In the footsteps of Wallenberg

This is a lovely city, filled with surprises.

wallenberg memorial  248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
wallenberg memorial 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This is a lovely city, filled with surprises. Turn a corner and you stumble onto the Danube, flowing leisurely beneath the Chain Bridge, one of the most impressive suspension bridges in the world. A moment later you catch site of the spires of Hungary's magnificent parliament building, a massive structure and notable landmark. There are intimate pedestrian walkways and expansive, tree-lined boulevards, surrounded by shops and offices, apartments and mansions. And all of this is pulled together smartly, a sophisticated, eclectic blend of architectural styles - Classical, Romanesque, Gothic - that look and feel, well, European. You're feeling oh-so worldly about now, toying with the idea of stepping into a nearby cafe for a cup of coffee. And then you see something odd, a huge monument attached to the side of a building. A slight chill fills the air as you manage to make out the name written across its top - Raoul Wallenberg. For people of a certain generation the name is familiar. For younger folks it means little. And that's a shame. Wallenberg was a genuine hero, his life the stuff of legend. His name surfaced again earlier this year in news stories, this time focusing on the death of his mother and stepfather in the late 1970s. Apparently the couple committed suicide after years of worry about the fate of their son. Such articles are published every so often because Wallenberg's story is always worth re-visiting. It began quietly enough, a life of luxury in Sweden, school in the US, followed by odd jobs in South Africa and Palestine. In 1936, Wallenberg returned to Sweden and, with the help of family, found work in Stockholm with an export-import company owned by Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew. As the world moved toward war, Hungary aligned itself with Germany and Italy. In the late '30s and early '40s, the country enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws that set limits on the jobs Jews could hold, schools they could attend, where they could live and who they could marry. It was clear that Lauer was no longer welcome in his homeland. Wallenberg, meanwhile, had become a trusted friend and confidante of his boss and was willing and able to help. He began handling the company's business in Hungary, often traveling to Budapest. Within a year he had become a joint owner of the firm and its international director. In the spring of 1944, Jews across the country were rounded up and forced into ghettos. Only weeks later the first transports to Nazi death camps began. Even as Soviet troops neared the Hungarian border and freedom loomed precariously on the horizon, the trains continued to roll. By mid-summer, over half the Jews in Hungary - about 500,000 men, women and children - had been deported. After years of indifference, world leaders were being pressured to deal with the slaughter of Jews across Eastern Europe. A rescue plan, encouraged and supported by both the US President and British Prime Minister, was set in motion and Wallenberg was selected to lead the effort. He was a logical choice. He had spent time in Budapest, spoke the language and had contact with some of the country's top business and political leaders. Lauer would help him make contact with the Jewish community. Wallenberg returned to Budapest in a semi-official role, attached to the Swedish Legation. His mission? Through bluster and wit, rescue as many Jews as possible. The stage was set. Throughout the summer and fall of 1944, with the aid of a small army of Jewish agents, Wallenberg located and purchased "safe houses" in the city where Jews could evade capture. He created and issued "protective passports" for thousands of refugees and provided food and medicine to those in need. When his documents were ignored and diplomacy failed, he used bribes and threats. When necessary, he followed transports and argued for the release of Jews he claimed were protected by his government. In one notable episode, Wallenberg hopped atop a train in Budapest, distributed dozens of passports, then demanded the release of refugees holding the bogus documents. In January of 1945, with the Russians on the outskirts of Budapest, the Nazis decided to liquidate the Jewish ghetto in the city. Wallenberg confronted the SS officer in charge and threatened to have him hanged as a war criminal once the war ended if the order was carried out. The officer backed down and tens of thousands of Jews in the city survived the war. The number of people Wallenberg saved in the final months of the war is staggering. Some historians credit him with rescuing over 100,000 Hungarians. His story, unfortunately, ends abruptly. After Budapest was liberated in 1945, Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet troops - and disappeared. Soviet authorities reported several years later that he died in the late 1940s. But reports continued for decades that he was alive and still being held by the communists. Wallenberg's heroic deeds and the mystery surrounding his arrest and imprisonment fueled books, movies and news stories for years. But over time, as the Cold War played out and the world moved on, the name of Raoul Wallenberg has become for many a hazy historical footnote. That's not to say he's been forgotten. These days you'll find Wallenberg remembered by international organizations and in textbooks, memorialized at Holocaust museums and parks. But there's a special connection between the man and Budapest, the city where he brought the gift of life to so many. So it only seems natural that there are schools and roads, plaques and monuments, expansive parks and intimate gardens here that honor his name and memory. The monument in the heart of the city, next to the boulevard that bears his name, shows Wallenberg in hat and overcoat, holding a list in one hand while halting some phantom figure with his other. It's here that he established many of the safe houses where Jews found refuge over 60 years ago. The houses are now shops and offices, but Wallenberg's memory still lingers, a reminder that in difficult time's one person can still make a difference.