A Good Man Who Acted

Remembering Raoul Wallenberg


Raoul Wallenberg

1944 passport photo of Raoul Wallenberg. Source: Wikimedia Commons, under Swedish public domain for photographic pictures (fotografiska bilder).

On Saturday, August 4, Sweden and several other countries marked the 100th birthday of Raoul Wallenberg – the Swedish architect, businessman, and diplomat whose direct efforts saved tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary from the Nazi concentration camps. In Sweden, members of the government, royalty, and the Wallenberg family attended ceremonies in Sigtuna, outside Stockholm.

While U.S. Americans may have missed the news of this centennial (it was also the birthday of President Barack Obama), many are familiar with some of the story of the man himself. After coming to the United States to study architecture at the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 1935 with classmate and future U.S. president Gerald R. Ford, Wallenberg returned to Sweden and turned his studies to banking and commerce. In his work at the Holland Bank in Palestine and his partnership with Hungarian Jewish refugee Kalman Lauer at the Central European Trading Company, he became aware of the Nazi atrocities. He also developed astute business skills in dealing with Nazi bureaucrats in Germany and France.

In July 1944, at age 31, Wallenberg was recruited by the U.S. War Refugee Board under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be its representative in Hungary. Over the next six months, he played on the Nazis’ tendency to be impressed by official displays and redesigned neutral Sweden’s protective passport (in German, Schutzpass), publicizing it widely to impress Nazi officials with its apparent legality. With Swedish diplomat Per Anger, Wallenberg began distributing these unofficial passports to Jews – even to the point of climbing onto a train loaded for Auschwitz and handing them through the windows – to prevent their deportation. He further rented 32 buildings in Budapest and “branded” them as Swedish diplomatic territory, applying his architectural skills to convert them into safe houses for thousands.

Stockholm Monument Wallenberg

Monument to Raoul Wallenberg, Stockholm. Photo by Bengt Oberger. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

As the war drew to an end with the Red Army siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944/45, Wallenberg was summoned to Soviet headquarters in Debrecen. He was never seen again. Soviet radio in Hungary announced his death en route to Debrecen in 1945, but in 1957, the Soviet Union released a document, dated 1947, declaring him to have died in prison. Speculation remains over the document’s veracity and over later assertions by the Russians that Wallenberg was executed.

Wallenberg’s story became widely known in the United States in 1980, through an article for the New York Times Magazine. Since 1981, when Congress awarded him Honorary Citizenship, he has been memorialized widely by monuments and place names, and over the past two decades, 20 states have recognized Raoul Wallenberg Day on October 5, the day of the citizenship award. (Canada, which bestowed honorary citizenship on Wallenberg in 1985, observes the day on January 17, the anniversary of his arrest.) Through the recounted memories of those he rescued, such as the late Democratic congressman Tom Lantos of California; in numerous biographies and a by commemorative stamp; and through the educational efforts of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States and many other groups, the Holocaust hero’s aggressive activities to save Hungarian Jews and his mystery-shrouded fate have become part of the U.S. curriculum on European resistance to Adolf Hitler’s “final solution.”

Americans thus may be more aware of Wallenberg than many Swedes; for until 2001, his native country did not even have a monument to Wallenberg. While the absence of a memorial may partly have been out of respect for the family’s wishes that he be considered to be alive until 2000, the lack of Swedish government effort on his behalf, in the years just after his disappearance, is more complicated. This singular diplomatic failure has roots in cultural attitudes about egalitarianism and conformity, government anxiety in the Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviets, and uneasiness over some public figures’ former associations with the Nazi regime. (German historian Susanne Berger has presented a thorough analysis of Sweden’s “passivity” in her article “Stuck in Neutral,” which also investigates gaps in the 2003 Eliasson Commission’s criticism of how the government’s handled Wallenberg’s case.)

Wallenberg Days of Remembrance 2012

Sweden’s EU Affairs and Democracy Minister Birgitta Ohlsson, speaking April 19, 2012, at the “Days of Remembrance” ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Photo by US Embassy Sweden (Flickr: Days of Remembrance 2012). Used under CC-BY-2.0 license via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sweden has long had difficulty relating to him,” Peter Wolodarski wrote of Wallenberg this Sunday in Dagens Nyheter, noting that only this year have major biographies of Wallenberg been published in Sweden. Olof “Olle” Wästberg, government coordinator for “Raoul Wallenberg 2012,” points out in Expressen that only 8 of 23 secondary-school textbooks relating to the subject even mention Wallenberg, with only 2 giving substantive material. He calls for a new curriculum, raising Wallenberg’s prominence in Sweden’s human rights focus.

Sweden’s EU Affairs and Democracy Minister Birgitta Ohlsson likewise has urged her country to recognize Wallenberg more deliberately, by making August 4 a national commemorative day in the Swedish calendar. “In an EU where anti-immigrant parties are gaining ground, extreme right-wing movements are being formed, and populist groups are gaining visibility, it is all the more important that each nation talk about individuals who make a difference for humankind,” she wrote in a Dagens Nyheter editorial this weekend. “Such a story feels more urgent now than it has for a very long time.”

Indeed it does. The very weekend of the centennial, anti-Islamic demonstrators were protesting in Norra Bantorget in central Stockholm. Neighboring Norway has just revisited its all-too-painful understanding of the effects of arrogant, nationalist racism. And beyond Scandinavia, as I write this, peacefully worshiping Sikhs in the state of Wisconsin are mourning the death of six members of their community to an act of “domestic terrorism” – one whose motive is currently unknown but which, amid much hostile rhetoric, casting of suspicion on individuals for religious and ethnic affiliations, and extremist tensions in the United States, is feared to have been carried out by a white supremacist.

In such turbulent times, Raoul Wallenberg’s 100th birthday on August 4 seems almost a reaffirmation of the openness and bridge-building that so many in Norway committed to again this July 22. And in a manner eerily like that memorial, his legacy causes us to probe the “tiredness” that can overtake a people when easy resolutions are not forthcoming.

In this distracted world, let us not leave behind good people who act, even as we strive to move forward.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

– Edmund Burke