Thomas Veres: I Was There

Train yard photo taken by Tom from inside Wallenberg’s car. Wallenberg stands at right, hands clasped behind him, overseeing his "Book of Life."

I’m a professional photographer. For many years, my offices in New York were only three blocks from the United Nations, where signs designate ”Raoul Wallenberg Walk.” Those who know of Wallenberg think of him as someone who saved nearly 100,000 lives in Budapest, Hungary, in the last fierce days of World War II. To me, Raoul Wallenberg not only saved lives, he also left a mark on those he saved. I know. He left a deep mark engraved in my heart and mind, one that has shaped my thoughts and actions ever since.

first met Wallenberg on October 17, 1944, when I was a young man. By then, the Nazis had ”cleansed” the Hungarian countryside of Jewish people; more than 430,000 men, women, and children had vanished, at the rate of 12,000 a day, never to be seen again. Now, in the closing days of the war, the Nazis prepared to exterminate the last large population of Jews alive in Europe, those in Budapest.

Raoul Wallenberg, a young Swedish architect, had been sent to Budapest in July for the sole purpose of saving lives. By then, U.S. government intelligence could no longer pretend they didn’t know what was happening to the Jews of Europe. The War Refugee Board decided to send someone from a neutral country to facilitate some sort of rescue of the Jews of Hungary. Wallenberg volunteered for the job. His work had taken him throughout Europe, and he’d seen firsthand what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. The Swedish government joined in the effort, and he was sent to Budapest through the Swedish Legation, although he’d never been trained as a diplomat.

What makes a man leave the safety of a neutral country to take on personally the Nazis? I can’t tell you. All I can tell you is that his weapons were his wits, determination, and a belief in the worth of each human life to the point of risking his own in exchange.

I’d grown up learning photography from my father. He was the court-appointed photographer to the Hapsburgs, the personal photographer of the Hungarian regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, and the top society photographer in Budapest. Admiral Horthy gave us a personal exemption from the existing laws imposed on the Jews.

On October 15, when the Arrow Cross–the Hungarian Nazis–took over the government, all exemptions were cancelled. Through my father, I knew one of the Swedish diplomats, Per Anger. Knowing my life was in immediate danger, I headed for the Swedish Legation. Against all odds, I made it through the crowds of people seeking help and was admitted.

I told Per the bind I was in. ”Let me introduce you to someone,” he said. He leaned out the door. ”Raoul?”

Raoul Wallenberg came in, a young man, early 30s, slim, with brown hair. His air was down-to-earth, a center of calm in a world gone mad. Per said, ”This is Tom Veres, a photographer, a friend of mine. He could be useful.”

Wallenberg said, ”Good. You’ll be my photographer. You will document the work we are doing. You’ll report directly to me.” They made out official papers on the spot.

Much of my time was spent taking pictures for schutzpasses (passports) that Wallenberg then issued by the thousands. They stated that the bearer was approved to move to Sweden after the war and was already under the protection of the Swedish government.

But the day that I found out what it really meant to be Wallenberg’s photographer was a month later, on November 28, when his secretary handed me a piece of paper with his instructions: ”Meet me at Josefvarosi Station. Bring your camera.”

The Josefvarosi train station was a freight depot on the outskirts of town. I took my Leica and got on the tram, not knowing what to expect. To tell you the truth, everybody, especially those on the Nazis’ hit list, thought lying low was the best plan. Keep quiet, keep out of sight. Don’t get involved. Yet here I was on a raw November morning, heading for Josefvarosi Station.

I found the station surrounded by Hungarian Nazis and gendarmes from the countryside. Anyone in his right mind was trying to get out. Wallenberg expected me to find a way in. I shoved my camera into my pocket and went to one of the gendarmes. Using the world’s phoniest Swedish accent, I spoke in a mixture of broken Hungarian and German. ”I’m a Swedish diplomat! I must go in to meet Raoul Wallenberg!”

The gendarme stared at me incredulously but let me in. The scene inside the station was harrowing. Thousands of men were being loaded onto cattle cars. Wallenberg was there, as were his Studebaker and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder. When Raoul saw me, he walked over and whispered slowly, ”Take as many pictures as you can.”

Pictures? Here? If I were caught, I’d be on that train myself, legation or no legation. I climbed into the backseat of the car and took out my pocketknife. I cut a small slit in my scarf and positioned the camera inside it. I got out and walked through the train yard as calmly as possible, snapping pictures.

