April 13, 1985

Wallenberg’s mission of mercy


Millions of Americans watched on TV this week the story of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat.
During the closing months of World War II, he saved the lives of thousands of persecuted Jews in Budapest, Hungary.
I was one of them.
Following my escape from a slave camp, I roamed the streets of Budapest in search of a safe heaven.
I had no identity papers or money. Capture was a constant and imminent danger. Then, incredibly, I bumped into a childhood friend from my hometown. He was a member of an anti-Nazi underground organization. His group had close ties with the rescue effort spread headed by the Swedish diplomatic, Raoul Wallenberg.
I spent my first days of freedom sheltered in a ”Swedish House” under the nominal protection of the Swedish government.
In fact, those oases of relative safety in a sea of murderous Nazi mayhem were the result of Raoul Wallenberg’s imagination, daring and humanity.
My stay in the Swedish House was only temporary. Soon I was provided with fake identity papers and joined a Zionist-led anti-Nazi underground organization.
Raoul Wallenberg didn’t save me, as he did a great many other victims, by a daring personal intervention. As he did so often by prying people out from the jaws of death. Rescuing them from cattle cars and death marches on the way to extermination camps.
Still, I owe my survival to him. He was the one who gave me shelter during my greatest need. And it was Raoul Wallenberg’s courage, diplomatic skill and plain heroic dedication which inspired some other diplomats of neutral nations and international organizations to apply unorthodox diplomatic methods to help save the multitude of victims destined for the Nazi gas chambers.
The group I was assigned to operated under the aegis of the Switzerland-based International committee of the Red Cross. It was led by Dr. Rezso Kasztner, a longtime Zionist activist.
Dr. Kasztner’s main effort focused on buying time. The Russians were already approaching Budapest. But Adolf Eichmann was determined to transport the remaining 200,000 Jews to the extermination camps. It was obvious that delaying the dispatch of transports could have saved lives of thousands of people.
In connection with that effort, an obscure and bizarre episode took place involving Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS.
Himmler was interested in making a peculiar deal with the Western powers. In exchange for 3,000 heavy trucks to be used by the German Army on the Eastern front against the Red Army, he was willing to order a halt to the deportations of the Jews from Budapest and the release of unspecified number of concentration camp inmates to Sweden.
It was a hare-brained scheme with obvious political motives. It was a effort by Himmler to sow discord among the allies. And Himmler’s henchman in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann, pursued it with vigor.
Dr. Kasztner eagerly acquiesced because he considered it as a leverage to wring some concessions out of Eichmann. A Hungarian Zionist activist, with Gestapo consent and assistance was dispatched to neutral Turkey to conduct negotiations with Western representatives.
To show good faith, Dr. Kasztner delivered $2 million worth of gold in a suitcase to Eichmann at his luxurious villa on Schwabhegy ostensibly to finance the truck deal.
In return, about 3,000 Hungarian Jews were permitted to depart to Switzerland.
As a result of the Kasztner negotiations there may have been some temporary easing in the intensity of deportations of the remaining Jews. But Eichmann soon reneged on his promises and the ”trucks for lives” deal also fell through.
What in the end remained standing between the very real threat of extinction at the hands of the Nazis and survival for tens of thousands of innocent people was Raoul Wallenberg.
Even his wanton abduction and his disappearance into the Soviet Gulag did serve as a symbolic reminder and warning to mankind of the evils of all totalitarian regimes.
We who survived because of him can only grieve the say, ”There, for the grace of God go I.”