By SHIRA SORKO-RAM, MAOZ—
Then on April 14-15, another siren sounds on Memorial Day for the 23,000 Jewish soldiers killed while defending the land of Israel together with 2,400 victims of terror.
Lastly, Israel celebrates Independence Day, remembering with joy the birth of the modern State of Israel (April 15-16).
In serious conversation, Israelis acknowledge that the horrors of the Holocaust propelled the 660,000 Jews in Israel – many who had escaped the death chambers – to such desperation that against overwhelming odds they forged the rebirth of the ancient Jewish nation. Just as the birth of the modern state is a part of the DNA of all Israelis, so is the death of one third of its people.
Explaining the Holocaust is really about millions of personal stories. Yet they are so horrendous, so beastly, that few people can bear to hear them. I can give you an example:
A mother and her 5-year-old child were standing in the “selection” line of who would live (to be a slave laborer) and who would be gassed. Small children were automatically sent into the death line.
When her turn came, the mother cried out, “Please save my son!” The Nazi officer looked kindly at the little boy and called him to come. The officer picked up the child, hugged him and swung him against a wall, bashing his head until he was dead.
Helena Frank Holits tells her story: “I was on a death march of women only. I asked a guard where we were going. He answered, ‘Nowhere. We are marching you until you die.’” The march lasted 106 days from the snows of January to the rains of May 1945, 800 km. Helena was one of a handful who miraculously survived to tell her story.
1,000,000 children were shot, gassed, beaten, frozen to death, starved to death.
Nevertheless, I hope you will keep reading, for there were heroic individuals who risked their lives to save Jewish people. Israel is populated with Holocaust survivors, their children and their children’s children. Many of them live because a Christian, a priest, a secular European determined to save as many Jews he or she could. Many of these “righteous gentiles,” as they are called in Israel, gave their lives.
In honor of Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, April 8 this year, here is the story of Raul Wallenberg who saved multiplie thousands of Jewish lives.
An Angel of Mercy: Raul Wallenberg
by David Lazarus
It was the spring of 1944. Nearly every major Jewish community in Europe had been decimated. Then Adolf Eichmann set his sights on Hungary’s 825,000 Jews with the same extermination plan the Nazis had been utilizing in other countries.
U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt finally realized that European Jewry was about to be completely annihilated. After procrastinating far too long, the president finally decided the Americans needed to get involved. He established the War Refugee Board (WRB) as part of a clandestine effort through OSS operatives to try and save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi death camps.
He sent an official representative, Iver Olsen, to Stockholm, as the Swedish government was also making serious attempts to save Jews in Hungary. Together with the Swedes, Olsen searched for a person to head up a rescue mission for the Jews of Budapest.
Hungary’s 825,000 Jews had remained safe for most of the war until Hitler discovered that Hungarian officials were holding secret talks with the Americans and the British. As a result, in March 1944 Nazi troops marched on Budapest and the extermination of Jews began immediately.
Because Sweden was considered a neutral country, Swedish diplomats were still able to travel freely across Europe. Therefore, Olsen looked for a Swedish man willing to walk into the jaws of the Nazi death machine – someone who spoke both Hungarian and German, someone with an independent spirit who would not need much oversight or direction.
They came upon Raoul Wallenberg from a well-known Christian Swedish banking family. He had been educated at the University of Michigan and had studied a number of languages and cultures. Interestingly, in 1936 his grandfather had arranged a job for him in Haifa in what then was called Palestine. There he came into contact for the first time with Jews who had fled the growing Nazi influence in Europe and were now being tyrannized by Arabs resenting their presence in Palestine.
The year 1936 was a particularly tumultuous time for Jews who had come back to live in their ancient homeland. That year marked the beginning of the “Great Arab Uprising” triggered by Arab alarm at the large number of Jewish immigrants arriving in the 1930’s.
In 1935 over 66,000 Jews had arrived in Israel, mostly from Germany where conditions had become intolerable with the rise of Nazism. It was also the last large Jewish immigration as the British severely reduced the number of Jews allowed into the Holy Land because of Arab opposition – just as Hitler was coming to power.
