The name of Raoul Wallenberg today evokes deep emotions in the hearts of many people. For those who know even the barest details of his courageous exploits in wartime Budapest, now some thirty eight years ago, he is held in almost reverential respect. Hasidei umot ha-olam – truly a Righteous Gentile.
And yet only ten years ago, knowledge and understanding of the life and times of Raoul Wallenberg were confined to a privileged few. Those whose academic interests had led them into that traumatic chapter of Jewish history simply recorded his heroism in a footnote.
For the man in the street the name of Raoul Wallenberg meant nothing. For those born after the war, it was as if he had never existed. Outside of Sweden, his work in Hungary was largely unknown.
In Israel, a narrow dirt track bearing his name, in the back streets of Jerusalem, symbolised the reverence with which the Jewish state managed to accord to a man who had saved 100,000 Jews from Nazi extermination in Hungary
I consider Raoul Wallenberg to be one of those people of the twentieth century to whom all of mankind is greatly indebted and ought to be proud of. (Andrei Sakharov, Nobel Peace Prize winner 1975)
There are many reasons for the lack of concrete action on behalf of Wallenberg over three decades. Those in this country who knew about the case genuinely believed that Wallenberg had perished. There were, indeed, more pressing and more tangible matters to be grappled with within the Jewish world. There was also an initial lack of initiative by the Swedish government. But most crucial of all, there was a paucity of substantial information about Wallenberg’s whereabouts.
In the ‘seventies, however, the Jewish exodus from the USSR brought forth new testimonies and new reports. There were instances, for example, of individuals spending up to thirty-five years in Soviet prisons: Only recently, a Spaniard who had been presumed dead returned from the USSR after decades in the camps.
Due to the pioneering efforts of Maurice Samuelson, former editor of the now-defunct Jewish Observer and Greville Janner, QC, MP; president of the Board of Deputies, many people began to involve themselves in the Wallenberg saga. It was not simply a question of demystifying the tragic story of Wallenberg’s disappearance in 1945, but of informing Anglo-Jewry and beyond who he was and what he did.
For all those who subsequently became enmeshed in the public elevation of his name, there was always a nagging sense of guilt. “Why didn’t I know about Wallenberg earlier?” “Why didn’t I do something?” “Why didn’t I try to find out?” “Is it too late?”
There are many honourable answers to these questions, and yet there are none. The reality remains that Wallenberg, if he is still alive, has just celebrated his seventieth birthday – three score and ten – in the Gulag Archipelago. He was but thirty two years old when he entered its gates.
Wallenberg saved 100,000 from Hitler’s racial holocaust. If 60 others had acted like him, the Nazi murderers would not have had their six million victims. (Shlomo Argov, Israeli Ambassador to Britain)
For the survivors of the Holocaust, there was also, perhaps, a subconscious desire not to step outside the security of their present lives to uncover and relive the horror of that terrible epoch all those years ago. One amazing illustration of this aspect of this was recently uncovered by the writer, John Bierman.
During the terrible conditions prevailing under the fascist Arrow Cross government, Agnes Vandor, the pregnant wife of one of Wallenberg’s staff, suddenly went into labour. The Swedish diplomat speedily located a doctor and surrendered his flat in Ostrom Street to them. He himself the debonair first secretary of the Royal Swedish legation in Budapest, then bedded down in the adjacent corridor.
In the middle of the night, the arrival of little Yvonne Vandor awoke Wallenberg from his slumber. The proud parents even gave the name of one of Wallenberg’s relatives to the new baby.
The Vandors managed to leave Hungary, first for England and then for Canada. The trauma of their experience convinced them not to bring up their daughter as a Jewess. They believed that she should never have to walk the gauntlet of anti-Semitic persecution.
Yet the extremity of their bitterness manifested itself in an ironic fashion when the girl reached maturity. Completely ignorant of Jewish tradition, and believing herself to be a gentile, she fell in love with a Jew. Her parents opposed the match and she converted to Judaism.
Da the late ‘seventies, an article on Wallenberg appeared in the Toronto Star. To Yvonne’s amazement, the story of her birth in Budapest was described. She excitedly, telephoned the reporter to relate that she was, indeed, that nameless baby. But she did wish politely to point out one inaccurate feature of the story: she and her parents were not Jewish,
It was only then that the truth came out. Today the Jewish girl who converted to Judaism observes an orthodox lifestyle and keeps a kosher home.
Here is a man who had the choice of remaining in secure, neutral Sweden when Nazism was ruling Europe. Instead he left this haven and went to what was then one of the mast perilous places in Europe. And for what? To save Jews. (Gideon Hausner, prosecutor of Adolf Eichmann)
For the survivors, the extent of Wallenberg’s exploits is not something recently learned. It is a passage of time which does not disappear. For them, Raoul Wallenberg was a living person of flesh and blood, a man of destiny; charged with a mission to protect the persecuted.
