An exceptional man visits us. I am referring to the General Secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, whose dignity became evident, once again, when he intervened personally and peacefully during the crisis in Iraq. More recently, he also interceded in besieged Nigeria.
Welcome. This time he comes with his wife, Nane Lagergren Annan. She is a Swedish lawyer whom he met in Geneva, who shares with him a lovely mix of a stern disposition and simplicity of ways. It is very opportune then for us to remember the Swedish diplomat: Raoul Wallenberg, Mrs. Annan’s uncle. That young man who belonged to a Swedish banking and industrial family, who in 1944, when only 32 years old, as the First Secretary of the Swedish Delegation in Hungary, saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Budapest.
When, unfortunately, many were looking the other way. As if the genocide provoked by Nazi hatred that afflicted the Jewish people were not real.
It is not possible to forget that in 1939, the world Jewish population was something more than 16 and a half million souls. After the Holocaust, more than a third had been exterminated: some 5,934,000 people. This was its heinous dimensions. More than just the pain and suffering of the victims, their families and friends, the world lost a huge measure of talent, genius and culture of a magnitude that is impossible to measure.
Before the Second World War, 57% of the Jewish population lived in Europe. Afterwards, a mere 32%. Never to be forgotten, testaments to the level of extreme cruelty humans are capable of inflicting.
Wallenberg’s country, Sweden, had received Jewish immigration since the eighteenth century, when an exodus out of Central Europe began. There, until 1860, they suffered some restrictions that affected their daily lives. For example, they could not be proprietors. They also could not vote until 1886. They couldn’t be public officials until 1870. Since then, total equality with the rest of the population has been a substantial reality.
In the midst of World War II, after a few years of strict ”neutrality”, Sweden realized the scope of the tragedy perpetrated by the Nazis. She began to act with her classic generosity. In 1943, Sweden opened its boundaries to the refugees. For the first time, Sweden received 200,000 Scandinavian refugees, among them 6,500 Jews.
What’s more, thanks to the deeds of Count Folke Bernadotte of the Red Cross, he later managed to liberate thousands of prisoners awaiting their deaths in the German concentration camps. From the SS, Himmler, anticipating the end of Nazism, agreed to set free 9,000 Jews. Maybe this was a futile attempt at appeasing those who were beating Hitler.
They arrived in Sweden on trains. Like animals, more dead than alive. They had escaped from hell miraculously.
The Hungarian Case The Jewish Hungarian population was very much assimilated into the rest of society. In reality, Hungarian Jewry had been emancipated only in 1851.
By 1914, some 900,000 Jews were succeeding on all fronts, particularly in the professions. They were a part of a comfortable middle-class and they made up about half of the lawyers, doctors and journalists. They included renowned artists, well known university professors, literati and scientists. Budapest has in its ”Grand Synagogue”, the most important synagogue in Europe. They could not even imagine the tragedy that would befall them only a few years later.
Everything changed when, immediately after the First World War, Communism briefly took control. This dictatorship lasted a little more than one hundred days. The secretary of the local Communist party then was a Jew named Bela Kun. 31 out of the 49 government appointees were also Jewish.
After Kun was deposed, a wave of resentment was unleashed on the Jewish community that ended in blatant anti-Semitism. No distinctions were made. It went beyond political affiliation.
In 1920 more than 1,800 Jews had been assassinated, 5,000 has been hurt and the hatred towards them had become a dangerous reality. Ten years later, in 1930, the situation had not reached the same gravity and scope in Hungary than it had in Poland or Romania. Suddenly, in 1938, Hitler annexes Austria. The Hungarian government begins to systematically persecute the Jews with more emphasis. The first thing that was implemented were labor restrictions. Different prohibitions followed.
All of them were measures that were oppressive and degrading to the extreme. A foreshadowing of worst times.
In 1942, as the war raged on, catastrophe finally struck the Jews of Hungary in all its insanity. In 1944, when the Wehrmacht occupied Hungary, it turned her into an inferno. So much so that most of the Jews of Budapest lost their lives. Many in Auschwitz. Others were assassinated savagely in the streets by local Nazi militias. As the Russian forces surrounded the city, Adolph Eichmann ordered the Jews that were still alive to begin marching on towards Vienna. Some 100,000 of them died by the wayside.
By war’s end, 70% of Budapest’s Jewish population had been exterminated. Some 450,000 innocent victims. Horrible.
The Wallenberg Miracle In that atmosphere of horror, when the majority of the Jews in Budapest had died, Wallenberg arrived as the First Secretary of the Swedish Delegation. This was after the local government had revoked the post of Duke Bernardotte.
With unmatched bravery he saved thousands of Jewish lives. Risking all kinds of dangers. Stretching to the limit diplomatic protocol and Swedish law. Coming up with unmatched sophistry. In particular, he provided an avalanche of Swedish passports to as many people as were willing to use them to emigrate. He also opened ”Swedish Houses” where many Jews found refuge, claiming in them an uncertain diplomatic ”immunity”. He never doubted himself. Always with the perseverance that feeds success.
Some 100,000 Jews owe him their lives. Wallenberg went beyond therequired and reached the real purpose of his goal. All with the direct language of action, receiving strength through his unshakable courage.
Loyal to his own conscience. Forgetting about fear. With that heroism that doesn’t need an echo to persevere through out time.
When the war ended in January 1945, Wallenberg disappeared mysteriously upon being taken into custody by the Soviet forces that has just taken Budapest. Considering him a spy, they arrested him. We don’t know the reasons why or what the circumstances were. It is believed that he died after a difficult captivity in a prison at Lubyanka in 1947. But he remains a symbol that will survive for all time because he was true to his ideals. When those who see humanity with dignity are silenced, then man is transformed into an animal.
All this recognition for Raoul Wallenberg. For his double lesson of courage and compassion to the point of risking his life. An example never to be forgotten. As Kofi Annan would come to ponder, ”why was there so much indifference, why did we have such few like Raoul Wallenberg?
Some places, such as the New York Public Library, in London’s West End or in Buenos Aires, will one day have a monument dedicated to the heroism of this legendary aristocrat among its other memorials. It would only be proper.
*Former Argentine Ambassador to the United Nations.