Life is full of coincidences. One occurred on the eve of the 58th anniversary of the Holocaust, when I received a letter from Nane Annan, wife of the Secretary General of the United Nations.
A few days before the arrival of Kofi Annan in Williamsburg to deliver the keynote address at Charter Day at William & Mary, I learned that his wife would accompany him. I requested that the college arrange a private meeting between us, but U.N. officials rejected the request. Mrs. Annan expressed regrets that we didn’t meet during her brief visit and said she hoped that it will be possible at another time.
The reason I wished to meet her was to express my gratitude to someone who was closely related to Raoul Wallenberg.
The Swedish diplomat had saved my life during the Holocaust, as well as the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
Nane Annan, the Swedish-born lawyer-turned artist, was his niece.
In 1944, during the siege of Budapest by the Red Army, Wallenberg disappeared into the Gulag, the Soviet penal colony, never to be seen alive again.
Although Annan never knew Wallenberg, ”the absence of Raoul was always present in my life”, she said in an interview. She recalled: ”His last letter from Budapest was to congratulate my mother, his sister, on my birth.”
I wanted to share my memories with her, to provide an eyewitness account of Wallenberg ’s deeds, how he saved thousands of Jews, prying them out from the jaws of death. I wanted to tell her what made her uncle a living legend in Budapest and an enduring example of humanitarian virtues.
After my escape from a Nazi-slave labor camp, I roamed the streets of Budapest, like a hunted animal in search of a safe haven. I had no identity papers or money. Capture was a constant, imminent danger. My chances of survival were very limited.
Then, incredibly, I bumped into a childhood friend who had also escaped from a slave-labor camp and had joined a Zionist-led, anti Nazi, underground organization in Budapest. His group had close ties with the rescue efforts spearheaded by Wallenberg.
I spent my first days of freedom in a ”Swedish House”, set up by Wallenberg. It was a place of refuge, under the nominal protection of the Swedish government. Those oases of relative safety in a sea of murderous Nazi mayhem were the result of Wallenberg’s imagination, daring and humanity.
My stay in the Swedish House was temporary. Soon I was provided with false identity papers and joined the Zionist-led underground movement.
Thus Wallenberg didn’t save me, as he did a great many other victims, by daring personal intervention. But subsequently I witnessed how, with total disregard for his own safety, he saved the lives of countless Jews.
My fake accreditation papers, identifying me as a Hungarian employee of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, enabled me to enter the railroad yard from where the Hungarian Jews were transported in boxcars to concentration camps. On those occasions, I observed Wallenberg’s method of saving people from deportation and certain death.
Waving the ”Swedish Certificates of Protection” he issued in the name of the Swedish government, Wallenberg approached Adolf Eichmann’s henchmen and demanded the release of Jews whose names were on a list he submitted.
I recall vividly his behavior.
He projected great dignity and self-assurance. He was courteous, but firm. He demanded to know the SS officer’s names. He told them that he represented the Swedish government and that if they disregarded the rules of international law, they would be held responsible. Amazingly, his demands usually were honored.
The unquestionably heroic deeds he performed have remained an inspiration to me throughout my life. But there is an episode in the Wallenberg saga that has never ceased to pain me.
Shortly after the Red Army fought its way in to Budapest, Wallenberg set out to visit the Soviet Army Field Headquarters at Godolo. He intended to secure food supplies for the thousands of Jews who survived in his Swedish Houses. But instead of receiving help, he was detained by the Soviet secret police. Apparently, they suspected he was a spy. He was taken to Moscow for interrogation.
At the time I had already been recruited as a translator and was attached to the staff of Marshal Voroshilov, the Soviet overlord of occupied Hungary.
Had I known about Wallenberg’s? detention by Soviet authorities, I may have his life, as he did mine. I could have testified on his behalf, providing proof of his humanitarian work.
Of course, intervention may have been irrelevant. But the thought that I might have saved him is never far from my mind after all these years.
Letter from Nane Annan
29 March 2003
Dear Mr. Shatz,
Thank you for your kind letter. I also very much appreciated reading your moving article about my uncle, as well as the dramatic article about your life and your dedication to the education of the young. I am sorry that I did not have the chance to meet you during our brief visit to Williamsburg last month. But I do hope it will be possible another time.
I shared your letter with my mother, Nina Lagergren, Raoul’s sister. We were both very touched and send you and your wife our warm greetings.