Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Tuesday evening, December 17, the ballroom of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates was the gathering place for people to remember and commemorate the extraordinary life contribution of Raoul Wallenberg and the enormous extent of his achievements. The Wallenberg Dinner was organized and chaired by Dr. Joseph and Karen Frager, well-known activists. The keynote speaker was Michael Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan. Michael Reagan is a national Republican Party strategist.
The event was attended by Holocaust survivors, including a lady who was one of the 100,000 people saved directly by Wallenberg. In addition, the commemoration had the participation of many children of survivors and, in particular, children of survivors rescued by Wallenberg. Acting alone, without an army, without weapons, Wallenberg defeated Adolf Eichmann and the powerful Third Reich’s plan to murder every Jew in Budapest. Wallenberg frustrated the Arrow Cross anti-Semitic party of murderers who thirsted for Jewish blood. Wallenberg single-handedly triumphed in saving the last surviving segment of eastern European Jewry.
Mrs. Vera Koppel survived the Holocaust through the actions of Raoul Wallenberg. As an eight-year-old girl, she was herded into the Jewish Ghetto in Budapest together with her mother. Her father and brother were taken away to serve in Munka Tabor—forced labor battalions, from which they never returned. It was only a matter of time before she would be selected for deportation. Every day, German soldiers entered the ghetto and marched Jews out to be packed into train cars used for cattle. Supposedly, the Jews were being deported to a labor camp, but in reality, they were being taken to be murdered.
Miraculously, the eight-year-old girl and her mother were given a Schutz-Pass, giving them protection from deportation by the government of Sweden. The Schutz-Pass was a fiction designed by Raoul Wallenberg, stretching the purpose and function of a regular visa transit pass. Since Jews were prohibited from using any mass transportation, a transit pass was essentially useless. Wallenberg reinvented the routine visa and gave it color and beauty by imprinting Sweden’s insignia of three crowns on it. The Schutz-Pass declared that the bearer, through connection with neutral Sweden, was protected by convention and treaty as a Swiss citizen.
Wallenberg had to continuously negotiate and renegotiate the validity of the Schutz-Pass. He posted signs throughout Budapest describing the Schutz-Pass and its authority. German soldiers, unfamiliar with international diplomacy and unable to read Hungarian, would move past a Schutz-Pass bearer and look for the next vulnerable Jew.
Wallenberg, seeking to buy time for Budapest Jews, constantly negotiated with many different levels of government in Hungary, other countries, and international organizations, as well as with the Nazi occupiers, for an ever greater amount of Schutz-Passes to be issued. From 500, he successfully gained the authorization to issue 4,500. However, Wallenberg further expanded his fiction by ingeniously inventing the “Collective Schutz-Pass,” which enabled its use for an entire extended family; for the grandfather, grandmother, all sons and their wives, all daughters and their husbands, and all grandchildren. In addition, the specifically numbered Schutz-Pass issued for a Levy or Goldberg was used for all Levys and all Goldbergs, and all names similar to Levy or Goldberg. In all, Wallenberg issued more than 25,000 Schutz-Passes, many of them handed directly by Wallenberg to the Jewish recipients.
Though he was protected by diplomatic immunity, that was of little consequence during the military siege of Budapest. Wallenberg could have been arrested by Hungarian or Nazi authorities for fraud at any time, tried by a kangaroo court, sentenced to death, and instantly executed. That this didn’t happen immediately can only be ascribed to providential design. “Oskar Schindler was a courageous and a righteous man who saved many Jewish lives,” said Mrs. Vera Koppel. “But multiply Schindler’s list by 100 and you have Raoul Wallenberg.”
Joseph Frager, M.D., respected gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, served as master of ceremonies. Dr. Frager is world renowned as the organizer of the annual Israel Day Parade Concert in Central Park. Dr. Frager shared the plan to reach out in a concerted e-mail campaign to collect and preserve for history the individual stories of each of the 100,000 lives that Wallenberg saved. The treasury of Wallenberg’s activities will serve as the foundation of an educational initiative to teach Wallenberg’s achievements in every school throughout the world.
Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, distinguished rav of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates and former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, froze the audience with his observation that if we’d had but 60 Wallenbergs, there would not have been a Holocaust.
Marking the event for posterity, New York State Assemblyman David Weprin presented a proclamation on behalf of the New York State Assembly. In it, the memorialization of Raoul Wallenberg was lauded as “extraordinary . . . worthy of the esteem of the country, the community, and the great State of New York.”
I had the privilege of participating in the event and quoted the Guinness Book of World Records having honored Raoul Wallenberg as the single greatest hero in all of history, having saved the greatest number of people from extinction. I noted that Wallenberg’s lifesaving activities went far beyond the Schutz-Pass undertakings. That was only the paperwork. He acquired the use of 32 large apartment houses in Budapest, and festooned oversized Swedish flags on all the exterior walls, to bolster the large signs declaring the buildings under Swedish protection.
Housing more than 25,000 Jews in those buildings, Wallenberg established two hospitals to serve that population’s medical needs. Food, clothing, and medical supplies were secured by Wallenberg personally. He also arranged schooling for the children. In addition, he negotiated with both Hungarian and German officials to provide security and a protective perimeter for the 32 buildings.
Wallenberg would immediately respond to physical threats at any of his facilities or to any Jews in Budapest. He literally interposed himself between vulnerable Jews and the guns of Nazis and Arrow Cross soldiers. Shouting and threatening, he chased away cowed soldiers, even though there was nothing stopping any Nazi or Arrow Cross soldiers from shooting Wallenberg and simply just walking away.
When Russian forces finally entered and took control of Budapest, Wallenberg was set to offer his detailed plans of recovery for surviving Jews and for all of Budapest. The Russians took possession of Wallenberg and he disappeared in its labyrinthine prison system. However, his heroic selfless accomplishments live on in the 100,000 survivors that he saved and in their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, probably numbering well more than two million lives.
Michael Reagan movingly described the day, Monday, October 5, 1981, when his father, President Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, conferred Honorary United States citizenship upon Raoul Wallenberg in a formal White House Rose Garden ceremony.
President Reagan’s son encouraged teaching every student worldwide, today and in the future, the heritage and legacy of Raoul Wallenberg. Every student, whether in grade school, high school, or college, should be taught that he or she can, if events demand, be a Wallenberg.
Denis Hamill, syndicated columnist for the Daily News, noted novelist, and screenplay writer, closed his column about the commemoration dinner with a quote from Mrs. Vera Koppel: “I can still hear the sound of the polished Nazi boots clacking in unison up the stone stairs of the apartment house every day to check our papers. I am here tonight because of Raoul Wallenberg and to remember Raoul Wallenberg.” v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.