You may not have heard the name Raoul Wallenberg but he was one of the greatest humanitarian heroes of the 20th century.
His 100th birthday is Aug. 4, 2012. We do not know with certainty where or when he died, yet his is the story of one person making a difference.
Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat stationed in his country's embassy in Budapest in 1944. His upcoming birthday gives us an opportunity to tell a story that ought never to be forgotten.
Raoul Wallenberg fearlessly and bravely defied the Nazis and saved as many as 100,000 people from Hitler’s extermination camps. It was the most significant rescue of Jews during the entire Second World War. The Nazis waged two wars, actually--one against the Allies and a second against the Jews of Europe.
This second war was the more important one to the Nazis. We know this because they diverted trains (needed to bring weapons and food to their front lines) to the interior--where, instead, they delivered Jews (and gays and Roma and political opponents) to extermination camps. The Nazis lost their war against the Allies in winning their war against the Jews of Europe.
Raoul Wallenberg saw what was happening and steadfastly refused complicity. With permission from the Swedish government, Wallenberg issued passports, established protective housing, soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages and schools for the Jews of Hungary. He rescued Jews from sealed deportation trains. In one remarkable night, he saved 70,000 Jews by having Adolph Eichmann’s "final solution" orders countermanded.
Wallenberg's life and career are gripppingly summarized by Wikipedia which cites Sandor Ardai, one of the drivers working for Wallenberg, who recounted what Wallenberg did one night when he intercepted a trainload of Jews about to leave for Auschwitz:
.. he climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross men began shooting and shouting at him to go away.
He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them. I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot hit him, which would have been impossible otherwise. I think this is what they did because they were so impressed by his courage.
After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours. I don't remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train, and the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it. (http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/readings/wallenberg.htm)
The Nazi deportation of Hungary's Jews to Auschwitz began in the early spring of 1944. By the time Wallenbrg arrived in Budapest in July, only a third of these Jews remained.
And yet, for the six months that followed--until until his arrest by the Russians, he saved as many human souls as he could--including Tom Lantos, who would later become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California.
In January 1945, however, Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians and taken to a Soviet prison camp. He disappeared from sight and, for a while, from history. For a long time no one knew what happened to him.
Occasionally word would get out of the Gulag from someone who claimed to have seen him--old and hungry and sick. The reward for his heroism was to live out his life in hell. It was a cruelly shortened life. In 1957 The Soviet Union, under relentless pressure for information, claimed that Wallenberg had died of heart failure just two years after his imprisonment in a cell at KGB headquarters.
Wallenberg has been recognized as an honorary citizen of the United States, Canada, Hungary and Israel. He was honored with the title "Righteous Among the Nations" at Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.
And he is honored every year here in the Lehigh Valley with the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Lecture, hosted at Muhlenberg College and sponsored jointly with the Institute for Jewish Christian Understanding, whose Executive Director Rev. Peter Petit--a Lutheran minister who, in his own modest way, carries on the work of Martin Neimoller, Raoul Wallenberg, and all heroes of the human spirit.
One can read more about him here: Raoul Wallenberg, by Jenö Lévai 1948; With Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, by Per Anger 1981; Wallenberg: Missing Hero, by Kati Marton 1982; To Save a People, by Alex Kershaw 2010.
Reference on the web: