Don Quixote is alive and well, and living in Ra’anana. If ever there was a Man with a Mission, it is Max Grunberg, an immigrant from Holland who has dedicated much of his life to perpetuating the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, and searching for the true circumstances of his fate.
When Wallenberg arrived in Hungary in July 1944 as first secretary of the Swedish Diplomatic Mission in Budapest, time was running out for the Jews there. The Germans had already sent 400,000 men, women and children to their deaths. Just 200,000 remained, and Adolf Eichmann was preparing a plan to wipe them out within a 24-hour period.
Only a last-second appeal by King Gustav V of Sweden halted the march of death, and trains carrying Jews to the death camps were stopped at the border and sent back to Budapest. Sensing the opportunity to save a Jewish community, the Swedish Legation sent Wallenberg into the breach.
Scion of a wealthy Swedish banking family, Wallenberg was charged by the Allies’ War Relations Board and the World Jewish Congress with the task of rescuing the surviving Jews of Hungary. Given wide-ranging powers by the Swedish government, he used every type of device – diplomatic and otherwise – to save Jews.
He set up safe houses flying the Swedish flag, proclaiming them “mission houses,” and cramming them with desperate Jews.
He designed special Schutz-Passe, or “Wallenberg passports,” colorful, official-looking documents that meant freedom for thousands of people. He hired hundreds of Jews for his staff, granting them the diplomatic immunity that would put them out of the reach of Nazi selections.
In October 1944, when newly appointed Hungarian head of state Ferenc Szalasi gave Eichmann free rein to accelerate the Final Solution, Wallenberg increased his already- feverish efforts to rescue Jews. Working around the clock, his staff mimeographed diplomatic “passes,” each signed by Wallenberg. Huge bribes went to local officials to allow the safe houses to remain open. Time was short.
A month later, Eichmann began his brutal death marches, forcing thousands of Jews to travel the 200 kilometers between Budapest and the Hungarian border on foot. As people dropped like flies along the road, Wallenberg and his staff stayed with the marchers, dispensing food and medicine, pulling the weaker ones out of line, stuffing protective passports into their hands. When Eichmann again began shipping Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz by the trainload, Wallenberg – at great risk to his own life – would climb into the boxcars and throw bundles of protective papers to the passengers. He would then jump down and audaciously demand that those with Swedish “protection” be allowed off the trains, to return to the city with him.
As the Russians closed in on Budapest in January 1945, Wallenberg learned that Eichmann was about to massacre all the Jews still left in the city’s ghetto. The only one who could prevent this was Gen. August Schmidthuber, commander of German troops in Hungary. Wallenberg sent Schmidthuber a diplomatic note promising – in rather undiplomatic language – that if the Jews were liquidated, he would see the general hanged as a war criminal. Realizing the Nazi cause was lost, Schmidthuber called off the massacre.
On January 15, 1945, Russian forces captured Budapest; two days later, Wallenberg and his driver were taken by Soviet Red Army troops. They were never heard from again. At first, the Soviets denied any knowledge of Wallenberg’s whereabouts.
Then, in 1957, they announced that he had died of a heart attack in a Moscow prison 10 years earlier.
Yet numerous reports from dozens of sources indicated that Wallenberg was still alive well into the 1970s. That led many to hope that this “righteous gentile” who saved more than 100,000 Jews in less than one year – and has been named an honorary citizen of Israel, the US, Australia and Canada – was still alive.
A decade-long joint Russian-Swedish commission, charged with determining Wallenberg’s fate, proved inconclusive.
The Russians stuck to their story that he had died in 1947, while Sweden “agreed to disagree,” rejecting the Russian conclusion and refusing to declare Wallenberg dead.
An independent commission, led by law professor Irwin Cotler and including Elie Wiesel, Gideon Hausner and Wallenberg’s brother Guy von Dardel, affirmed that Wallenberg had not died in 1947, and had probably been alive into the 1980s.
And so, for decades, Grunberg has devoted himself to the Wallenberg cause. He has sent out hundreds of letters, knocked on countless doors and explored every avenue that might shed light on Raoul’s dark fate.
But the reaction to his pleas has been frustrating, to say the least. The Swedish government – though it has declared this coming Wednesday as Raoul Wallenberg Day – has shown little interest in aggressively pursuing the matter, refusing to activate Interpol’s “Yellow Notice” global search mechanism. The Swedish police, in response to Grunberg’s request, said it would move forward with an investigation only if new and relevant information was brought to its attention.
Israel, for its part, has also turned in a lackluster performance. Though designating Wallenberg our first honorary citizen, and naming numerous streets after him throughout the country, the government would not assign him the status of “missing in action,” while former president Shimon Peres rejected a petition to grant him the Israeli Medal of Distinction, our highest honor, because “he cannot appear in person to collect the award(!)” Previous Israeli leaders have been consistently reluctant to raise the Wallenberg issue with high-ranking Russian officials.
The US, which awarded Wallenberg a Congressional Gold Medal, has also shied away from pressing Russian President and former KGB director Vladimir Putin to open the Soviet archives. The UN has limited its involvement to issuing various platitudes about Wallenberg’s courage, but pressed no further, despite the fact that former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is married to Wallenberg’s niece, Nane.
The Wallenberg clan has agonized over the loss of their celebrated family member since the day he disappeared, bitterly disappointed, like Grunberg, that more has not been done to solve the case – particularly by Israel and the world Jewish community. It is a wound that remains open, and the failure to find closure is almost as painful as the crime itself. Indeed, Wallenberg’s parents were so distraught they committed suicide.
But, through it all, Grunberg remains resolute. He keeps probing, keeps pressing on. When asked what he would like to see done, he names his “wish list”: • A dedicated website, sponsored by all the major Jewish organizations – particularly the World Jewish Congress, which co-sponsored Wallenberg’s mission – dedicated to seeking out any and all leads or witnesses; • A questionnaire sent out by the Israeli government to anyone who immigrated here from the former Soviet Union, asking them what they know about Wallenberg; • The distribution by Yad Vashem of age-progressed facial images of what Wallenberg might look like today to all Holocaust institutions worldwide. While Wallenberg would have turned 102 this month, Max points out that a Righteous Among the Gentiles was recently honored at the age of 104; and • A dedicated segment in our schools’ Holocaust curriculum that pays homage to Wallenberg and his effort to save Jews.
Grunberg is particularly sensitive to the fact that his own people have not done enough on behalf of this non-Jewish hero who saved so many, and I believe this is what drives him so hard and makes him so passionate.
“Even if Raoul is no longer alive,” he says softly but sternly, “we are still obliged to search for the truth. His family, the people he rescued and the world at large have a right to know what happened to him.
And we have a sacred obligation never to desert him.”
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org.