Grapevine: The centenary of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth

The name of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is inextricably bound with both the fate and the future of the Jewish people.

By
February 7, 2012 22:12
IRWIN COTLER addressing ‘Jerusalem Post’ editors

IRWIN COTLER addressing ‘Jerusalem Post’ editors 390. (photo credit: Steve Linde)

■ OF ALL the Righteous among the Nations, the name of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is inextricably bound with both the fate and the future of the Jewish people. Wallenberg, who was stationed in Budapest during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, enlisted the help of fellow diplomats from other countries in issuing thousands of protective passports that enabled Jews to travel to relative safety.

He also provided safehouses for them and sheltered them in buildings that were diplomatically designated as Swedish territory.

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Detained by the Soviet authorities during the Red Army’s January 1945 siege of Budapest, Wallenberg disappeared and for decades no one in the West knew what had happened to him.

There were unconfirmed reports that he had died in Lubyanka prison in 1947. There were further unconfirmed reports by former prisoners of the Soviet authorities, who claimed to have shared a cell with someone who they said was Wallenberg. After a 10-year investigation by a top-level Swedish team, the Swedes published an announcement in 1999 stating that no evidence had been found that Wallenberg had died in 1947 and that it was possible that he might still be alive.

However, a Russian team that had worked in tandem with the Swedish team insisted that Wallenberg was dead, and that he had been executed on charges of spying for Germany, and that most of the documents relating to the case had been destroyed.

Even if Wallenberg had been alive in 1999, it is hardly likely that he would be alive today.

Whether or not Wallenberg survived the war, it is unlikely he is alive today. But 2012 is an important year for remembering Wallenberg because it is the 100th anniversary year of his birth.

Even though he was born on August 4, 1912, Ben- Gurion University in conjunction with the Wallenberg Association Beersheba, REEM, the Central Council for Volunteer Organizations and the Municipality of Beersheba chose to celebrate his centenary on Monday, February 6 in the Minkoff Senate Hall. There was a Wallenberg memorial exhibit on display.

The late afternoon event was held in the presence of Swedish Ambassador Elinor Hammarskjold, Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich and head of Yad Vashem’s Department of Righteous among the Nations Irena Steinfeldt. The keynote speaker was internationally acclaimed Canadian human rights activist, Member of Parliament and former justice minister Irwin Cotler, who spoke on Wallenberg’s legacy.

Cotler told Jerusalem Post editors on Sunday that the Swedish government had organized a set of commemorative activities this year to mark the centenary of Wallenberg’s birth, involving countries of which Wallenberg had honorary citizenship – including Israel, the US and Canada.

“The mystery of the fate and whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg remains unknown,” he said.

“I chaired an international commission on the fate and whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg. In 1990, we tendered our [1,200- page] report to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was visiting Canada at the time, and frankly what was true then is true now.

“The conclusion was that the evidence is incontrovertible that Wallenberg did not die in 1947 as the Soviets claimed he did.

Two, the evidence is compelling that Wallenberg was alive in the Fifties and Sixties, and credible that he was alive in the Seventies and Eighties. Three, that the burden of proof remained on the Soviets to engage or rebut this evidence, and as I said then, and is true now, they have never rebutted that evidence. And four, as a matter of fact and law, Wallenberg remains a disappeared person. We simply don’t know what happened to him. Finally, the smoking gun is with the KGB; they know what in fact happened and won’t release any evidence.

“Why I’m telling you all this is because it’s no longer historical.

Three weeks ago, Susanne Berger, a very good researcher who was on our commission, reported that at the time we were involved in our inquiry, a KGB person now disclosed that he was ordered then – 20 years ago – not to give us any information.”

■ OF COURSE, it is difficult to think of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust years without thinking of Rudolf (Reszo) Kasztner, the Hungarian Jewish lawyer who bargained with Adolph Eichmann for the safe passage to Switzerland of 1684 Jews whose lives he ultimately saved. No one even knows how many more Jews escaped the gas chambers as a result of Kasztner’s negotiations.

Kasztner, who was the grandfather of radio and television personality Merav Michaeli, was regarded by some as a hero but reviled by others as a traitor because so many of the Jews he saved were members of his own family, which was seen as a betrayal of other Jews.

