Humanistic philosophy in action

Thousands of unsung heroes risked their lives every day on behalf of their fellow human beings.

By SUSANNE BERGER, VADIM BIRSTEIN
July 1, 2019 21:22
A World War Two memorial of mass killings on the banks of the Danube River is seen in Budapest, Febr

A World War Two memorial of mass killings on the banks of the Danube River is seen in Budapest, February 11, 2014. A main Jewish group in Hungary has recently voted to boycott official Holocaust commemorations this year unless they more clearly show the role of local citizens in the Nazi deportation. (photo credit: REUTERS/BERNADETT SZABO)

The 75th anniversary of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s humanitarian mission to wartime Budapest in July 1944, to protect Hungary’s remaining Jewish population from Nazi terror, gives rise to a wide range of reflections and emotions. The brutality and extent of the Hungarian Holocaust was simply staggering. Some 500,000 Jews were rounded up and murdered in just a few months following the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. The Allies essentially stood by, unwilling to intervene – their passivity a shameful failure that will forever mar the record of the victors.

There has been much debate in recent years about how to assess Wallenberg’s role and achievements during this horrific period in Hungarian history. How effective were his rescue efforts? How many people did he actually save? It is perhaps the wrong question to ask? Ultimately, Wallenberg’s enduring legacy rests far less in the number of people he rescued than in the humanitarian spirit he embodied and courage he displayed.

One could argue that Wallenberg’s mission was little more than a small ray of light in an otherwise disastrous failure to stem the tide of the Holocaust. His mission, backed by the US War Refugee Board and the Swedish government, was conceived late and haphazardly at best, with no organizational plan to speak of. Yet in the murderous hell that was Budapest in the second half of 1944, Wallenberg’s efforts managed to protect, house and feed many of the close to 200,000 Jews who were left in the city. In this work, he and his Swedish colleagues received crucial support from the Hungarian resistance and diplomatic representatives from the Vatican, Switzerland and other neutral countries. In addition, thousands of unsung heroes risked their lives every day on behalf of their fellow human beings.

These rescue efforts were made possible in part by the fact that by the summer of 1944, the Nazi leadership in Hungary realized the war was almost certainly lost and greatly feared the rapidly advancing Soviet Red Army. One must remember, however, how small this opening was and what extraordinary determination it took for Wallenberg and others to take advantage of it.

In the end, the number of people Raoul Wallenberg’s mission was able to aid directly – about 30,000 – was a relatively small percentage. The impact he made, however, was profound. Per Anger, Wallenberg’s diplomatic colleague, who was himself honored by Yad Vashem for his rescue work, once said what made his friend special is that he was “a true humanitarian.” What Wallenberg brought to Budapest was the idea of possibility, the hope that rescue was indeed attainable. He worked day and night, driving himself to exhaustion and ignoring threats to his own life. It was this relentless attitude, the will to take action and to sustain it, combined with a unique talent for organization and negotiation, which turned a small Swedish protective effort into an extensive rescue operation with safe houses and care offered to orphans and the sick.

Wallenberg’s extraordinary spirit – his almost reflexive determination to jump into the fray to help others – is the enduring legacy that has captured the world’s imagination. The Jewish community of Budapest certainly understood what they had witnessed. When Wallenberg disappeared in January 1945, after he was detained by Soviet military counterintelligence, there was an almost instantaneous emotional reaction from survivors who held a moving memorial service in his honor.


MIGUEL CERVANTES is credited with saying, “In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.” That approach defined Raoul Wallenberg the man as well as his mission. Wallenberg was soft-spoken but had a steely determination. He was daring, courageous and impatient. He chafed at bureaucratic restrictions. He was also impulsive, creative and empathetic. Wallenberg infuriated his opponents and also quite often his colleagues. He could be pragmatic, and yet at heart, he was an idealist. His mission was true humanistic philosophy in action. He led by example, making it clear that to counter horrendous crimes like genocide, every person is called upon to take a stand. And we all know how difficult this really is.

Activism all too frequently imposes a brutal price on those who dare to stand up and speak out. Unfortunately, Raoul Wallenberg himself was no exception. The man who managed to save so many people was shamefully abandoned, not only by his own country, but also by the US government, which had initiated and financed his mission – and sadly, also to a large extent by the international Jewish community after the war.

Wallenberg’s closest family, however, never gave up the fight to rescue him. For decades, his parents, Maj and Fredrik von Dardel, as well as Raoul’s siblings – his brother Guy von Dardel and his sister Nina Lagergren – were forced to wage an exhausting two-front war: trying to confront the Soviet authorities while also having to deal with the confounding lethargy of the Swedish government that did not want to provoke its powerful neighbor to the East; not even for a man who today is celebrated as one of Sweden’s most important citizens – representative of everything that is good and right about the country and its people.

Not surprisingly, many important questions about Wallenberg’s mission and his fate are still unanswered. Unfortunately, the Russian authorities have shown no indication that they are willing to abandon more than seven decades of blatant obstruction in the case. However, the Swedish government, too, appears to have no appetite for a full reckoning with the past. For still undetermined reasons, Swedish officials have done next to nothing to pressure the Russian State Security Service (FSB) to release key documentation that can almost certainly establish the full facts about Wallenberg’s disappearance. It is no longer a question of whether the truth is known, but rather why neither side seems to have the political will to reveal it.

Today, we are once again keenly aware that the line separating democratic societies from authoritarian regimes is very thin indeed. Remembrance enables us to learn from history, to avoid repeating the same mistakes. So does the search for historic truth – about the real causes of antisemitism and xenophobia, about mass repression and the Holocaust, and about the plight of ethnic minorities and political prisoners – all over the world. Seventy-five years after Raoul Wallenberg pointed the way with his spirited example, such personal commitment to stand up and defend the dignity, integrity and fundamental rights of every human being remains, for all of us, the true test of his legacy.

Susanne Berger is a historical researcher who served from 1995-2000 as an independent consultant to the Swedish-Russian Working Group that investigated the fate of Raoul Wallenberg in Russia. She is the founder and coordinator of the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative.

Dr. Vadim Birstein is a biologist and historian who was a member of the first International Commission on Raoul Wallenberg. He has published numerous articles on the Wallenberg case and is the author of The Perversion of Knowledge: The True History of Soviet Science (2001) and the award-winning SMERSH, Stalin’s Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII (2012).


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