Wallenberg witnessed the overwhelming majority of Arab populations with their superior weaponry, intimidating armies and vast economic potential juxtaposed against the 440,000 men, women and children that made up the Jewish population in the Holy Land in 1936.
Then, back in Sweden during World War II, he watched the Jewish people being annihilated by the Nazis. Now he was being offered an assignment to lead a rescue operation of Hungarian Jews who were at the moment being systematically slaughtered.
Of great importance were his language skills in both Hungarian and German. Furthermore, he had been to Hungary many times on business. Nevertheless, some felt Raoul at 32 was too young and inexperienced. However his business partner, Koloman Lauer, who served on the War Board, felt Raoul was the right man – quick-thinking, energetic, courageous and empathetic. Wallenberg could be sent under diplomatic cover and lead the rescue operation.
Wallenberg accepted the offer, but with unusual conditions. He requested full authority to deal with anyone he wanted, without first clearing the matter with the Swedish ambassador in Budapest, and he said he must have diplomatic couriers outside normal channels.
His memo was so unusual that the matter was referred all the way up to the Swedish prime minister who consulted with King Gustav V before informing Wallenberg that his conditions had been accepted.
By now it was July 1944. In the last three months the infamous Adolf Eichmann, who managed the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in East Europe, had already deported 400,000 Hungarian Jews by freight train to Auschwitz. Only 230,000 Jews were left in the whole country – including 200,000 in Budapest – and Eichmann had a plan in motion to end all plans: To deport all of the rest of the Hungarian Jews in 24 hours!
For reasons only to be speculated, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler ordered Eichmann to temporarily halt the deportations.
Enter Raoul Wallenberg. There was nothing conventional about his methods. He immediately opened an office in Budapest and “hired” 400 Jewish volunteers to run it. He told them to take off their yellow Star of David marking them as Jews as they now had Swedish diplomatic protection.
Printing Swedish Passports
After quickly distributing his few hundred genuine Swedish passports, Raoul Wallenberg and his staff’s next task was to design a homemade Swedish “protective passport.” Wallenberg had previously learned that the German and Hungarian bureaucracies had a weakness for external symbolism. So he had the passports attractively printed in blue and yellow (Sweden’s national colors) with the Three Crowns coat of arms in the middle, and he furnished them with the appropriate stamps and signatures. Wallenberg’s protective passports (called Schutzpasses) had no value whatever under international law, but they commanded the respect of those he wished to influence.
So with permission from no one he announced that the Schutzpasses granted the holder immunity from deportation to the death camps. He persuaded the Hungarian authorities to give him permission to issue 4,500 and through promises and empty threats to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry he actually managed to issue many thousands of these Schutzpasses indiscriminately.
With US Defense Department finances Wallenberg began renting properties. He rented 32 buildings around Budapest and declared them to be extra-territorial, protected by Swedish diplomatic immunity. Wallenberg knew that, again, the Nazis were overly impressed by official government emblems. So he put up intricately designed official looking signs on the buildings such as “The Swedish Library” and “The Swedish Research Institute.” He hung oversized Swedish flags on the fronts of the buildings and put up shiny embossed government shields on the doors.
Apparently 32 Swedish “libraries” were not suspect as long as they had well-crafted “official” signs on the entrances. The Nazis never discovered the plot. As Nazi troopers stormed house to house looking for Jews, word traveled fast on the well-oiled Jewish “grapevine” that all those new Swedish “libraries” in town were actually safe houses. Wallenberg’s buildings provided shelter for over 10,000 people. Some witnesses say that actually three times that many were hidden in those safe houses.
Other neutral diplomatic missions in Budapest began to follow Wallenberg’s example by issuing Shutzpasses and a number of diplomats from other countries were inspired to open their own safe houses for refugees.
Meanwhile Eichmann began his brutal death marches. He carried out his promised deportation program by forcing large contingents of Jews to leave Hungary by foot. The first march began on November 20, 1944, and conditions along the 200 km (120 mile) route between Budapest and the Austrian border was so appalling that even some Nazis protested.