Wallenberg had his black ledger out. ”All my people get in line here!” he called. ”All you need to do is show me your schutzpass!”

He approached the line of ”passengers.” ”You, yes, I have your name here. Where is your paper?” The startled man emptied his pockets, looking for a paper he never had. He pulled out a letter. ”Fine. Next!”

Wallenberg had pulled hundreds of men out of line when he sensed the Nazis losing patience. ”Now back to Budapest, all of you!” he said.

The new Swedes walked out of the station to freedom. As soon as they had a good head start, Raoul and I got back into the car where Vilmos waited. The danger we’d been in didn’t hit me until then. This man, a Swede, who could have waited out the war in safety, was marching into train yards–and asking others to do the same!

The next day, word came: more deportations from the Josefvarosi Station. Again I was asked to come. It was a ghastly repeat. Gendarmes with machine guns, thousands of men being herded onto trains. Wallenberg with his table and his black ”Book of Life.”

This time, my Leica was already hidden in the folds of my scarf. As Wallenberg started calling off common names that many men might answer to, I started snapping photos.

That day, my cousin Joseph was among those marked for death, as was one of Hungary’s great actors. I pulled them out of line to join Wallenberg’s hundreds.

It was then I saw my chance. I walked around the train, inches from the armed guards. On the other side, the side away from the station, I climbed onto the already filled car. The train hadn’t been padlocked from the side. I jumped, pushing all my weight onto the bolt that held the door shut. The spring clicked. The long door slid back in its tracks.

The men inside, who a moment ago had stood prisoner in the darkness, now blinked in the November sky. ”Move, quickly!” I said. Men started jumping off the back of the train, running to the line where Wallenberg continued to give out passes.

As I struggled to climb onto a second train car, Wallenberg clearly saw that his time was up. ”All of you released by the Hungarian government, back into town! March!” At the same time, a Hungarian police officer saw what I was doing. He pointed his revolver at me. ”You! Stop what you’re doing!”

Raoul and his driver got into their Studebaker, and they drove around to my side of the train. Raoul opened the door and leaned out. ”Tom! Jump!”

I didn’t have a moment to think. I made the longest jump of my life.

Raoul pulled me inside and Vilmos stepped on the gas. Raoul smiled and looked back at the train station. ”I don’t think we’ll come back here for a while!” he said.

By January, the Soviet Army was pressing close to the city, but the Nazis and Arrow Cross still ran Budapest. Wallenberg was in a pitched battle to keep the 30,000 people in protected houses from being added to the 70,000 people already locked in the Central Ghetto. He was doing everything he could to stop the pogrom to finish off the ghetto. In fact, he was able to intervene with German General Schmidthuber and halt the final destruction of the ghetto minutes before it was to begin.

The war was within days of being over when the bad news came. Everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, who lived in my family’s apartment house, had been marched away by the Arrow Cross because they’d found the huge hidden food stocks kept by the well-known Zserbo Confectionary stored in the building’s basement. My parents were taken as well; they were taken straight to the Danube and shot, their bodies thrown into the river. It was too late for Raoul to save them.

But it wasn’t too late for the thousands of people whom Raoul had pulled out of trains or off marches. It wasn’t too late for the people in the ghetto whom Wallenberg and his accomplices saved from the final pogrom, even as the firing squads were assembling.

The last time I saw Raoul Wallenberg, he and Langfelder were getting ready to leave for Debrecen to meet with the newly established provisional government about setting up reconstruction programs. He asked me if I wanted to come, but I had yet to find out about the whereabouts of my parents. The two men left on January 17 with a Soviet escort. Before reaching Debrecen, they were taken into custody by the NKVD, a precursor of the KGB. Neither man has been seen outside Soviet prisons since.

I’ve often thought about how the timing of my parents’ tragic deaths kept me from disappearing along with Wallenberg. Sometimes, I think my life was spared so I could tell his story.

What happened to Wallenberg is shrouded in mystery to this day, but what he did for thousands of men, women, and children will always be bright and clear. It’s been said, ”Greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). They were not literally his friends, these people whose lives Wallenberg saved; they were simply his fellow human beings, and as such, he felt responsible for them. He wasn’t some superhuman, although his actions were heroic. He was an ordinary person who dared other ordinary people to do what he did.

So here, I tell his story.

Source: Beliefnet