Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
This question has baffled and tormented the Wallenberg family, diplomats, colleagues, friends, and concerned citizens throughout the world. In a January 16, 1945 note to the Swedish ambassador in Moscow, the Soviet deputy foreign minister advised that the Russian military authorities in Budapest had taken measures to protect Raoul Wallenberg, a member of the Swedish legation, and his belongings.
Born in Sweden in 1912, Raoul Wallenberg was a scion of the richest and most influential family in Sweden. The Wallenbergs are renowned as bankers, industrialists, politicians, diplomats, and philanthropists. The family fully controls one-third of the Swedish GNP (Gross National Product). Today, the Wallenbergs continue to own Europe’s largest family-controlled business empire.
The most notable of the Wallenbergs was Raoul Wallenberg. Educated as an architect and having acquired banking and business experience, he posed as a mid-level Swedish diplomat in Budapest during World War II to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Between July and December 1944, he issued counterfeit protective passports, housed Jews, and physically saved more than 100,000 Jewish lives. When the Nazis and Hungary’s notorious Iron Cross murderers were shooting Jews and dumping them into the Danube River, which separates Buda from Pest, Wallenberg and his assistants jumped into water downriver, beyond the view of the murderers, to extract surviving Jews. When gun-pointing murderers demanded that those hiding in his safe houses be deported, he interposed himself and declared that he would have to be shot before he would yield a single soul. When he climbed atop and into railway cars loaded with Jews being deported, he dodged threats to his life as well as rifle fire to distribute protective papers to Jews aboard, thus saving them from being transported to death camps.
The full story of Wallenberg has never really been told. Relatively few people today know anything of him. Last month, President Obama visited Sweden, the very first time a United States president visited there. The most emotional and meaningful event of the visit took place at the Great Synagogue in Stockholm honoring Raoul Wallenberg. There, he gave tribute to Nina Lagergren, Wallenberg’s last living sibling.
Throughout all of history, no one achieved the wholesale saving of Jewish lives as did Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg is officially recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records as the single greatest hero in history, having saved the greatest number of people from extinction. In 1981, U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos (1928-2008) sponsored the bill making Wallenberg an honorary citizen of the United States. Lantos and his wife were both saved by Wallenberg. That legislation was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. After being elected to Congress in 1980, and with the participation of the Wallenberg family, this was Lantos’s first legislation.
On Wednesday, July 9, 2014, Raoul Wallenberg was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor, for being history’s most important and courageous humanitarian. The Gold Medal is the achievement of efforts by Ezra Friedlander, CEO of the Friedlander Group, and Peter Rebenwurzel, chairman of the Centennial Celebration Commission, who together spearheaded the campaign to have Congress recognize the unheralded heroism of Wallenberg. Friedlander created the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Commission in honor of the centennial of Wallenberg’s birth.
Ezra Friedlander is the son of Rabbi Zvi Hersh Friedlander, Liska Rebbe; son of Rabbi Yoizef Friedlander, zt’l, (1918-1971), late Liska Rebbe, who was saved by Wallenberg. Peter Rebenwurzel’s father, too, was amongst those saved by Wallenberg. On May 9, 2013, the United States Mint unveiled the design of the Raoul Wallenberg Congressional Gold Medal in the presence of their Majesties, King Carl XVI and Queen Silvia of Sweden. That event was hosted by the Honorable Jacob L. Lew, Secretary of the United States Treasury.
The Gold Medal was ceremoniously presented in Congress by House Speaker John Boehner to Raoul Wallenberg’s now 93-year-old sister, Nina Lagergren, who has been a leading force in the efforts to ascertain Wallenberg’s fate. In one of Congress’s most meaningful ceremonies, guests were assembled in the Rotunda and were addressed by House Speaker Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Majority Leader Reid, Republican Leader McConnell, Democratic Whip Hoyer, as well as by other important dignitaries. Also participating were Larry Gordon, editor of the 5TJT, and Joseph Frager, MD, respected gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Dr. Frager is world renowned as the organizer of the annual Israel Day Parade Concert in Central Park and as chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Heritage Foundation.
