He must be remembered
‘Multiply Schindler’s list by 100 and you have Raoul Wallenberg.’ During World War II, the Swedish diplomat saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary by issuing protective passports.
The world must never forget Raoul Wallenberg.
Wallenberg, who saved over 100,000 Jews in the Budapest ghetto from the death camps of 1944, is one of history’s towering heroes.
That’s why last month, hundreds of people who want his story to always be remembered contributed $125 a head to pack the auditorium of Young Israel of Jamaica Estates at a “100th Birthday Dinner Commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg: A Hero for All Time.”
The Wallenberg story is unequaled in history.
Ask Vera Koppel, 76, who is one of those whom Wallenberg saved. She sat at a table at the Queens dinner and told me she was just 8 years old when she, her brother and her parents were forced by Nazis out of their suburban Budapest home and into an apartment house in the inner city with a large yellow Star of David painted on the front door.
“My father and brother were taken out to work camps,” she says. “We never saw them again. But my mother and I were fortunate that Raoul Wallenberg gave us each a ‘Schutz Pass’ guaranteeing safe passage by the neutral Swedish government.”
The “Schutz Pass” was essentially a phony ID that claimed that the bearer was under the protection of the Swedish government and shouldn’t be harmed. Wallenberg doled out a countless number of them in Hungary.
Koppel remembers Wallenberg, 31, as a Swedish diplomat from an affluent banking family who was guided by a moral compass of bottomless humanity.
“He risked his life daily, standing between trainloads of Jews bound for the death camps and Nazi machine guns,” Koppel says. “Handing out his Schutz Passes to the doomed. He purchased warehouses, abandoned factories, apartment houses and hospitals and draped them with Swedish flags and filled them beyond capacity with Jews.”
Wallenberg went nose-to-nose with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi commander charged with exterminating “every last Jew in Budapest.” The duel of good vs. evil is one of WWII’s most heart-pounding confrontations, with 100,000 human lives in the balance.
Then was he abducted by the Russian “liberators” who suspected, probably correctly, that some of his funding came from American espionage sources.
Wallenberg disappeared in 1945 and eventually died in a Soviet gulag run by the KGB.
“Oskar Schindler was a courageous and a righteous man who saved many Jewish lives,” says Vera Koppel. “But multiply Schindler’s list by 100 and you have Raoul Wallenberg.”
The most heart-stopping moment of the evening came when Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg looked across the room and said, “If there had been 60 Raoul Wallenbergs during World War II, there would have been no Holocaust.”
You could have heard a tear drop in the solemn silence.
What we all heard after that was the enduring heartbeat of Wallenberg thumping in this new century as his memory was kept alive in the afterglow of Chanukah and in the yuletide of Christmas. This “righteous gentile” did not see Jews or Christians on those death trains. He saw fellow human beings being led to slaughter by monsters of pure evil.
And so Raoul Wallenberg became a selfless man of action.
“I can think of no other man in history who single-handedly saved so many human lives,” said Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum.
Tannenbaum, a Wallenberg scholar, told me of how Nazis would bind three Jews together at the banks of the Danube River at night and to save bullets would shoot just the one in the middle.
“When he fell dead into the river the other two would drown,” he said. “Except that Wallenberg and his men would often be in the water, under bridges and embankments, cutting the ropes to save the other two. Here was a man who could have lived a life of privilege, like a Rockefeller or a Kennedy, and instead risked his life to save fellow human beings. ”
“Every schoolchild should be learning Wallenberg’s story,” said Belina Vano, who eagerly paid for the history lesson.
Koppel is one of the teachers.
“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,” she says. “I am here tonight because of Raoul Wallenberg and to remember Raoul Wallenberg.”
And to never forget.