A hero without a grave

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Raoul Wallenberg is one of the most tragic figures of the twentieth century. He managed to defeat fate only to be buried by it later. He overcame the perils of Nazism and saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust but was subsequently forgotten in the Soviet gulag. As Dr, Yoav J. Tenembaum explains, Raoul Wallenberg is a hero without a grave.

The Holocaust is an exceptional event in human history. Although humanity has witnessed acts of murder and genocide, never has it been subjected to anything like the Holocaust.

A systematic, rational, industrial plan, its objective was to eliminate completely an entire nation. Jewish culture, the cradle of Western civilization, ought to have disappeared alongside the people who had embraced it for thousands of years.

This programme of extermination, so meticulously implemented, was organized and directed by one of the most cultured nations the world had ever known. In the context of this exceptional historical event exceptional individuals emerged. Challenging the whole machinery of Germany and its allies, they were prepared to risk their lives in order to save the lives of others.

The mere fact that a Gentile helped a Jew escape certain death would have signified for that Gentile a similar destiny as that of the Jew. Nevertheless, individuals of different nationalities, of diverse social backgrounds, gave shelter, whether directly or indirectly, to Jews who, on many occasions, remained alive thanks to them.

Thus, the Righteous Gentile, or Righteous Among the Nations, is a unique phenomenon within a unique event in history. To be sure, they were only a few. Had there been many of them perhaps we would not be lamenting the death of six million Jews. But, thanks to these few, humanity has not completely lost the shadow of its dignity.

Humanity owes its freedom to the Allied armies. Humanity owes its dignity to the Righteous Among the Nations. Had it not been for the latter, the freedom we would have enjoyed would have been bereft of its spiritual essence.

The Righteous Among the Nations were not compelled to do what they did. They did so out of their own free will. They risked their lives to save the lives of others out of choice. And this is, in a sense, what renders their actions a singular event in human history. Without arms, bereft of bullets, confronting the most powerful and cruel force in Europe, they chose to sacrifice themselves to save a human being. They had an alternative and decided to eschew it.

In a way, Wallenberg serves as the spokesman to these exceptional individuals. He is, so to speak, primus inter pares, first among equals. Not because his deeds were morally more potent but rather on account of his being the best known of them all and due to his tragic fate and unknown whereabouts .

A descendant of a prominent Swedish family of bankers and diplomats, Wallenberg was leading a comfortable life when he was asked by the War Refugee Board in the United States to undertake a mission to the Hungarian capital of Budapest in order to help its Jewish community escape death. He was barely in his early thirties when he arrived in Budapest on 9 July, 1944. He assumed his responsibility with amazing courage. Wallenberg confronted the whole machinery of Nazi Germany and its Hungarian allies. His only weapon was his diplomatic immunity, which counted for little where Jews were involved.

He deployed his imagination to outmanouvre his enemies. Wallenberg inspired all those around him to act without fear. He was personally threatened. His life was always in danger. He had to appear and disappear from the scene with almost magic effect. And that is precisely what Wallenberg seemed to possess as far as Hungary’s Jews were concerned: magic. He gave the Jews of Hungary something they had not encountered until then: hope.

He issued Swedish protective documents, which were aimed at assuring its bearers immunity from the Nazi yoke. Having worked in Germany in the 1930s, he knew how impressed Nazi officials could be with formal documentation. The Swedish protective documents were a device created by Wallenberg solely and exclusively to save Jews.

He bought or leased 32 large apartment houses and declared them Swedish territory, assuring its occupants – fleeing Jews – immunity from the Nazi Germans and its Hungrian allies of the Arrow Cross. Thousands of people found shelter in these protected houses. Among them were many whom Wallenberg had personally brought back from the forced marches leading to the death camps. He was even seen jumping into trains to try and save Jews from certain death.

Wallenberg set on his mission with single-minded determination. He alternately persuaded, cajoled or threatened his interlocutors in order to prevent the unfolding plans of extermination. He endeavoured to gain time when necessary and did so with intellectual dexterity.

His efforts were crowned with success. He could have gone back to his native Sweden to live a comfortable life – again. But, alas, that was not to happen. Taken by Soviet troops on 17 January, 1945, he was to disappear never to be seen again. His fate is a mystery to this day.

The Soviet Union has always insisted that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in the Lubianka prison in 1947. Then, in 1991, a joint Russian-Swedish commission of enquiry was set up to try and ascertain what had really happened to him. Even this group of experts, whose report was published this year, could not come out with an agreed statement. The conclusions of the Russian members differed from those of their Swedish counterparts.

For the first time, Russia formally admitted that Wallenberg did not die out of natural causes but was killed by Soviet officials in 1947. The Swedish side of the story is different. According to it, the evidence available is hardly sufficient to arrive at that conclusion. Indeed, he may have been alive subsequent to 1947, as many people had always claimed, and his fate, therefore, is still a mystery.

According to the Russian side of the story, there are three main points worth mentioning: firstly, Wallenberg was taken by the Soviet Union and imprisoned in Lubianka; secondly, he was killed by orders of the Soviet government; thirdly, no one from the outside world was ever permitted to see him or even to view his corpse following his execution. Even if the Russians are right, the behaviour of the Soviet Union in this affair was reprehensible.

To honour and promote the deeds of Raoul Wallenberg and all the other Righteous Among the Nations, The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) was founded in New York, Buenos Aires and Jerusalem in 1997 by Baruch Tenembaum. The organisation’s distinguished members include twenty-seven heads of state, former presidents, United States governors, literary figures, Nobel-prize laureates, member’s of Raoul Wallenberg’s own family and many others from diverse backgrounds and different professional fields.

Other distinguished personalities who for constitutional reasons are precluded from joining the IRWF have expressed their wholehearted support for its goals. For instance, United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Anan who, in an audience he granted to a delegation of the IRWF, embraced the objectives espoused by it. The same applies to Johannes Rau, the president of Germany, who invited Baruch Tenembaum to a special 70-minutes meeting in which he conveyed his unflinching support for the IRWF and its activities.

A non-profit NGO, the IRWF’s main recent activities include the setting up of a committee whose aim is to see to it that Giusseppe Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) who, as Papal Nuncio in Istanbul during the Holocaust, saved the lives of many Jews by granting them documents attesting to their supposed baptism, be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations.

Also, a special act took place in the United Nations to initiate a project aimed at promoting the name of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese representative in the French city of Bordeaux, who saved the lives of thousands of Jews by granting them Portuguese passports against the expressed wishes of his government. He ended his life penniless, having been ousted from the foreign ministry and having been barred from other jobs. His tragic destiny has befallen other Righteous Among the Nations who had to face the wrath of their own governments for their humanitarian activities.

Through educational schemes the IRWF has initiated a process designed to impart knowledge about Wallenberg and all the other Righteous Among the Nations to diverse audiences in different countries. At the instigation of the IRWF, the City of Buenos Aires has agreed to set up a monument honouring the Righteous Among the Nations.

In his meeting with German president Rau, Baruch Tenembaum suggested that new-born babies should carry the names of Righteous Among the Nations. An idea enthusiastically embraced by his audience. Indeed, if people proudly bear the names of kings and prophets, why should they not feel honoured to carry the names of individuals who were willing to sacrifice themselves to save the lives of others?

After all, one could say that, in a sense, the Holocaust occurred in spite of these extraordinary individuals.

To them all, through the name of Raoul Wallenberg, humanity owes a debt of gratitude which only active memory will be able to convey.

Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum is a member of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and is based in Tel Aviv, Israel

Parliament Magazine: www.europarl.eu.int