Baruch Tenembaum
A Jewish "Gaucho" on the road of fraternity



- Article published in La Nación newspaper
Friday July 18 2003
(Spanish original language - translated by The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation)

The red mystery
By Alicia Dujovne Ortiz*

PARIS - When I heard that in Buenos Aires the Raoul Wallenberg statue, erected in the corner of Austria and Figueroa Alcorta streets, had been painted in red I thought of an exercise of style to propose to the members of a literary workshop: to be in the shoes of those who, one given night of June 2003 in Buenos Aires are about to vandalize the statue with blood color spray paint. Do they know who they are vandalizing and why? In Argentina we are used to the fact that Sarmiento wakes up stained with ink, but to hate Sarmiento the only necessary thing is to have attended primary school and, obviously, being in favor of Rosas. But, to hate Wallenberg it is necessary to have received a more sophisticated information. Unless the authors of the crime have made a mistake as in the old joke where someone believes that an iceberg is a person with a Jewish last name. In any case, if it got the language of the criminals, the exercise of style would serve as linguistic identikit. But let us leave the selfless members of the workhouse in their job of transcribing the characteristic preverbal onomatopoeic sounds of hate, and concentrate on the person represented by that vandalized statue.

July 1944, in Budapest, someone who was later known in Argentina, Adolf Eichmann, was preparing the second part of a final solution for the Hungarian Jews. He had already deported about two hundred thousand people. There was a lot of people left who, with his well-known efficiency, he was willing to wipe out in just 24 hours. At that time a Swede with brown eyebrows and warm manners arrived in the Hungarian capital who also proved to be efficient, not only in the sense of going against Eichmann’s plans but also in the methods used to achieve that goal. A Swede who was out of any rule, a Swede who was able to disobey when he had to, a Swede who look Neapolitan for his ability to seduce and to set traps, a unique Swede. His name was Raoul Wallenberg.

The Council of Refugees of War, created in the United States to rescue Jews from the Nazi persecution, had chosen him to perform the role of savior. Why him? Because the Swedish embassies had already started to distribute passports to save the persecuted; because it was a member of a powerful and known family in Sweden that would inspire some respect on the Nazis; because he knew Hungary and Germany; because the Jewish problem really moved him and because he was brave, tenacious and unusual. A proof of the latter is that before he departed as First Secretary of the diplomatic mission to Budapest he asked for extraordinary powers, i.e. extra bureaucratic, that King Gustav V in person decided to grant him.

Colorful passports

Unusual, original and maybe even marginal in his own way. The fact is that the young inheritor of the Wallenberg financial empire came from a native rupture that somehow turned him into the black sheep. His father had passed away three months before he was born, in 1912. His mother, a brunette of meridian looks and who had two or three drops of Jewish blood in her veins, had married her second husband in 1918, a member of the Von Dardel family, a much more bohemian family than the Wallenberg’s and that somehow had influenced the boy of black eyebrows. Obviously destined to finances, Raoul Wallenberg had preferred architecture. And commerce, by the concrete dealing with people that it implies, instead of the financial abstraction.

As soon as he settled in Budapest, Wallenberg designed a security passport with the Swedish colors, blue and yellow, and the three crowns coat. It had no legal value whatsoever but it looked important. That meant to understand the mentality of the German and Hungarian bureaucrats who venerated symbols of power. As Wallenberg took special care of the design, he proved to have a psychological sharpness that his attitude to the Nazis would not deny: he knew how to make them believe a false story when he saw that they were not too bright, he knew how to bribe them when he saw them prone to treason and, aware to the submission to authority that characterized all of them, stupid and treacherous, he knew when to assert himself by raising his voice.

He had distributed 4,500 passports that allowed other people to save their lives when Miklos Horthy -chief of the Hungarian State allied with Germany who was looking for peace on his side with the Soviets- was defeated and replaced by Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the “Arrow Cross”. These Hungarian Nazis re-opened the way for Eichmann to continue his work, interrupted on Gustav’s V request, who had interceded on behalf of Jews before the removed Horthy. In November 1944, Eichmann started his death marches: columns of hungry and tired people who had to walk 200 kilometers between Budapest and the Austrian frontier. Wallenberg walked with them, giving them food, medicines and his famous passports, that now, with the rush did not carry any crown or joyful colors, but that were good enough to get many people out of that horrible caravan.

