My uncle Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, was abducted by the Russians on January 17, 1945 and immediately incarcerated in a KGB jail in Moscow. Probably there was not one day that our family did not think of him since then and our family did all we could to bring him home. The seventieth anniversary of his separation from us leads me to reflect and some of this I would like to share.
Because of his exceptional deeds in Hungary Raoul is a historical figure and history is collective memory. Yad Vashem has a slogan: “Remembering the Past – Shaping the Future”. Also for me history is understanding the essence of past events in order to be able to learn for the future. Specifically, in the case of Raoul, I ask how do we remember a great hero? Is it only to “honor” or also the motivation for positive action?
During the past decades my uncle was often honored at high level state ceremonies and became honorary citizen of various countries. Streets, monuments and schools have been named after him, stamps have been issued by various countries and he is the best known rescuer of Jews. Many who remember him are descendents of those he rescued and thus received a gift of life. Some also remember him as a symbol of Communist terror, which swallowed tens of millions of lives.
For me there are two main questions: “What happened to Raoul Wallenberg after he fell into the hands of the Russians?” and “What can we learn from him and how can we be inspired to carry on his work and keep his spirit alive?” More information is required about his fate and why he was not rescued from the Russians. We need to better understand all the complex forces of history in the post-war period.
Raoul was born into a privileged family: the wealthy and very powerful Swedish banking and industrial Wallenbergs. His father, Raoul Oscar Wallenberg, died before he was born and his maternal grandfather passed away few months after his birth. In his formative years he was brought up by two grieving widows, his mother and grandmother, both dressed in black. Some feel like victims under such circumstances, but Raoul learned compassion to the suffering of others.
Later his mother Maj, my grandmother, married Fredrik von Dardel, an aristocrat and a noble man. Subsequently Raoul’s siblings were born: my father Guy and aunt Nina.
Instead of becoming a banker in the Wallenberg enterprise Raoul selected architecture for his university studies, because of his imagination, pragmatism and passion for creating harmony. Despite the Great Depression he chose to study at the University of Michigan in America. He witnessed many personal tragedies and also perceived the coming of economic recovery. During a vacation he worked at a world’s fair and experienced America by hitchhiking all the way to Mexico. He appreciated the country’s vastness and beauty. He saw that America can envision and accomplish great things, almost without limits and often in totally unconventional ways. This made a great impression on Raoul and fundamentally influenced his thinking.
He enjoyed his studies, nature, travel, meeting girls, interesting discussions, reading, going to movies, dinners and many of the nice things life has to offer. Despite his family background he was modest and loved to be helpful to people.
Following the wish of his banking family on his way back to Sweden he worked for a short time in various countries in order to get banking experience. One of his places of work was a bank in Haifa where he met many Jews who recently escaped from Nazi Germany. That may well be one of the reasons why he felt so much compassion for the abandoned Jews of Europe.
The global economic crisis had already reached Sweden when he returned to Stockholm. The wealthy Wallenberg family did not seem to help him find work. Raoul found a job with a Hungarian Jew, Kalman Lauer, in Stockholm. It was an import-export company dealing with Hungarian food items.
He was a creative person in the best sense of that word, both in architecture and in other areas of life. That took courage, because a truly creative person is often scorned for being different. Raoul was not an eccentric or a one dimensional person, yet he was by no means a conformist. He was in many ways a rugged individual. He skillfully combined vision and creativity with pragmatism. He was very solution oriented. For example he designed a floating swimming pool by the royal castle for a Stockholm architectural competition.
During much of World War II Raoul lived in neutral Sweden is peaceful Stockholm. Most of his friends were leading normal lives while he was concerned about the war. He kept up with events and even had a map on which he noted the main battles and the fate of war. He was quite bright, but even more important he had a sensitive and caring heart. When he heard about the concentration camps he believed it was happening and tried to convince his friends that this horror was a reality in modern Europe.
In January 1944 President Roosevelt set up the American War Refugee Board. This happened mainly due to activism by the Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson) led rescue group in America and also help of Jewish Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgethau Jr. who pressured Roosevelt. With support of numerous Senators, Congressmen and even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt the “Bergson Group” persistently lobbied the Roosevelt administration to help the Jews of Europe.
One day Raoul was asked by a Stockholm representative of the American War Refugee Board if he would be willing to help rescue Jews in Budapest. He did not speak Hungarian, had never lived there and certainly had absolutely no experience with such important work. He was fully aware of the danger of his mission. He wanted a life filled with deep meaning – one that is worth living. Ultimately he found that in Budapest, where he was totally energized by the immense meaning of his rescue work. He was given a diplomatic passport and an office at the Swedish embassy in Budapest. Most important, the Swedish King agreed that Raoul would be independent and not subject to the diplomatic rules of the Swedish Foreign Ministry. This was critical to his mission’s success. Raoul left for Budapest in a hurry and with great passion and arrived on July 9, 1944. He was a pragmatist, yet like many idealists and youthful people didn’t know the concept of impossible. This helped him face almost insurmountable odds.
