June 27, 2012
Why Raoul Wallenbergs Centennial Matters
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 June 26, a symposium
in his memory was held at Yad Vashems 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
Certainly part of the answer lies in Wallenbergs
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
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
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