originally published December 4, 2013
After trudging through a kilograph of hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism yesterday, my soul needs a purge, a forceful injection of positivity. While there is undoubtedly a trough of sludge and sentient filth mucking up the floor in the stable of human-kind, more attention should be given to the luminous, the upstanding, the inspirational. Specifically, to the brooms that sweep that sludge and filth back into the shadows where they belong.
One of the great brooms of World War II stepped out of Sweden, where he abandoned his dreams of architecture and opted instead to build a better future for a few thousand persecuted souls. This war was so chock-full of atrocity and horror, it’s only natural that a handful of extraordinary beacons to our potential nobility would step up.
Raoul Wallenberg didn’t have to slap his life and future onto the roulette table. He had privilege, an education, plenty of connections around the globe and every reason in the world not to be a hero. This is what makes him awesome.
Born in Sweden into a wealthy family, Raoul scooted over to the University of Michigan to study architecture in 1931. During his down-time, he travelled around the country in true hobo-chic fashion: hitchhiking, and experiencing the gritty realities of the nation from its underside. Unfortunately, his schooling didn’t qualify him to be an architect back in Sweden – I don’t know, maybe he was bad at coming up with cute IKEA-like names for the buildings he’d draw. Raoul landed a gig instead with his uncle/godfather Jacob Wallenberg at his import/export company.
Kalman Lauer, the owner of the company, was experiencing increasing difficulty in travelling in and out of Hungary, due to his Jewishness and the nation’s ludicrous choice to adopt Germany’s Nuremberg Race Laws, just to stay on ol’ Adolph’s good side. Raoul became the company’s go-to guy in Hungary, also making several trips to Germany and Occupied France.
Following the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad in 1944, in which Axis and Hungarian powers took a whomping hit from Allied Forces, Hungary began secret peace talks with England and the United States. The Germans found out. Something had to be done.
Edmund Veesenmayer was sent over to oust Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy and install a Nazi puppet government. This did not bode well for Hungarian Jews. Over 12,000 were sent per day from Hungary to the various concentration camps in Poland. Between May and July, it’s estimated over 400,000 Jews were yanked from the nation, leaving around 230,000 behind.
While the rest of the world wasn’t quite up to speed on the extent of Hitler’s Final Solution plan, it was becoming common knowledge that Jews under the Third Reich weren’t exactly receiving pristine treatment. The Allies were hatching a plan, and that plan involved recruiting Raoul Wallenberg. Along with fellow Swedish diplomat Per Anger, Wallenberg was dispatched to Budapest.
Raoul’s plan was to hand out ‘protective passports’ to every Jew he could find in Budapest. They weren’t technically legal in any sense of the word, but they identified the bearer as a Swedish subject awaiting repatriation. German authorities had agreed to treat the people holding these passports as Swedish citizens, which meant they didn’t have to wear yellow stars or be subjected to the grim realities of Hitler’s state-sanctioned racism. The Germans had no idea these passports were all phonies, of course.
Raoul also rented 32 buildings around the city, declaring them to be extraterritorial – property of Sweden, just like an embassy. He hung signs with bogus titles like ‘Swedish Library’, ‘Swedish Research Institute’ or ‘International House Of Swedish Pancakes’, and proceeded to stash almost 10,000 people inside their walls. Raoul Wallenberg was downright fearless.
One day he came upon a train that was packed with Jews who had been designated for export to Auschwitz. Raoul hopped out of his car and climbed onto the roof of the train, handing passports through the doors that had not yet been sealed. Soldiers from the Arrow Cross Party – the Hungarian national socialists who had given themselves up to be Hitler’s bitches during the war – yelled at him to get off the damn train, even fired shots over his head. Raoul wasn’t even fazed. He kept handing out the passports until he had none left, then hopped down and announced that everyone on that train with a passport was a protected Swede, and they were to be allowed to disembark and head over to the awaiting diplomatic vehicles.
The Arrow Cross troops were so dumbfounded they let it happen – dozens more souls were saved.
In October of 1944, the Soviet forces surrounded Budapest and demanded that the puppet government surrender. That wasn’t happening, and so began a bloody battle for the city. Raoul was called to Soviet General Rodion Malinovsky’s headquarters in Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city. He was to answer questions regarding his involvement in espionage for the American forces. That was the last time anyone conclusively saw Raoul Wallenberg alive as a free man.
The truth didn’t come out until years later, but Raoul was most certainly working for the Office of Strategic Services, the pre-CIA espionage agency that had helped put together the Budapest mission. Whatever information the Russians had hoped to extract from Raoul, I’d like to think they never got it. The Soviets announced his death in March of 1945, though ten years later a report emerged that placed the date of his death in July, 1947.
That date may be inaccurate also. German prisoner Theodor von Dufving claimed he met Raoul in a Kirov transit camp in 1949. Efim Moshinsky swore he saw Raoul on the Siberian hell-hole of Wrangel Island in 1962. Two independent witnesses believe they saw the man in a Russian prison in November of 1987. His half-brother has made fifty trips to the Soviet Union in search of closure, but the true fate of Raoul Wallenberg may never be known.
What we do know is that there are countless thousands of people alive today because Raoul didn’t choose to sit on the sidelines and let someone else take care of the war. Noted biochemist Lars Ernster and 15-year California Congressman Tom Lantos were among those Raoul saved, along with as many as 100,000 others. Posthumously (we think), Raoul has been made an honorary citizen of Canada, the United States, Hungary, Australia and Israel, and over a dozen schools worldwide have been named in his honor.
Yes, it took an atrocity of historic proportions to create this hero, but dammit he was created. Not fuelled by hate or nationalism or propaganda, this guy proves that people can still opt to do the right thing. I am truly fortunate to have found the story of his life.
And after yesterday, more than a little bit relieved.