Hero or victim?

A ceremony at Tel Aviv University marks the end of hapless savior Raoul Wallenberg’s centennial year.

Raoul Wallenberg (photo credit: Reuters)
Raoul Wallenberg
(photo credit: Reuters)
‘What made Raoul Wallenberg do what he did?” Prof. Dina Porat posed this question to the audience after being awarded a medal earlier this month for her contribution in keeping Raoul Wallenberg’s legacy alive.
This year marked a century since the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, the hero who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. With the cooperation of the Swedish Embassy in Israel, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation commemorated the occasion with a ceremony of bestowal earlier this month of the 2012 Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Medal at the Cymbalista Jewish Heritage Center at Tel Aviv University.
Medals were awarded to professors Haim Avni and Dina Porat, to Max Grunberg and to the city of Eilat.
In attendance were a number of ambassadors – including Swedish Ambassador Elinor Hammarskjöld – and members of the diplomatic corps of Australia, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Denmark, Canada, the European Union, France, Greece and Russia, as well as a group of academics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and TAU.
The city of Eilat was recognized for its special contribution to Holocaust studies and in particular for making the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg known to all its residents. The Eilat Holocaust study center, Yad Bamidbar – in which stands a statue of Wallenberg – was founded by former consul of Sweden and Holocaust survivor Jacky Pri-Gal. Pri-Gal, who also established a Holocaust survivors’ club, accepted the award together with Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevy.
Porat, a professor of Jewish History at TAU, was awarded the medal for her work, which includes pioneering Raoul Wallenberg scholarships 25 years ago for students focusing on Holocaust studies and human rights law. Haim Avni, professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University, was recognized for his research on saviors of the Jewish people.
Concerning the recognition of people as being “Righteous Among the Nations,” Avni posited that there is a distinct risk of mistakenly identifying someone who not only is unworthy of such a title, but who was in actual fact a “pursuer.” Avni mentioned Spanish head of state Gen. Francisco Franco as a prime example of a “patent anti-Semite” who posed as a savior.
In 1963, Wallenberg himself was recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
However, Yad Vashem only mentions that Wallenberg saved “thousands of Jews,” which doesn’t quite match most accounts that record that he saved well over 100,000. Danny Rainer, executive director of the Jerusalem office of the IRWF, notes, “No doubt he saved tens of thousands. But it is a historical debate.”
Wallenberg is revered as a hero and a legendary figure and has had institutions and streets named after him – as well as being granted honorary citizenship by both Israel and the United States. Nevertheless, many people – including Jews – have not even heard of him, in stark contrast with his peer, German industrialist and savior of Jews Oskar Schindler.
“The difference between Wallenberg and Schindler,” Rainer postulates, “is Steven Spielberg.”
Spielberg made Schindler a household name with his blockbuster film Schindler’s List. Rainer laments the fact that the same was not done for Wallenberg.
“Unlike Schindler, there were no economic motives for Wallenberg to do what he did,” he says.
The IRWF is a global reach NGO based in New York with representations in several capitals. According to Rainer, head of the Jerusalem office, the purpose of the IRWF is twofold: First, to raise awareness about Raoul Wallenberg the savior, and second, to arrive at some answers regarding Raoul Wallenberg the victim. Regarding the first, Rainer posits that the chief method of preserving Wallenberg’s legacy is through education.
“We hope to instill the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg in the hearts and minds of people – especially youngsters,” he says. “Last year, 5,000 senior and highschool pupils were exposed to the story of Wallenberg through our lectures. In Bat Yam we ran a literary contest about the relevance of Raoul’s legacy and we hope to do the same in Jerusalem and Ma’alot.”
PRESERVING WALLENBERG’S legacy as a hero is somewhat easier than disseminating his legacy as a victim. “Everyone looks for a hero – it stimulates the imagination of the people,” Rainer says. “Wallenberg epitomized a person who stood up against the darkest evil man has known. He plunged himself [in]to Hungary in the middle of the war just to save the lives of others.”
Wallenberg’s heroism is the stuff of movies. The calculation and brilliance with which he manipulated the Nazis has since become well-known. Yoav Tenembaum, a member of the IRWF’s executive board, posits that Wallenberg challenged the entire machinery of Germany and its Hungarian allies by employing his imagination as an “offensive weapon.” Born into a prominent banking family from Swedish aristocracy, Wallenberg served as Sweden’s special envoy to Budapest between July and December 1944. It was in this role that Wallenberg saved Jewish lives by providing shelter in Swedish “extraterritorial” buildings and issuing thousands of false protective passports.