Kasztner was a member of a Jewish Aid and Rescue organization that helped Jews escape from Hungary in the early months of the Nazi invasion. But when the Nazis began sending thousands of Jews to Auschwitz on a daily basis, he felt that he had to do something extraordinary and, taking his courage in his hands, began to negotiate with Eichmann, offering money, gold and diamonds in exchange for Jewish lives.

After the war Kasztner relocated to Israel where, in 1952, he became spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Trade. In 1953, Malchiel Grunwald, an amateur writer, published a pamphlet accusing Kasztner of having collaborated with the Nazis.

This was based not only Kasztner’s negotiations with Eichmann, but also on the fact that after the war he gave character references to several SS officers, enabling them to temporarily avoid prosecution for war crimes. The government sued Grunwald on Kastner’s behalf but Judge Benjamin Halevi was inclined to believe that Kasztner had sold his soul to the devil. In the aftermath, Kasztner resigned from the ministry and became a recluse. His wife went into a deep depression and his daughter suffered not only emotionally from the barbs of her schoolmates but also the physical pain of having stones thrown at her.

In March 1957, Kasztner was shot outside his home in Tel Aviv by Ze’ev Eckstein, who had been a member of Lehi before the establishment of the state. Kasztner, who died of his wounds 12 days later was exonerated by the Supreme Court the next year.

Film director Gaylen Ross was fascinated by the a story and decided to make it into a documentary, which she called Killing Kasztner. She spent eight years researching and filming, interviewing survivors, historians, journalists and Kasztner’s relatives.

What most people held against him was not so much the fact that he negotiated with the enemy but that he failed to warn those in danger of being deported to Auschwitz of what awaited them there. The film will be screened on Friday morning, February 17, in the auditorium of the Cohen-Porter building on the Tel Aviv University campus.

Proceeds from ticket sales will be dedicated to the scholarship fund of the English Speaking Friends of TAU. Kasztner’s daughter Zsuzsi, who continues to defend his reputation, will address the audience prior to the screening.

■ LONGTIME SUPPORTER of the Hebrew University Daniel Jacobson has established a NIS 1 million scholarship fund for outstanding students of Hebrew literature who do not have the funds to pay for their university tuition. A Tel Aviv based lawyer, Jacobson has been involved with the Hebrew University for decades and is both an honorary fellow of the university and a member of its board of governors.

At the ceremony at which the scholarship fund was announced, Jacobson said that Hebrew literature has always been dear to his heart and that he hopes the scholarship fund will encourage more people to feel about it as he does.

An expert in international law and a philanthropist whose generosity is not limited to the Hebrew University alone, Jacobson is the grandson of Jacob Zalman Levontin, who was one of the founders of Rishon Lezion and who has a street in Tel Aviv named after him. Levontin also established the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which later became Bank Leumi.

■ IT'S BEEN a couple of years now since singer and actress Ninet Tayeb shaved her head for a television commercial for Pelephone.

Although her hair is long now, the styling is still partially crew cut. Her newest venture as far as product presentation is as the presenter for Delta, one of Israel’s leading underwear manufacturers, and rumor has it that she will collect a very tidy sum of money. Delta CEO Tzvika Schwimmer said that he was very pleased to have Ninet on board because she is a one-of-akind personality who radiates self confidence. The creative side of the Delta advertising campaign is being handled by the Zarmon Goldman advertising and public relations company, which in the past has been known for raunchy presentations that have caused many a raised eyebrow.

■ SHORT-STORY writers who had hoped to have one or more of their works in the upcoming anthology published by Ang-Lit Press had better put on their creative caps if they have not yet written their submissions. This fourth anthology in the Ang-Lit series that reflects life in Israel from a broad range of perspectives is tentatively titled Israel Short Love Stories, although the stories do not necessarily have to focus on romance. The plan is for the book to be published at the beginning of 2013, in good time for the 65th anniversary of the state in 2014. As was the case with the previous three anthologies, this one will be available at Israeli book stores and on Amazon. There will also be a Kindle version. Anglo-Lit CEO Shelly Goldman says that she is constantly being approached by people who have written a novel, but she is only interested in publishing short stories. The cut-off date for submissions is April 30.

Steve Linde contributed to this report.

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