Thousands of Jews marched in endless columns, hungry, freezing and in great suffering. And thousands fell along the way. It was during these marches that Wallenberg’s actions became legendary. Raoul Wallenberg stayed with them, continuously distributing Schutzpasses, food and medicine. He alternately threatened and bribed the Nazis until he managed to secure the release of those who had been given his Schutzpasses. Wallenberg was able to rescue some 17,000 Jews who were in the marches.
The trains to Auschwitz
When Eichmann again began shipping out the Hungarian Jews in whole trainloads, Wallenberg intensified his rescue actions. As the freight cars full of Jews stood in the station, he would even climb on top of them, run along the roofs of the cars and hand bundles of protective passports to their occupants. On one occasion German soldiers were ordered to shoot him, but were so impressed by Wallenberg’s courage that they deliberately aimed too high. He was then able to jump down unharmed and demand that those Jews who had received his Schutzpasses be allowed to leave the train and return to the city with him.
Threatening General Schmidthuber
Wallenberg searched desperately for suitable people who could be bribed, and he found a very powerful ally in Pa’l Szalay, a high-ranking officer in the Arrow Cross – the Nazi Hungarian police.
Two days before the victorious Russians arrived to take over Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg learned that Adolf Eichmann had set in motion a total massacre of the Jews living in Budapest’s larger ghetto. He knew the only person who could prevent it was General August Schmidthuber, commander of the German troops in Hungary.
Wallenberg’s ally Szalay, with a nice bribe, was sent to find Schmidthuber and hand him a note which declared that Raoul Wallenberg would make sure the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war. The massacre was cancelled at the last minute as a result of Raoul Wallenberg’s intervention, saving an estimated 70,000 Jews.
Jan Larrson who was a staff member of Wallenberg and wrote Wallenberg’s biography was often asked in lecture tours how it was possible for one man and his staff to save such a large number of people from Nazi executions. He was not the heroic type in the ordinary sense, according to Larsson, but he was a fearless, skilled negotiator and organizer. He was, moreover, a good actor – a talent that served him well during his clashes with the Nazis.
He would also show two different personalities. The first was the calm, humorous, intellectual, warm person that his co-workers could see. The second was Raoul Wallenberg in confrontation with the Nazis: he was transformed into an aggressive person who would shout at them or threaten them on one occasion, flatter or bribe them on another, as the circumstances required.
They were impressed by him and usually gave in to his demands. One reason, of course, was his Swedish diplomatic status, which the Germans were loath to violate. On the other hand, status without enormous bravery would have accomplished nothing.
Larrson relates: “Inevitably Raoul was forced to play for increasingly high stakes in a situation where Budapest was becoming more and more a battlefield. The bombs were raining down, and Soviet troops were closing in on the suburbs. The last time I saw Raoul Wallenberg on January 10 1945, I urged him to seek shelter, especially as the Arrow Cross – the Hungarian Nazis – were searching for him in particular.”
His reply was typical: “To me there’s no other choice. I’ve accepted this assignment and I could never return to Stockholm without the knowledge that I’d done everything in human power to save as many Jews as possible.”
Wallenberg started sleeping in a different house each night to guard against being captured or killed by Arrow Cross Party members or by Adolf Eichmann’s men.
While the Russians, Americans, and the English were bombarding the city, chaos and looting reigned. The Jews were confined to two ghettoes in Pest. Many government functionaries and diplomats fled. Wallenberg continued fighting alongside the Red Cross, looking for allies or bribing the police.
Toward the very end of the war, when conditions were totally desperate, Wallenberg issued a simplified version of his Schutzpass, a mimeographed black and white page that bore only his signature. In the prevailing chaos, even this worked.
Immediately after its installation, a new Hungarian Nazi government announced that all Schutzpasses were invalid. But Wallenberg managed to make the acquaintance of Baroness Elizabeth “Liesel” Kemény. She was the wife of the foreign minister, and with her assistance Wallenberg managed to have his protective passports reinstated!