Meanwhile, in the district of Pest, Wallenberg had created thirty “Swedish houses”, declared territory of the country, where there were almost 15,000 Jews, until the “Arrow Cross” declared that the Swedish passports were worthless. But the Swede of Latin complexion had not his black eyebrows or the strong look they stressed by chance. The proof is that he knew how to use them to seduce Liésel Kemény, the wife of the Minister of Foreign Relations. That was it: the passports, even in its discolored version, were good again.

Just in time. The death marches were slow. Eichmann decided to make them fast by starting the deportations by freight trains. Wallenberg climbed the roof of the wagons to hand his magic papers from there. Packed like cattle, the Jews tried to catch the papers in the air, raising their hands towards that strange character whom the conscience of his mission seemed to give him wings. Once he climbed down, Wallenberg faced the German soldiers with that severe air that left them wordless: “There are Swedish citizens on that train. How you dare deport them?” On one occasion, the Germans received the order of open fire against him. Wallenberg was running over the roofs of the train wagons jumping from one to another. The soldiers opened fire but not aiming at him. The shootings sounded like a greeting in his honor.

An annoying story

It was the beginning of the year 1945 when Wallenberg knew that Eichmann was willing to fully exterminate the population of the biggest ghetto in Budapest. But the Swedish diplomat had already bribed an important policeman and member of the Arrow Cross, Pa’l Szalay. He was the right person to give him the note of him to General August Schmidthuber, commander of the German troops in Hungary, where he said that at the end of the war, he, Raoul Wallenberg, would take care of getting him hanged if he carried out the massacre. Such massacre did not take place. When the Soviet troops arrived in Budapest two days later, there were 120,000 surviving Jews, of which 100,000 are thought to be saved by Wallenberg’s intervention.

The rest is silence. On January 13, 1945 Wallenberg visited the Russians with his driver. It is not known neither why he asked permission to visit the Soviet barracks in Debrecen in eastern Budapest, nor why the Soviets made him prisoner. It is not known if he died in a Soviet prison in 1947, as the Russians have always said (though with variations of the place and date), or if it is true that, as survivors of the Gulag have maintained, Wallenberg was alive until at least 1970. Some researchers of the case Wallenberg suppose that Stalin, directly involved in the arrest of the Swedish diplomat, acted with his proverbial paranoia, considering impossible that a millionaire capitalist would have risked his life to save Jews: Wallenberg could not be nothing else except a spy. If this hypothesis is not lacking in logic within its delirium, the most illogical thing is the attitude of the Swedish government, which never insisted much on rescuing Wallenberg, as if something in this story was annoying.

The international requests for Russia and Sweden to really open their files have multiplied during the last years. Our country has the honor of being the main branch (the other two are in New York and Jerusalem) of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, presided by Baruch Tenembaum, and which has Father Horacio Moreno among its members. It is an ecumenical organization that counts with the support of various Nobel Prize Laureates and whose aim is to claim for an answer to the question of where is Raoul Wallenberg, or where has he been, for how long, or if it is true that he is dead. As former member of the KGB, Vladimir Putin cannot ignore the answer.

And do our local vandals know it? Do they have idea of all that it is hidden behind the life of their "vandalized"? Does the color they have chosen have any relation to the Red Army? Sometimes a violent color spray paint can be good for the opposite of the intended, that is to refresh memory. Let’s talk about Wallenberg, even though it is to repeat that Nazism lies ahead of us. On the other hand, Wallenberg has not been the only one: the long list of saviors of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals during the Second World War does not end with that mysterious and extraordinary figure. To promote and admire it, Why not make the list available for those unaware publicists that are the bloody painters? In case, naturally, that their identity have been known due to the proposed exercise of style at the beginning of this note. Though, to be honest, I find it quite improbable: there is nothing harder than reproducing brays on a piece of paper.

*Alicia Dujovne Ortiz’s last book is titled "To whom is leaving" (Del Zorzal books)