Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who fought Nazism and died in a Soviet prison

Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who fought Nazism and died in a Soviet prison
Bronze statue of Raoul Wallenberg at street called after him in Tel Aviv by Hungarian sculptor Imre Varga, credit: Wikimedia/Ori

The 110th birthday of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Budapest by distributing protective documents was commemorated on Tuesday at an event organized by the Swedish embassy to Israel.

Raoul Wallenberg is honorary citizen in Australia, Canada, Israel, the US and the city of Budapest, Hungary. In 1963, Yad Vashem, the International Holocaust Centre in Jerusalem, recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations. At that time, his whereabouts in the Soviet Union where he had disappeared after the war were still unknown.

His tragic fate is an example of what one brave person can do in the middle of a war to save innocent people and still be abandoned for years by his own country. Not being a professional diplomat, he was appointed as first secretary of the Swedish embassy in Budapest in 1944 because of his business contacts with Hungary.

There he would organize safe houses and distribute protective passports to the Jews who were threatened by extermination by Nazi-Germany and their Hungarian collaborators during the last year of WWII. Nazi-Germany was already losing the war but continued to do its utmost to kill the Jews at the expense of its war efforts.

Hungary had sided with Nazi-Germany during WWII to regain lost territories in the previous world war. In March 1944, Nazi-Germany invaded Hungary to murder the largest Jewish population still remaining alive.

At the age of 32, Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944. By then more than 424,000 Jews had been deported to their death in Auschwitz. After the removal of the Hungarian regent Miklos Horthy, the country was ruled by the fascist Arrow Cross party and the murders continued at the banks of Donau and in the death marches towards the Austrian border.

Wallenberg was tireless in his efforts in saving the Jews from the claws of the killers. “Wallenberg did not ask anyone before he gave my father the passport that kept him alive,” said Yair Lapid, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs, at the event.  “He knew that if he asked, they would tell him ‘No’. Instead of asking, he just did the right thing.”

The Israeli foreign minister mentioned a bronze statue of Raoul Wallenberg in Tel Aviv. It was sculpted by the Hungarian sculptor Imre Varga, is about two meters tall, and weighs more than a ton.

“We see a tall, skinny man, standing between two blocks of stone, reaching out his hand as if he wants to stop something. What he stopped - were the people who wanted to kill my father.”

“The man is Raoul Wallenberg. This statue is there because my dad funded it, and convinced the authorities to put it up. It was his way of saying thank you. If Raoul Wallenberg had not been in Budapest in the horrible winter of 1944, my father would not have been saved, and I would not be standing here right now.”

The thirteen-year-old boy who was saved thanks to Wallenberg arrived in Israel in 1948. There he married Lapid’s mother, and had children and grandchildren. “He, who was supposed to be a victim because of his Judaism, became the justice minister of the Jewish state.”

Lapid also mentioned that there is a small wooden box in his parents’ house. “Family photos, my father’s yellow patch, and one faded document in Swedish and Hungarian, a ‘Schutzpass, a protective passport. In the Budapest Ghetto, nobody called this passport a ‘Schutzpass’, they called it a Wallenberg passport. Wallenberg distributed thousands of these passports to Jews.”

 “The opposite of hate is not love, the opposite of hate is indifference,” he said quoting the author Elie Wiesel who survived the Holocaust. “Wallenberg is proof of this statement.”

In January 1945, Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet army which had liberated Budapest.  He must have felt the danger, because as he was led away, he said: “I don’t know whether I’m being taken as a guest of the Soviets or as their prisoner”. Why is still a mystery but one explanation is that the Kremlin suspected that he was a spy working for the other allied powers.

This happened during a period of tense relations between Sweden and Soviet Union. When the Soviet authorities first reported about Wallenberg’s disappearance, they claimed that Wallenberg had been found and was under the protection of the Red Army. At the beginning, the Swedish government did not know what had happened to him.

In reality, he was lured away by the Soviets and his diplomatic status war not recognized by them. He was brought to the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow where he was registered as a “war prisoner”, put in a cell and later interrogated by the Soviet security police.

For years, his destiny was unknown and only in 1957 did the Soviet authorities claim that he had died in prison on 17 July 1947 because of myocardial infarction.

The Swedish government’s handling of the disappearance of Wallenberg has been described as a betrayal and diplomatic failure. The Swedish ministry of foreign affairs did not act on information and uncritically accepted Soviet disinformation. In 1942, the ministry did not forward a report about the Holocaust from a diplomat at its embassy in Berlin.

The Swedish envoy in Moscow accepted the first Soviet claim that Wallenberg had fallen victim to an accident. Afraid of antagonizing the Soviet government, his reporting from Moscow was later described as whitewashing by an official Swedish commission of inquiry in 2003 on the Wallenberg affair and its management by the Swedish ministry of foreign affairs.

At the commemoration event, Erik Ullenhag, the Swedish ambassador to Israel, said that he was proud to represent the same country as Raoul Wallenberg. But he also admitted that he was not so proud of Swedish history concerning Wallenberg:

“I'm sorry we left the Wallenberg family too alone. I'm sorry that we did not, for a long time, tell the story of Raoul Wallenberg. I'm sorry we did not dare to do enough to find out what happened to the brave Swedish diplomat.”

He concluded with saying that all need to speak out. “Each and every one of us has a role and a responsibility to fight anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance of today. Not all can be heroes like Raoul Wallenberg. But all of us can do something. That is the best way we can honour the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg.”

Update: The article has been updated to include extracts from the speech of ambassador Erik Ullenhag.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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