holocaust with experiences and the city in which they live. Some school classes have participated in city rallies, written essays and recorded films. In 2012 the competition will be extended to all schools countrywide.
The second award pays tribute to those who through their work help people who are discriminated against or call attention to violations of human rights. The winners of the Wallenberg Prize are Reformed Church pastor Eszter Dani, who runs summer camps for Roma children, and the mayor of Hidvégardó for effective integration work in his community.
Three other people were also honoured at the celebration of the centenary of Wallenberg’s birth. Annette Lantos and Kate Wacz are survivors of the persecution of Jews in Budapest, who have actively pursued a search to discover his fate and worked to keep his memory alive in the USA and Sweden. The third person, Swedish diplomat and earlier ambassador to Budapest Jan Lundvik, helped to establish the Wallenberg memorial in Budapest.
Wallenberg was not alone
Speeches by Lantos and Louise von Dardel, Wallenberg’s grandniece, lent the event a personal touch, and guitarist Ferenc Snétberger gave the audience a few minutes to reflect on everything they had heard with his piece In memory of my people.
“Wallenberg was not alone,” Bildt assured the gathering. Other embassies, for example the Swiss embassy, and the Vatican had also worked to save as many people as possible. Wallenberg himself had also become a victim; he had barely completed his mission when he was hauled off by the Soviet army. “It is not sufficient for us to remember,” Bildt said. “We must draw lessons from those terrible years. While people are being discriminated against somewhere in the world, as islamophobia, xenophobia or other such ideologies prevail, then Wallenberg’s ideal has not been fulfilled.”
Commemorative events are being held throughout, including a seminar on “Tolerance and Moral Courage” by psychology professor Thomas Böhm in English at the National Museum on Friday, 20 January. The exhibition “For me there was no other choice” runs until 12 February.
Wallenberg was born into one of the wealthiest families in Sweden. His grandfather, who raised the young Raoul after the death of his father, was a businessman and diplomat, and had great plans for his grandson. Raoul Wallenberg, however, had his heart set on being an architect but performed averagely in school and university.
After travelling to America, South Africa and Palestine, Wallenberg began working for a small export-import company trading in food, whose manager, a Hungarian Jew, could no longer travel to the German-occupied areas and sent Wallenberg in his place. Wallenberg travelled several times to Hungary.
In 1944 the American War Refugee Board sought a Swedish employee for its operation to rescue the Jewish population of Budapest. Wallenberg accepted and travelled to Hungary as the first secretary of the Swedish legation in Budapest. In the six months before the Soviet capture of the city it is estimated that he rescued up to 100,000 Jews from deportation and death.
Wallenberg distributed Swedish protective passports that he invented himself and he named the safe houses as “Swedish libraries” or “Swedish research institutes” to enable diplomatic protection. With the use of American and Swedish funds he supplied those living in the ghetto with food and medicines.
When Soviet troops occupied the city at the beginning of 1945 the retreating German army was under instruction to “liquidate” the Budapest ghetto. Wallenberg is believed to have prevented this through his diplomatic influence by threatening General Major Schmidhuber with the consequences of such a course of action after the war. That intervention alone likely saved the lives of some 70,000 Hungarian Jews.
The fate of Wallenberg, then aged just 33, from the end of the war onwards is not known. He is believed to have sought refuge with the Soviet army, which, however, suspected him of espionage and had him transported to Moscow. When exactly and under what circumstances he died in Russia is not known.
Wallenberg’s disappearance & death
Wallenberg is said to have no longer felt safe in Budapest after Christmas 1944. On 11 January 1945 he took refuge in the Red Cross building in Benczúr utca, near Heroes’ Square. When the building was captured by the Soviet army on 13 January he voluntarily made contact with it. On the next day his communication with the outside world was banned and it was ordered that he be transported to Moscow, as a telegram of 17 January confirms. From that point Wallenberg’s fate is not known.
Witnesses claim he was detained in the Interior Ministry in Moscow. It is likely that he was taken from there to the city prison of Lubjanka, and from there to Lefortovo jail. Because he had had contact with the Americans as a diplomat and employee of the War Refugee Board, he was suspected of espionage. The warrant for his arrest, personally signed by the Soviet deputy defence minister, was only made public in 1988 under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Earlier the regime denied that Wallenberg had been held in Moscow. Then in 1957 the government announced that Wallenberg had died ten years previously, on 17 July 1947, in Lubjanka. At a medical conference in 1961, however, a Swedish doctor learned from a Russian colleague that Wallenberg was in a mental asylum.
When a German negotiator sought to have Wallenberg released in 1965 through an exchange of agents, it was confirmed by the Russian side that he was alive. Even in 1990 gulag prisoners emerged who claimed to have been detained together with Wallenberg.