Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat, from a super-rich and influential family. He also used his position for good, secretly working for the Americans in Budapest, saving more than 100,000 Jews from the Nazis. He is my hero.
I am fascinated by such altruism, in a deep, Victor Frankl kind of way. How is it that some people are capable of great generosity, even under the worst of conditions, while others, who have so much, are incapable of sharing even a crust of bread?
My own mother is an example of this Wallenberg-type altruism. She used to be a nurse practitioner in Soviet Union, and upon arriving in Denver, worked at Rose Hospital as a phlebotomist. As a speaker of Russian, she would be called to translate in the hospital all the time. But she was also known in the Russian community as the medical “professor.” Others trusted her knowledge, and knew they could communicate with her at deeper level than translated English. There were times when the phone would ring in the middle of the night, and then I would hear the door and her car would start and drive away. I would raise my head, see the snow fly in the wind, and snuggle down again in the warmth of my bed. My mom would be needed and she would go — I never heard her complain. She would never accept money. A bottle of vodka from time to time, sure, but money, never!
But such self-sacrificing altruism is sometimes hard to find with the wealthy. Wallenberg came from a family in Sweden as rich and powerful as the Rockefellers of the U.S. The Wallenbergs were railroad magnates, oil barons, bankers, and the right hands of kings and prime ministers. What made this man of privilege want to save some Jews in Eastern Europe? To come into a secret alliance with the FDR’s government (which would only disavow and forsake him after the war)?
I have read several books about Raoul Wallenberg, and have come up with several theories about him.
Wallenberg went to college in America, Michigan State University at Ann Arbor. One summer he hitchhiked around this country. Once, he was held up at gun point, but it didn’t faze him. He even argued for them to let him keep his luggage, right before they threw him out. He was fearless.
When the war broke out, and Wallenberg learned about the plight of the Jews, he couldn’t let it go. He had read about the adventures of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and perhaps wanted to be like that, a hero and a man with a secret identity. He used his family connections with his grandfather’s bank to broker a deal with the U.S. government. He went to Budapest, and worked on behalf of the Swedish government, giving passports to Jews to emigrate — and in the basement of the building that served as the Swedish embassy, he set up printing presses, that printed more paperwork with embossed Swedish crest. He was creative.
When things were moving too slowly for him, Wallenberg began going to the train station that deported Jews to concentration camps, with some papers. He would call out random Jewish-sounding names and people quickly caught on, getting off the trains, coming to him for documents. The Germans respected authority and diplomatic immunity, and although they tried to run him off a couple of times, even going as far as firing shots above his head and planting a bomb in his car (it exploded when he wasn’t in it), he continued doing what he was doing. Again, he was fearless.
When the war was ending, and it became obvious that the tide was turning against the Germans, Wallenberg had dinner with Eichmann, the very engineer of the Final Solution. (The Nazis and their beloved euphemisms — this solution was to the simple problem that Jews had merely existed.) While they dined, the heavy artillery of the advancing Russians could be heard, and not too far away. Wallenberg was trying to talk Eichmann into surrendering, not knowing that the Nazi had a plan for escape in place for a while.
Wallenberg, who studied architecture in college, didn’t want to go into banking (the family business) after the war. He had plans for after the war, after the Russian “liberation.” He wanted to help the Russians rebuild Budapest. He was an optimist.
But Russians don’t understand altruism (or for that matter, optimism). In a society where people are worried about where the next meal is coming from, giving even when you have nothing, sharing what you have — of course people DO that, it’s just that people in power, governments don’t understand that. So, when the Russian tanks finally rolled into Budapest, and the soldiers encountered the strange Swede from the rich family, working on behalf of the Americans (please keep in mind that the Cold War started way before the end of World War II), wanting to help THEM, their distrustful suspicion combined with natural Russian paranoia (and just as natural anti-Semitism) produced a perfect storm. They arrested Raoul Wallenberg on trumped-up espionage charges.
Raoul Wallenberg was never seen nor heard from again.
Sure, there were always rumors around. There was a tall Swede who was shot in 1947. A tall Swede was seen in the gulags in 1981. Demands from the Wallenberg family and the Swedish government went unanswered, the many people who were saved by Raoul Wallenberg also tried to find out what happened to their savior but were not successful.
Raoul Wallenberg was born in 1912. He was born in August. He would have been 106 this year. He was fearless, smart, creative. But he also underestimated one of the world’s greatest evils — Stalin, who trusted no one, and his regime which reflected this distrust in everyone.
I once told my father I believed that if Hitler hadn’t come along, some other Hitler would have, by another name. “Maybe,” he said. “But there could only have been one Stalin.”