His mission to Budapest became possible for many reasons. After the total defeat of the German army at Stalingrad in early February 1943 it became clear that the tables have been turned on the Germans. In June 1944 George Mantello, a Hungarian Jew and El Salvador diplomat in Switzerland, received with considerable delay the famous Auschwitz Report from Moshe Krausz in Budapest. He immediately publicized the horrors of the Holocaust in great detail. This triggered the subsequent Swiss people’s unparalleled grassroots protests and press campaign with over 400 glaring headlines about Europe’s barbarism against its Jewish citizens. This led to Roosevelt, Churchill and others threatening Hungary’s Fascist leader Miklos Horthy with post-war retribution. Horthy understood that the war was lost and was forced to stop the transports to Auschwitz, which until then took about 12,000 Jews to their tragic fate each day.
Raoul Wallenberg and his Jewish management team in Budapest
In Budapest Raoul worked with great excitement. He was tireless and frequently thought of new approaches to save people. He had excellent organizational skills. He built a fairly large group of hundreds of people, mostly Jews, organized as a company with departments and management. There were departments handling financial matters, obtaining storing and distributing food, a clinic and orphanage as well as a human resource group. His personality attracted talented and dedicated people to work with him mainly because he offered meaning and hope. He helped Jews to help other Jews. Raoul gave back to Jews dignity, the willingness to live, confidence in themselves and humanity. He inspired people and as a result some were able to save themselves.
A woman whom I met told me that she was Raoul’s secretary in Budapest. She was was then an 18 year old blue eyed Jewish girl. He sent her together with a Jewish man to various places. They were fearless and didn’t wear a yellow star. They had with them a list of names of Jews who were supposedly under Swedish protection and were able to save many. Raoul also sent his staff to the railway station in order to help him rescue Jews. At least once he would appear with a bag full of Swedish protection papers, threw them to the people who could then save themselves. Many Jews were also saved by forged Swedish protection papers.
During the winter and earlier murderous arrow cross bands terrorized and murdered many people. Winter 1944 was especially cold and the Danube froze over. This and the bombing and shelling of Budapest by the allies made things even more difficult.
Raoul spoke German fluently and with a lot of authority when necessary, which the Germans respected. He didn’t fight the Germans, in fact he understood them. He knew that many were afraid of being left behind on the battlefield, some were concerned about post-war retribution and many were worried about their families. This made it easier for him to negotiate about the rescue of Jews.
Raoul was able to carry on his rescue work because of his daring, passion and search for real meaning to life. It helped that people respected and liked him a lot. He said that his secret weapon was his imagination. Despite his enormous responsibility he made sure to set aside a little time to maintain some balance in his life and did many sketches for his peace of mind. One of his important contributions was that he brought kindness and humanity where there was so much inhumanity.
There was a spirit of friendship and collaboration between Raoul and some other diplomats in Budapest, including Carl Lutz, Giorgio Perlasca, Monsignor Angelo Rotta, Friedrich Born and Ángel Sanz-Briz. They inspired each other and thus a few exceptional people saved large numbers of Jews, which was unprecedented in Europe.
One of the first actions of the Russian forces in Budapest was to abduct my uncle and his Jewish driver Vilmos Langfelder on January 17, 1945 and took them to the Lubyanka KGB prison in Moscow. Sweden conveniently considered him dead and the Americans, who convinced him to go to Budapest, did not help him. My family was left alone to try to bring Raoul back home.
The world started to be interested in his exceptional deeds about 30 years after his abduction, but did not seem to care about his fate. It took over twenty additional years for Sweden to acknowledge his heroism and apologize for being apathetic about his fate.
After my grandparents’ death my father took on the task of searching for his older brother. He was a nuclear scientist and traveled to Russia over fifty times to try to find Raoul. His intense research brought him in contact with talented and dedicated people who wanted to help. They included Andrei Sakharov, Russian nuclear physicist, human rights activist dissident as well as noted human rights lawyer and one time Canadian Attorney General and Minister of Justice: Professor Irwin Cotler. My father approached all relevant governments and institutions, but unfortunately lacked support by the concerned parties.
Raoul rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary. Three generations were born since then and large numbers owe their life to him. Raoul’s energy, compassion, passion, caring for others made a difference. The War Refugee Board provided considerable sums, which was an important tool. Using it he was able to buy buildings for safe houses and office space, to purchase food and pay for other expenses of the rescue operation. His diplomatic status and independence of normal Swedish diplomatic rules and lack of bureaucratic interference were certainly very important.
We are very proud to be Raoul’s family and regret that the world did not try to find out what was his tragic and undeserved fate in Russia. In enlightened countries generals don’t leave soldiers on the battlefield, yet if humanity truly cared about heroes then Raoul would not have been abandoned. My sister Marie and I greatly respect that our father never abandoned his brother and dedicated his life to bring him home.
As you read this article perhaps you can pause for a while and ask what you understand about Raoul and how would you put in practice his passion of love and caring for people’s life. The 70th anniversary of my uncle’s abduction is an opportunity to reflect and be inspired. Perhaps that is the best way you the reader can honor my dear uncle. My sister Marie proposes to light a candle on January 17 to sustain Raoul’s light.
Louise von Dardel and Marie Dupuy reside in Switzerland.
Marie’s Web site is: www..eu
This article appears in the January 16, 2015 weekend Magazine of The Jerusalem Post