October 1, 2004

Forgotten hero has his day

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He was one of the greatest heroes of World War II.

A pampered son of the Swedish upper class, he was a diplomat from a neutral country who saved the lives of an estimated 100,000 Hungarian Jews at the end of World War II.

He’s one of only two people in history to be given honorary U.S. citizenship. (The other was Winston Churchill.)

More than once, he physically removed imprisoned Jews from railroad cars bound for death camps.

”He bluffed his way through,” a friend later recalled. ”His only authority was his own courage.”

He went toe-to-toe with Adolf Eichmann and won the day. But he lost his final confrontation with Josef Stalin’s mass-murderous ways. He’s believed – though it’s not certain – to have died in a Soviet prison camp two years after the end of the war.

And, as everyone knows, Oct. 5 is the official designated day when New Yorkers will honor and remember Raoul Wallenberg.

Raoul who? you say. You, and practically everybody else.

The quiet man who saved so many is a hero to a few who know the dangers of forgetting.

Baruch Tenembaum founded the not-for-profit Raoul Wallenberg Foundation in 1997 out of an abiding awareness that heroes like Wallenberg must not be forgotten.

Tenembaum has made the rounds of the state’s highest educational and political offices and found the discouraging answer to his own question: Is anything being done in New York to turn this day into something meaningful?

The answer is no.

Raoul Wallenberg Day isn’t part of the ludicrous, lobbyist-induced legislative practice of naming, say, the first Tuesday of June Upstate New York Cheddar Cheese Day. It’s a serious proclamation reserved to recognize worthy ”person[s], group ideal, or goal.” Pearl Harbor Day is the only such commemorative day of which you’re likely to know. Other such official days include Korean War Veterans’ Day, Workers’ Day and New Netherland Day.

No one has a satisfactory answer why Wallenberg has been so easy to forget. Tenembaum calls it ”a fascinating and sad topic.”

Another Wallenberg Foundation member, Daniela Bajar, said the group had better luck in bringing programs about Wallenberg to a dozen individual schools in the New York metropolitan region.

Michelle Tuchmann of the Ulster County Jewish Federation remembers Wallenberg. Last year Tuchmann was instrumental in making sure a former Kingston man, Laszlo Ocskay, received local recognition for saving 2,300 Hungarian Jews from German death camps.

She finds it fitting that Raoul Wallenberg Day should fall during Sukkot, a time reserved on the Jewish calendar for celebration and reflection.

There are those who hold that Wallenberg didn’t die in a Soviet labor camp. As recently as 2001, Sweden’s prime minister declared, ”It cannot be said [Wallenberg] is dead,” because no conclusive evidence of his fate has ever been found.

On Aug. 4, Raoul Wallenberg would have celebrated his 92nd birthday.