Victorious Russian troops enter Budapest
On January 13, 1945, the advancing Soviet troops saw a man standing and waiting for them alone outside a building with a large Swedish flag above its door. Raoul Wallenberg told an amazed Soviet sergeant in fluent Russian that he was the Swedish chargé d’ affairs for the portion of Hungary liberated by the Soviets. Wallenberg received permission to visit Soviet military headquarters in Debrecen, east of Budapest to explain his humanitarian strategies. On his way out of the capital on January 17, Wallenberg – with a Soviet escort, stopped at the “Swedish houses” where he said goodbye to his friends.
All together 120,000 Jews had survived the “Final Solution”: the only substantial Jewish community left in Europe. Wallenberg was the only diplomat who had remained in Pest. Now his purpose was to propose a reconstruction plan to the Soviets. With that end in mind he took his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, and some Soviet guards to Debrecen, where a provisional government had been established. He wanted to reach the Russian Commander Malinovsky. Somewhere on that route, their supposed “guards” handed them over to the KGB (then NKVD) and put them under “military protection.” They were never seen again.
The Russians clearly did not have the same attitude toward Jews and were probably incapable of understanding or believing a person who had devoted all his energies to saving them. They probably thought he was a CIA agent and was jailed in Lyublyanka prison, the KGB headquarters in Moscow.
For years, many nations demanded to know what happened to Raoul Wallenberg. The Soviets have always insisted he died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947 (at the age of 35!) in Lyublyanka. Nevertheless, as foreign prisoners were released after the war from KGB prisons, many eye-witnesses told Swedish authorities they had personally met him and he was definitely alive.
According to Sweden’s ambassador, Per Anger, stationed in Budapest during World War II and Wallenberg’s friend and colleague, Wallenberg must be given credit for having saved about 100,000 Jews.
What one man can do
Challenging the entire machinery of Germany and its Hungarian allies, employing his imagination as an offensive weapon, Wallenberg resolved to do the impossible. With the help of people, some of them diplomats of good will, Wallenberg demonstrated that human courage has no limits. Through a process of persuasion, threats and an unmatched dose of diplomatic creativity, this young 32-year-old Swede managed to save the lives of multiplied tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. For all those whom he saved, his heroism was crowned by tragedy.
In 1981, U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, himself one of those saved by Wallenberg, sponsored a bill making Wallenberg an Honorary Citizen of the United States. In 1985 Wallenberg was made the first Honorary Citizen in Canada, and January 17th the date he disappeared, declared “Raoul Wallenberg Day” as a national holiday.
In 1986, he was made an Honorary Citizen of Israel. On Raoul Wallenberg Street in Tel Aviv there is a statute identical to the one erected in Hungary where his image continues to inspire generations of Jews and Gentiles that “one man can make a difference.”
On Raoul Wallenberg’s 100th birthday anniversary, July 26, 2012, he was awarded a Congressional Gold medal by the United States Congress “in recognition of his achievements and heroic actions during the Holocaust.”
He is a man who represents what Yeshua the Messiah described as the greatest love of all – that a man would give his life for his friends.
The International Herald Tribune reported on March 4, 2013 that the enormity of the Nazi machine is only now being fully revealed. Thirteen years ago researchers of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum began the grim task of documenting all the ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe. The results have shocked even scholars steeped in the history of the Holocaust. Instead of the some 7,000 they thought existed, so far they have catalogued 42,500 sites. Think of the great majority of European people who claim they knew nothing about the Nazi’s operations to eradicate the Jewish race.
Testimonies of others
Andrew Nagy who later became a renown University of Michigan professor, was then fourteen years old and stayed in a Swedish safe house. He will always remember Christmas Eve 1944, when the residents of a safe house nearby, provided by another nation, were rousted from their beds, marched to the Danube River, and shot by the Nazis. Jews were frequently tied together three in a row on the bank of the Danube. The middle person was shot sending all three into the freezing water to drown. When Wallenberg heard that Hungarian Nazis were shooting women and children in this manner, he asked his staff who could swim. A woman from Wallenberg’s office confirmed the event: “We went – it was a cold night – and jumped into the Danube. The water was icy cold.” Wallenberg and his staff saved fifty or sixty people.
