Tomorrow, Aug. 4, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, an iconic figure to the Jewish and Swedish communities, and to all mankind. The U.S. Congress made Wallenberg an honorary citizen of the United States in 1981, the second person to be so honored, after Winston Churchill.
Why is this man so important to us? What can we learn today from the story of his humanitarian mission to Hungary in the waning months of World War II?
The events that led to Wallenberg’s rescue mission began in 1943, when a young Jewish activist in New York, Peter Bergson (real name: Hillel Kook), led an effort to mobilize public opinion and pressure the Roosevelt administration to end the Holocaust and take steps to rescue Jews from the Nazi genocide. Newspaper advertisements were supplemented by protest rallies. Bergson managed to rally support from political leaders on both sides of the aisle, as well as from many public figures.
In addition to Bergson’s work to bring public attention to the unfolding of the Holocaust, it was Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and undersecretaries Randolph Paul and Minneapolis-born John Pehle who visited the White House for a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Sunday, Jan. 16, 1944.
Morgenthau handed FDR his “Personal Report to the President,” formerly titled: “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.” It was a white paper exposing the anti-Semitism and obstructionism at the State Department in connection with the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust.
These efforts, and those by others, caused Roosevelt, finally, a few days later, to create the War Refugee Board. He authorized the board to launch an effort to rescue European Jews. By then, practically the last surviving Jews of significant number in Nazi-occupied Europe were the Jews of Budapest. Into this setting stepped Raoul Wallenberg.
Why Wallenberg? He had studied architecture at the University of Michigan in the 1930s, only to learn upon return that his degree did not qualify him to work in that profession in Sweden. Between 1935 and 1936, he was a bank officer in Haifa, where he met Jews who had fled Hitler’s Germany. Their stories made a lasting impact upon him.
He later took a position with an import-export company owned by Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew. In this role Wallenberg could travel to German-held France and to Germany. These experiences and his well-developed linguistic skills gave him insights into German bureaucracy that would inform his subsequent mission to Hungary.
The War Refugee Board came to understand that Sweden was also making serious attempts to save Jews in Hungary. The board sought out a Swede whom it could support in a rescue operation in Budapest. Wallenberg was identified, was offered the job and, on July 9, 1944, arrived in Budapest and immediately began his work. Sweden had accorded him full diplomatic status, posting him to the Embassy of Sweden. The U.S. government pledged its full support.
Wallenberg performed the mission with great alacrity, enterprise, audacity and bravery. Working with other foreign diplomats, he created safe houses for Jews; created “Schutz-passes” of Swedish protection for Jews; provided food and medicine, and leapt aboard trains, bluffing German guards to save people facing deportation and certain death.
By January 1945, he had saved tens of thousands of Jews. He was, by then, well-known to the Hungarian Nazis who were looking for him. Embassy colleagues pleaded for him to go into hiding. He refused, saying, “For me, there is no choice. I could never return to Stockholm, knowing that I had failed to do everything within human power to save as many Jews as possible.”
Wallenberg was arrested by Russian forces on Jan. 17, 1945, and was deported to prison. It’s likely that the support of his mission by the United States government made the Russians suspicious of his true allegiances. He never was released nor returned home. His fate is still unknown. We have no idea how long he may have managed to live in the gulag.
Raoul Wallenberg showed that one person can make a difference. Though he faced enormous danger, he remained unshakable in his commitment to the principle that all human beings have equal dignity. Through his righteous acts, he has become a symbol of human rights and the struggle against oppression. He saw evil and never backed down.
Wallenberg is honored throughout the world by the placement of monuments, statues and other works of art. In 1963, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Remembrance Museum, recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations.
As we look around the world today, where are the modern-day equivalents of Raoul Wallenberg? How can we support them?
Bruce Karstadt is the president and CEO of the American Swedish Institute. Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.