My personal Wallenberg

We are indebted to Raoul Wallenberg because he saved the lives of Hungarian citizens. Thousands or tens of thousands of them.

September 21, 2012 01:07
4 minute read.
Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg 370. (photo credit: Reuters)


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I did not have the honor of knowing Raoul Wallenberg personally. I couldn’t.

We don’t know exactly when and how he died. But when I first heard his name, he was already a legend. I saw his figure as a statue, I knew his name as a street name, later on I saw him on a stamp. I saw a movie about him when I was in young secondary school. The images faded over time, but I understood, even as a young boy, that he saved a lot of people – like the Scarlet Pimpernel, another film hero I watched at that time.

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It took me some time to understand that Wallenberg was for real. That it happened in the beautiful cities of my country, on the streets of Budapest, on the banks of the blue Danube. Places where today we have cafés and shops were the ghetto, the safe-houses, the Glass House.

Budapest in 1944 was quite different from the metropolis of today. But I often ask myself: Was it really that different? We had basically the same streets, the same buildings, the same elements of this beautiful capital. When I try to imagine those times in my mind, it`s all black and white. Maybe because the documentaries of that era were black and white, I don’t know.

Wallenberg was a young and, in a way, inexperienced diplomat. Normally, young and inexperienced diplomats try to show some self-confidence while they are in reality deeply insecure due to their lack of professional and life experience.

There is a certain contradiction between having this desirable, decent profession and the fact that the professional wisdom necessary does not come automatically with the diplomatic passport.

Wallenberg was different. I don’t know the reason why. He was a genius, or an exceptionally gifted diplomat, perhaps.

What I know for sure is that in the Budapest of 1944, he chose the hardest way. He could have run away, escaping the obvious dangers to his personal safety; He could have shown the mission to be impossible. He could have covered for himself, pointing out other experienced diplomats. He could have found thousands reasons not to act as he did.

We don’t know whether had he any doubts or sleepless nights, whether he was scared sometimes. What we know for sure is that he was not insecure. He dealt with Nazis, Arrow Cross bandits, Gestapo agents with self-confidence, authority and calm.

This year, so many things have been said about him. One of the most oftmentioned scenes happened at the Józsefvárosi Railway station. He went to the station, where the Jews had already been gathered to be forced into cattle cars. After reading out the list of those who were to be saved, Wallenberg pretended to continue reading from his paper, calling out common Jewish names in order to save more human lives.

Can this courage, this highest moral standard be taught? How? Do we own it, is it ours to teach to future generations? Can we be proud of the world today? It is alright to be confronted with this question. One of the reasons d’etre of remembering is exactly this. Looking at the decisions Wallenberg had to face and trying to understand them, at least within ourselves.

The Hungarian government declared 2012 to be Wallenberg Year. We had beautiful, moving ceremonies and events. The commemoration began in the National Museum in Budapest, together with Israeli and Swedish dignitaries.

We remembered him in schools, in synagogues, in embassies from Australia to Albania, from Moscow to Tel Aviv, all over the world and of course, on the highest level, in the Knesset and at Yad Vashem.

Wallenberg Year was a genuine tribute to a young Swedish diplomat who made the right choice each day when most people in his position would have made the safe choice instead. He dared to say “No” when some said “Yes” and most said nothing at all.

Telling the story of Raoul Wallenberg is important, but it is not enough. The story of the Swedish hero is not complete without telling the truth about our own history. The Hungarian state was unable to protect its citizens; Indeed, it provided assistance in the extermination of the Jews.

We are indebted to Raoul Wallenberg because he saved the lives of Hungarian citizens. Thousands or tens of thousands of them. Raoul Wallenberg taught me that this is a personal issue. They were my compatriots, and the almost 600,000 who perished were my compatriots as well. Their absence is an irreparable loss to me, personally.

In the framework of the Wallenberg Year, the Hungarian postal service created a Wallenberg stamp. I got one of the stamps beautifully framed. I have it hanging on the wall of my office in the embassy in Tel Aviv. I look at it every day – at my personal Wallenberg.

The writer is the ambassador of Hungary.

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