Where are the survivors? Those who were saved by Wallenberg live all around us, in Finchley, in Glasgow, in Weybridge, in Birmingham. They come from all walks of life, from every area of Anglo-Jewry.
In hassidic Stoke Newington, one reaction was: ‘Stop you don’t have to tell me who Wallenberg was. I know. I’m Hungarian. We owe our lives to this man. We lived in the protected house. Of course, I will put up your poster in my shop window.’
Rabbi Tony Bayfield, a Reform rabbi, was looking for material on Wallenberg for his school textbook ‘Churban’ about the Holocaust when he received a letter from Margaret in Kent:
With all my Jewish neighbours who still lived in the house, I was driven by the Nazis to a brick factory, where 3000 Jewish women, children over six and their mothers and their grandmothers, were sitting on the floor. There was a roof over us but no walls. We did not get a glass of water or any food for three days and then we were lined up for a death march.
As I had no idea what had happened to my son, whether he was still alive, still sitting on the chamber pot, I decided to escape and realised that that they would shoot me if I was discovered. I was lucky. I got back to Budapest. I learned that my mother had bribed a policeman who broke into our flat and recused my son.
We could not go back to the flat so we went to a hospital which was protected by the Swedish Embassy. Some 560 Jews lived there. We had some food at the beginning, but when the siege of Budapest started, all supplies stopped and at least 200 of them died of starvation. The only food that I could find was tomato puree and I had to climb over dead bodies to get it. But we survived on that, and now and again a piece of bread helped to save our lives.
Margaret concluded her letter: “God bless Raoul Wallenberg. I am sure that without his help, I, my husband, my mother, my son and hundreds of Budapest Jews would not have survived the war.”
He stood there in the street, probably feeling the loneliest man in the world, trying to pretend there was something behind him. They could have shot him there and then in the street and nobody would have known about it. (Tommy Lapid, Director-General of the Israel Broadcasting Authority whose mother was rescued by Wallenberg)
Some were very young children at the time. Susan, now a university lecturer in Scotland, and her brother, an antiques dealer in Finchley, found themselves in the care of an aged grandmother during this period of the fascist takeover of Hungary. Their parents had been stranded in Britain at the outbreak of war. With false papers, Susan, then eight, and her six year old twin brothers found refuge in a hospital.
“I remember hundreds of children, many to a bed, on the fourth floor. Conditions were so bad that several of them tried to commit suicide.”
On the night of December 19 1944, a woman took them through the snow to a Swedish Red Cross house. “She asked us to call her mother and to do whatever we were told. We were given false names.”
At the Swedish house, Susan recalls, were the food stores that Wallenberg has stockpiled – the rusks and the potato sugar. She remembers the retreating German soldiers looting the houses and carrying away half-carcasses of meat on their backs.
“Being so young, I could never understand why the house was a Swedish house. Now I know that it was due to Wallenberg.”
It is clear that many people have discovered their own stories through recent publicity about Wallenberg. When Susan mentioned a recent article about the diplomat to an academic colleague, she was told: “Heard of him. He took my mother and aunt off a deportation train.”
Wallenberg appeared miraculously on the platform. He prevented the train’s departure by demanding that all ‘Swedish citizens’ be taken off. My mother and aunt immediately insisted that they had Swedish papers. They waved some irrelevant Hungarian documents under the noses of the perplexed Germans who did not understand the language. Wallenberg took them away and concealed them in a Catholic convent.
Paul who now runs a medium-sized textiles import company, was also a child during the siege of Budapest. He remembers how Hungarian Jews were made, over a period of years, to feel second-class citizens. “First you could travel in the rear compartments of trains , then only on the rear steps, then only on Tuesdays and Fridays.”
He also recalls how his mother sowed a yellow star on to his jacket. Like Susan, he too acquired a new identity – “new names, new relatives, new birthdays. We even had to leave the hail Mary.”
In the autumn of 1944, he and his widowed mother entered the Swedish-protected house in the sixth district.
There were only two things you could do; either lie down in the space allocated – just lie straight – or stand in the queue for the toilet. This is how you spent your days – together with the three thousand inhabitants of the building.
The debt which the Jewish people owes Raoul Wallenberg can never be repaid. It may be that the Raoul Wallenberg exhibition now being held at St. Martins-in-the-Fields in London expresses that sense of frustration. It certainly manifests the deep sense of sadness at his subsequent fate.
It is significant that although philanthropists and organisations have contributed to the cost of the exhibition, the major part has come from small donations by individuals. Numerous 50p contributions were sent by age-old pensioners. It is therefore above all a people’s exhibition.
Elie Wiesel who suffered deportation and incarceration in Auschwitz as a sixteen year old Hungarian Jew, speaks for thousands when he says:
I do not know what place Raoul Wallenberg occupies in the history of his people, but I do know the place he occupies in ours. It is a place reserved for a man embodying our thirst for justice and dignity and above all, our quest for humanity.
Jewish Chronicle 22 October 1982