One of the speakers was Congressman Gregory Meeks, representing New York’s 5th Congressional district, which includes Jamaica and the Rockaways in Queens. The district has a good number of synagogues and sizeable Jewish population with many Holocaust survivors. Taking great pride in being a lead sponsor of the legislation authorizing the award of the Wallenberg Gold Medal, Congressman Meeks said that he “did not learn of the heroism of Raoul Wallenberg, history’s greatest unheralded hero, in elementary school, nor in middle school, nor in high school, nor in college, and not in law school.”
In accepting the Gold Medal, Nina Lagergren, accompanied by her daughters and grandchildren, called the event a magic moment. She described her brother’s role as “immense,” and speculated on how many are alive today because of Raoul’s heroism. She asked “what can we do” for Raoul, who saved so many lives. She described those present as being “so important” with “so much might.” “After all the years of imprisonment and detention in the Soviet Union,” she said, “we want to know the truth,” as to what happened to Raoul.
By The Russians
As the Russian army entered Budapest, the Gestapo withdrew. The Gestapo units were commanded to liquidate the entire Jewish population of Budapest before leaving. However, through the heroic manipulations of Raoul Wallenberg, the Gestapo left without carrying out their last orders. At that moment, Wallenberg controlled the largest supply of Budapest’s food and medicine. He also carried the responsibility of more than 25,000 men, women, and children housed in the 32 Swedish safe houses.
On January 17, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg voluntarily and eagerly met with Russian military officials outside of Budapest. He wanted to share his stockpile of foods, medicines, and resources, and to present his detailed plan of rehabilitation and reorganization of post-war Budapest and Hungary. His careful plans included the rehabilitation and reintegration of Jewish survivors, those that he saved as well as those returning from hiding and from labor and death camps.
In a January 16, 1945 note to the Swedish ambassador in Moscow, the Soviet deputy foreign minister advised that the Russian military authorities in Budapest had taken measures to protect Raoul Wallenberg and his belongings. No official response whatsoever was forthcoming for the next 12 heartbreaking years. Raoul’s mother, Maj, had personally gone to Moscow unsuccessfully beseeching for her son’s release.
Sweden did not formally ask for Mr. Wallenberg’s return, even though the Soviet Union had seized the diplomat in violation of international law. Current and former Swedish foreign ministry officials maintain that amid post-WWII worsening East-West relations, neutral Sweden feared petitioning the emerging superpower on behalf of a diplomat financed by the U.S. Sweden was afraid of interfering with the work on behalf of many other Swedish prisoners that were being slowly released.
On February 6, 1957, the Soviet government released a document dated July 17, 1947, which stated that the prisoner Wallenberg died suddenly in his cell at night, probably as a result of a heart attack or heart failure. Pursuant to instructions, the body was cremated without autopsy. The document was signed by the then-head of the notorious Lubyanka prison infirmary.
Presumably, Wallenberg was suspected by the Russians of being a double or triple spy. The Russians knew he was working directly for and with the United States and Allied powers. Having been in constant negotiations with German authorities saving Jews, at times bribing them with money and counterfeit passports, he was suspected of collaborating with them. Further, Wallenberg was a member of Europe’s leading banking family, something Russian communists could not tolerate. Swiss banks processed Germany’s financial transactions during the war. The Wallenberg family business empire supplied Germany with steel during the war. That steel was used to build armaments that killed millions of Russians.
More than 45 years after Raoul Wallenberg disappeared into the Soviet prison system, the Soviet authorities gave his family some of his personal belongings: a blue Swedish diplomatic passport embossed with the royal crown, some money, several notebooks, and a cigarette case. A number of Russian government files pertinent to Wallenberg were turned over to the chief rabbi of Russia by the Russian government in September 2007. The items were to be housed at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow which opened in 2012.
Many credible sightings of Wallenberg were reported up to and through the 1980s. Every report was thoroughly investigated and compiled into the equivalent of an encyclopedia. In spite of all the work invested in searching for Raoul Wallenberg, his fate is still considered a heartbreaking mystery. In 2009, reporter Joshua Prager wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal profiling the long-term toll that Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance had on his family. His mother Maj and his stepfather Fredrik von Dardel spent the rest of their lives searching for their son. They both committed suicide by overdosing on pills two days apart in 1979. The family attributes their suicide to their despair over never finding their son.
With the Gold Medal in hand, together with growing attention to the heroic achievements of Raoul Wallenberg, Russia will be persuaded to release all their information on Wallenberg and, hopefully, Nina’s quest to learn the truth of Raoul’s fate will now be achieved. 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. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.