RAOUL WALLENBERG: SWEDISH SAVIOR
British prime minister Winston Churchill wrote in a letter to his Foreign Secretary in July 1944 that “There is no doubt that the persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.”
Born in August 1912 in Lidingo Municipality near Stockholm in Sweden, Raoul Wallenberg emerged as a hero and savior of Hungarian Jews amid the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.
Gustav V, king of Sweden at the time had pleaded with Hungarian Governor Horthy asking of his intervention in the Nazi genocide of the Hungarian Jews, Roma and other minorities.
Under Horthy, Hungary had passed various discriminatory measures based on the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 which legalized the persecution of Jews, Roma, Persons of African Origin, Disabled Persons and others considered to have “racially alien blood.”
From 1941, Wallenberg began travelling to Hungary on a regular basis on behalf of his business associate Kalman Lauer who was concerned for members of his extended family living in Budapest.
Having joined the Axis Powers in 1940 and assisted in the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hungary found itself in a perilous position after the Battle of Stalingrad, a pivotal loss for the Axis.
As it became clear that Hungary was now part of the losing side, Horthy looked secretly for peace talks with the British and Americans. When Hitler discovered this, Germany occupied Hungary and the fate of the country’s Jews, Roma and other minorities would become increasingly terrifying.
Hitler’s infamous ‘Final Solution’ saw the relentless deportation of Jews, Roma and others to concentration camps which was overseen by Adolf Eichmann.
When news broke of the horrific situation in Hungary, the War Refugee Board responded. American president Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Iver C. Olsen to identify and select someone to go in to Hungary under diplomatic cover to carry out a rescue operation.
Wallenberg was that someone.
By the time his mission began, the Jewish population of Hungary had already been depleted to 230,000 (one third of the pre-war number). Almost all deportees were being taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be killed.
Wallenberg’s task, to rescue people from the seemingly unstoppable Nazi genocide, was a formidable one.
Along with fellow Swede Per Anger, he started distributing Schutz-passes declaring holders to be of Swedish nationality and therefore free from deportation. Initially, 1500 such passes were handed out mainly to people with Swedish family or business connections.
Those with the Schutz-pass were allowed not to wear the obligatory yellow star of David.
Assisted by the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the Nazi slaughter intensified but so did Wallenberg’s rescue effort.
He rented around 25 properties in Budapest which were adorned with Swedish flags and entitled, among other names, “Swedish Library.”
Behind this façade were thousands of would be Auschwitz deportees who had been rescued. The deceptive covering of the buildings had fooled the Nazis.
Wallenberg became obsessed with the rescue mission and stories of his heroism were widespread.
One survivor recalled that he boarded a train bound for Auschwitz and started handing out passports to save the prisoners. The Arrow Cross shot at him but he continued and ordered all passport holders to follow him to nearby cars. This act alone was though to have saved at least a hundred lives.
As the end of the war edged closer, to protect the brutally diminished remaining minorities in Hungary, Wallenberg managed to force the cancellation of a death march planned by Eichmann and the Arrow Cross.
The siege of Budapest in early 1945 by the Soviet army finished off the Nazi persecution but what happened to Wallenberg after the war remains an unsolved mystery.
However, the ultimate sacrifice made by Wallenberg has been commemorated by statues and memorials all across the world. To many, he will always be alive in the hearts of the families and communities of those he helped to rescue.
He would have been celebrating his 100th birthday this year, and people will be remembering his heroic feats for many centuries more.
The Romedia Foundation will soon launch “The Requiem for Auschwitz” as part of a large-scale European project to raise awareness and change attitudes toward the plight of Roma in the genocide.
On November 6, the last of seven Requiem concerts will be held in Budapest, Hungary. The Requiem for Auschwitz is being performed throughout Europe by the Roma und Sinti Philharmoniker from Frankfurt, the only professional classical Sinti and Roma orchestra in the world. The orchestra is conducted by Riccardo M. Sahiti. A local choir will perform the choral parts in each country.
The goal of this multi-faceted effort is to use tools of education and culture to reconnect Roma and Sinti populations of Europe to the legacy of the Holocaust and thereby foster greater understanding and tolerance toward them and help them address the challenges they face today.
There is more about the project at our Facebook page
The international partners for the project are the ALFA Foundation/International Gypsy Festival (Holland), Romano Kher National Centre (Romania) for Roma Culture, Philarmonischer Verein der Sinti und Roma (Germany), Slovo 21 (Czech Republic), Roma People Association (Poland) and the Romedia Foundation (Hungary).
More details can be found here – http://www.requiemforauschwitz.eu/