~ Wallenberg staff member
“One day in November 1944, I drove Wallenberg to a train station where a trainload of Jews was about to leave for Auschwitz. Wallenberg forced his way past the SS officers. Then he climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing down protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down. Then the Arrow Cross men (Hungarian Nazis) began shooting and shouting at him to get down. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them. After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to a caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colors. The Germans and Arrow Cross soldiers were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it!”
~ Sandor Ardai, Personal Driver
“I was Wallenberg’s errand boy. As I spoke German as well as Hungarian I could pass through barriers and therefore was well equipped to be a messenger.” Moser tells of the day Wallenberg learned of 800 Jewish labor service men who were being marched to Mauthausen . “I drove with Wallenberg to the march. Wallenberg asked that those with Swedish passports raise their hands. On his order, I ran between the ranks and told the men to raise their hands, whether they had a passport or not. He then claimed custody of all who had raised their hands and such was his bearing that none of the Hungarian guards opposed him. The extraordinary thing was the absolutely convincing power of his behavior.”
~ Joni Moser, Staff Member
“From a distance of a few feet I overheard their mixed Hungarian/German talk, that this young fellow (Raoul Wallenberg whom I recognized years later from photos) insisted that those ‘elderly’ (over 40) women should be allowed to be put in the ‘ghetto column.’ My Mother was 39 only at that time and she looked like 25. I ran to Wallenberg and to the high-ranking police officer and begged them for help. The guards asked for my mother’s paper but Wallenberg interrupted them: ‘I know the lady. She was our guest in our house in Sweden and she’s over 40.’ My Mother was put into the ghetto-column. Another lady (a family friend) remained in the death-march column and told us later that she was one of the 10-12 survivors of hundreds of women, after the march ended in Buchenwald concentration camp.”
~ George Boros, survivor
On the evening of the dinner, Wallenberg had gotten caught up in some business and forgot. He arrived just as Eichmann and Krumey got out of their car. He had no food to serve and had given his manservant the night off. Wallenberg quickly phoned Berg and Carlsson who lived nearby in a house rented from a nobleman who had left the city. They had access to his immaculate dinnerware as well as his servants. As Berg recalls: “There was no panic in my house…. was fully equipped……Raoul arrived with his Germans…. Thanks to our excellent cook the dinner was a success.”
After dinner, the two Germans and three Swedes moved into the living room in which they engaged in political discussion. Berg describes the encounter: “Wallenberg, who on this occasion had no special wish to negotiate with Eichmann, started a discussion about Nazism and the likely outcome of the war. Fearlessly and brilliantly he picked Nazi doctrine apart, piece by piece, and foretold the total defeat of its adherents.
“I think his intention was not so much to put his own views forward as to pass on a warning to Eichmann that he would do well to stop the deportation and extermination of the Hungarian Jews. Eichmann was taken aback by Wallenberg’s bold attack on him and the Fuhrer.
After pitching weak propaganda phrases, he finally said: “‘I admit that you are right, Herr Wallenberg. I have never believed in Nazism, as such, but it has given me power and wealth. I know that this pleasant life of mine will soon be over. My planes will no more bring me women and wine from Paris, or delicacies from the Orient. My horses, my dogs, my luxurious quarters here in Budapest will soon be taken over by the Russians and I myself, as an SS officer will be shot on the spot. For me there will be no escape, but if I obey my orders from Berlin and exercise my power harshly enough I may prolong my respite for some time here in Budapest.
“I warn you therefore, Herr Legationssekretar, that I will do my best to stop you, and your Swedish diplomatic passport will not help you if I find it necessary to have you removed. Accidents do happen, even to a neutral diplomat.” With that, Eichmann bid Wallenberg a polite farewell. Shortly after the night of their dinner, a heavy truck rammed Wallenberg’s car and sped away. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Eichmann was apparently responsible.”
~ Lars Berg and Gote Carlsson, workers with Raoul at the Swedish legation.