Now that disturbing new questions surface following the horrific, but hardly definitive, answers uncovered regarding the time and manner of Raoul Wallenberg’s death, all freedom-loving people must reaffirm the profound value of this quintessential Christian Holocaust hero’s legacy.
After seven decades of somber historic mystery, a recent news report in The New York Times reveals that dramatic diaries belonging to the original head of the KGB, unearthed four years ago and published this summer in Russia, “state outright for the first time that Wallenberg was executed in a Moscow prison” in 1947 under the orders of Stalin. The longtime Russian explanation for Wallenberg’s perishing in a Soviet prison — presumably under suspicion of being a spy — was that he suffered a massive heart attack.
While these diaries are compelling, they are contradicted by other significant reports and do not offer an incontrovertible explanation of the circumstances surrounding Wallenberg’s death. Further scrutiny is necessary, according to Marie Dupuy, Wallenberg’s niece and family advocate.
Regardless of the diaries’ veracity or how unfathomably painful the revelations must be for the hero’s family, one truth is indisputable: Whether he was murdered or died of natural causes, Wallenberg has always been a hero.
July 1944 through January 1945 — the period when Wallenberg took on the role of Swedish diplomat to implement his life-saving work on behalf of 100,000 Jews — was a mere six months. Yet, the courageous 32-year-old rescuer contributed more to the honor of humanity than most persons could accomplish in their entire lives.
Wallenberg, who graduated first in his class from the University of Michigan School of Architecture and was later sent by the War Refugee Board to carry out his rescue of the last remnant of Hungarian Jewry, risked his life daily and rarely slept at night. He always was on call to expand his remarkable rescue mission in Budapest.
After the 70 years that have alternated between periods of desperate hope and devastating disappointment for Wallenberg’s immediate family in Sweden looking for explanations of the circumstances surrounding his demise, his latest appearance in the headlines must not eclipse the unique and priceless gifts to humankind he bestowed.
Wallenberg demonstrated that an individual can be an uncompromised tower of moral strength, as well as an imposing role model for nonviolent heroism, when he defied the Nazis, including Adolph Eichmann and their Hungarian counterparts, the Arrow Cross.
Audaciously but effectively, he intervened in deportations and death marches, bringing food, water and medicine; he was armed only with his elaborate but fabricated schutz passes (immunity passes) and protected Jews in Swedish safe houses under diplomatic cover.
Toward the end of the war, in another remarkable act of bravery, he prevented the bombing of Budapest’s central ghetto, packed with 70,000 Jews, by boldly threatening a Nazi general.
Wallenberg, an honorary U.S. citizen since the honor was posthumously awarded in 1981, demonstrated that human rights can be passionately upheld without using a single weapon.
The hero’s precious legacy testifies that the noblest of men are strengthened, not weakened, by gentleness. His personal aide in Budapest, the late Agnes Adachi of New York, described how Wallenberg — exhausted and running on pure, fierce determination — picked up and comforted children under his protection, singing to them and telling them stories to distract them from the bombings.
Above all, his legacy is a tribute to the importance of human dignity.
Besides giving the 100,000 Jews he rescued their very lives, said Vera Goodkin, a retired college professor from New Jersey saved by Wallenberg when she was 14, he gave them another precious gift. “Because he believed the Jews were worthy of saving,” Goodkin said, “this righteous Christian gave them back their dignity.”
Although Wallenberg’s own freedom was wrenched from him when he was unjustly and illegally imprisoned by the Soviet secret police in 1945, his earlier sacrifices are the indelible reminder to adults and children alike that one person can make a difference on the side of goodness, whether it’s standing up to a school-age bully or to the followers of a tyrant.
Ilene Munetz Pachman, a children’s book author and former synagogue preschool teacher, spearheaded a campaign in the 1990s to honor Raoul Wallenberg with a U.S. postage stamp. She lives in suburban Philadelphia.