What is perhaps less well-known is how Wallenberg arrived at that position. In 1943, a group of Jewish activists, led by future Knesset member Hillel Kook (using the pseudonym “Peter Bergson”), established the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. As a result, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt established a rescue agency called the War Refugee Board. The WRB subsequently sent an official from the US Treasury Department, Iver Olsen, to Sweden and tasked him with solving the humanitarian crisis for Jews in Budapest. Olsen, in turn, persuaded the courageous and resourceful Wallenberg to travel to Germanoccupied Budapest.
Wallenberg used bribery, blackmail and threats to stop the deportations. His driver later related how Wallenberg had jumped onto the roof of a departing train and begun handing protective passports through the doors as he was being fired at by guards.
Nearing the end of his time in Budapest, Wallenberg negotiated with both Adolf Eichmann and Maj.-Gen.
Gerhard Schmidthuber and managed to thwart a Fascist plan to blow up the ghetto and kill some 70,000 Jews. Wallenberg wrote the following in a note to Schmidthuber: “I will personally see to it that you will be hanged for war crimes if the planned massacre in the ghetto takes place.” Schmidthuber subsequently rescinded the order.
“[Wallenberg] was so shrewd and courageous,” Rainer says. “He knew [the] Nazi psyche, knew how to cajole them. He also knew they loved colors and official documents.”
“Anyway,” continues Rainer, “All that concerns Raoul Wallenberg the savior. But he was also a victim.”
HENCE, THE second part of IRWF’s mission: To find out what happened to Wallenberg after the war.
Tenembaum writes, “His heroism was crowned by tragedy. Although the Germans and their Hungarian allies endeavored to cause an accidental death to Wallenberg, he survived this ordeal only to be subsequently arrested by the Soviet troops, who had just liberated Budapest, never to be seen alive again.
Wallenberg is, then, a hero without a grave.”
According to Rainer, the IRWF’s efforts to find out Wallenberg’s fate have been tireless. “We send letters to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and other heads of state. We are offering half a million dollars to the person able to provide information which can be verified through scientific means – such as DNA testing – that will lead us to his place of burial.”
As an afterthought, he adds, “We must assume he’s dead.”
Rainer asserts that there is no concrete evidence to indicate the reason for Wallenberg’s capture by the Soviets. “[Joseph] Stalin couldn’t grasp why such a brilliant guy, a non-Jew, would put his life at stake for a Jew, and he thought that maybe he was a spy, gathering information against [his regime]. But of course, this is all conjecture.”
Apart from a half-sister and half-brother who were dedicated to finding out what happened to their sibling, Wallenberg’s extended family was not as concerned.
“Wallenberg belonged to one of most powerful families in Sweden, but the family was indifferent [to his fate],” says Rainer. “So was the Swedish government.
It’s not for me to judge – maybe they were afraid of the Soviet Union. They are doing a lot to commemorate his legacy as a savior. But as a victim, they need to be more vocal – especially with bilateral relations with Russia. I am convinced that people in Russia know more. The Russians are withholding information.”
Dutch-born human rights campaigner Max Grunberg was one of the four awardees of the IRWF’s centennial medal. Grunberg has dedicated much of his life to the pursuit of finding justice for Wallenberg the victim.
In his acceptance speech, Grunberg made an impassioned plea to Ambassador Hammarskjöld: “Raoul Wallenberg was one of the greatest heroes of human rights,” he said. “Please, ambassador, ask your government to initiate a Swedish human rights dialogue by issuing an Interpol Yellow Notice immediately.
Don’t do it for me. Do it for Raoul. After 65 years missing, do it fast because each day counts.”
A Yellow Notice is an international request for cooperation and the sharing of information between Interpol members in order to locate a missing person.
It can only be issued at the request of one of Interpol’s member countries. Thus far, Sweden has refused to ask Interpol to issue one.
Hammarskjöld was curt in her reply as to why Sweden was refusing Grunberg’s request. “It’s a question of keeping it a political agenda with Russia,” she said.
Hammarskjöld was referring to the fact that Raoul Wallenberg is now part of a bipartisan political agenda between Russia and Sweden. Since Interpol does not intervene or act on behalf of a political character, the request to issue a Yellow Notice would run the risk of making the Wallenberg issue non-political in nature. Sweden’s Foreign Ministry maintains that in order to yield results on the case, it is imperative that Wallenberg remains a part of the political dialogue with Russia.
As the centennial year since Wallenberg’s birth draws to an end, the world is no closer to finding out what befell the Swedish diplomat. But even though his legacy as a victim remains shrouded in mystery, the work of the IRWF and other foundations ensures that his legacy as savior keeps on growing.