Why Wallenberg’s centennial matters
By Robert Rozett
JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Swedish rescuer Raoul Wallenberg was born 100 years ago this summer, and his centennial is being commemorated with events in many cities across Europe and North America. On July 26, a symposium in his memory will be held at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem. Wallenberg, whose birth date is Aug. 4, 1912, is one of the approximately 24,000 individuals who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, the honor bestowed by Yad Vashem and the State of Israel upon non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Why is his centennial the cause of so much commemorative activity? Certainly part of the answer lies in Wallenberg’s tragic fate. Early in 1945, after having been involved in rescuing Jews in Budapest since the previous summer, Wallenberg was arrested by the conquering Soviets. Explanations ranging from the banal to cloak and dagger have been advanced as to why he was arrested. It could simply be that as a foreigner carrying a variety of currencies and official documents on his person, he may have aroused suspicion. It could be that as a Wallenberg, whose family like many neutral Swedes had engaged in business with Germany during the war, he was an intentional target of the Soviet security apparatus. And it may even be that the Soviets suspected that he was being used as an intermediary between the Nazis and Western Allies to arrange a separate peace, so that both sides could then turn against them.
None of these reasons, even if one may be the correct one, sufficiently explains why Wallenberg was held in captivity after the war ended, and why neither the Soviets nor their successor regime in Russia have provided the full documentation they most likely still hold regarding his fate. All we know for certain is that at some point, Wallenberg died in Soviet captivity. In addition to his disappearance, other facets of the story rivet our attention on Wallenberg. In many ways he has emerged as an icon of the Holocaust, one of a select group of people through which people understand the cataclysmic events. Along with Oskar Schindler, Wallenberg has become the best known and therefore the foremost symbol of the rescuers.
Wallenberg was among a handful of neutral diplomats engaged in a rather wide-ranging rescue operation that evolved after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. One could say that effort reached its pinnacle during the period of the Arrow Cross regime in the autumn of that year, and that it continued until the conquest of Budapest by Soviet forces in mid-January and early February 1945. This was not a single coordinated rescue operation. Rather it was composed of different groups and many individuals, often in a kind of confederation, all trying to do the same thing. They strove to keep Jews alive and out of the hands of their persecutors until the Germans and their Hungarian allies were defeated. The rescuers were many and varied, among them neutral diplomats, adult Zionist activists, Zionist youth movement members of all persuasions, church people and others. Through the use of diplomatic protection, (relatively) safe refuges and the provision of the basic necessities of life, they helped to keep alive more than 100,000 Jews in Budapest.
A cardinal reason that Wallenberg is so venerated is bound up in his character and the nature of his mission. In the late spring of 1944, Wallenberg was approached by the Swedish government, which in turn had been approached by the American rescue agency the War Refugee Board. He was asked to go to Hungary as a certified emissary of the Swedish government, and his job was to help Jews. Wallenberg readily volunteered to enter the conflagration. If this was not enough, unlike other diplomats who confined themselves to rescuing Jews by diplomatic means — certainly a laudable enterprise — Wallenberg at times was out on the streets proffering his aid, in the midst of extreme danger and again on his own volition.
Not only was Wallenberg an emissary of his government, essentially he was an emissary of the Western world. In the name of the Western world, he not only engaged in rescue, but displayed the best in Western values in doing so — courage, compassion and ingenuity. He was the ideal to which the Western world would like to have lived up to more during those dreadful war years. Raoul Wallenberg, thus, can be seen as more than an icon of the Holocaust; he may be seen as the example par excellence of the standard of humane behavior to which the Western world aspires. This of course is put in high relief by his patently unjust fate.
Clearly, Wallenberg is not the only figure from the Holocaust years worthy of our admiration. All the 24,000 Righteous Among the Nations and innumerous Jews who engaged in various forms of resistance and rescue, and maintained their values and basic human dignity, are no less worthy of our esteem. But as a representative of the best in Western civilization, it is fitting and proper that on the centennial of his birth, we remember Wallenberg, learn about him and the context in which he acted, and discuss his deeds and their meaning for us today.
(Dr. Robert Rozett is the director of the Yad Vashem Libraries.)