Monday, January 17, 2005

60 Years After -- Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg

Courtesy: Virtual Tourist

The picture above is the Weeping Willow at the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest. It is a Holocaust remembrance, whose "leaves" are inscribed with the names of Hungarian Jews killed in Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto. The memorial was paid for with funds raised by Tony Curtis.

Why is this important? In addition to being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (although MLK's actual birthday is not January 17 -- the remembrance is the third Monday in January), today does mark 60 years from the date Raoul Wallenberg disappeared.

Wallenberg is one of the great men of the 20th Century. A Swedish businessman, he became the actual head of the Swedish diplomatic legation to Hungary in 1944 even though he was not a Swedish diplomat. In mid-1944, the War Refugee Board of the United States (a body created in 1944 to help save Jews from Nazi persecution; the US knew of the Nazi horrors no later than 1942) learned that Sweden had plans to commence a rescue of Hungary's Jews. The WRB worked with the Swedish diplomatic corps to set up the operation, with Wallenberg as the Swedish diplomatic secretary.

Wallenberg demanded "full authorization to deal with whom he wanted without having to contact the ambassador first. He also wanted to have the right to send diplomatic couriers beyond the usual channels.

"The memo was so unusual that it was sent all the way to [Swedish] Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson, who consulted the king before he announced that the demands had been approved."

By the time Wallenberg arrived in Hungary, only about 230,000 Jews had not been sent to the Nazi death camps. The Nazi death machine had deported more than 400,000 Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz between mid-May and July 8, 1944. Hungary (560,000) is second only to Poland (more than 3,000,000) in number of Jewish citizens killed by the Holocaust, yet the Holocaust barely affected Hungary before the Germans invaded it in 1944 because they no longer trusted Hungary's collaborationist government.

Wallenberg's efforts from mid-July 1944 until his disappearance on January 17, 1945, helped save nearly half of Hungary's remaining Jews, including preventing Eichmann's plans for a massacre of Jews confined to the Budapest Ghetto. He had verbal confrontations with German soldiers and Eichmann himself; he issued Swedish diplomatic documents for Hungarian Jews to insulate them from persecution due to Sweden's neutrality; he even once literally jumped on top of a train headed for Auschwitz and handed out diplomatic documents to the Jews trapped inside while the Germans shot at him. His ultimate fate? Arrest as a war criminal and spy by the Soviets when the Red Army "liberated" Hungary, he likely died in a Soviet prison.

So today is a day to hold tribute to another great man, Raoul Wallenberg (1912-1947?).

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