Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg

 

By Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California)

    In this moving tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, Congressman Lantos captures the courage and character Wallenberg embodied.  He struggled at great personal risk to assure the safety of Hungarian Jews with whom he had nothing in common.  Among those saved were Rep. Lantos and his wife. 

 

On March 19, 1944, as the Nazi’s campaign of terror and genocide finally overtook my native land of Hungary, a young idealistic Swede named Raoul Wallenberg made his way to Hungary to try to save the lives of unarmed tens of thousands of Jews facing deportation and annihilation in Auschwitz and other extermination camps.

By the time Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, some 600,000 Jews from the Hungarian countryside – men, women, and children – had been packed into cattle cars and shipped to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, where most of them perished.  But Raoul Wallenberg’s work in Budapest enabled as many as 100,000 of the remaining Jews to survive. My wife, Annette, and I were among those who owe our lives to this hero of the Holocaust.  Because of our debt of gratitude, both of us have dedicated years of our lives to seek the release of Wallenberg, to make his story known and to honor this great man.

Wallenberg issued Swedish Schutzpaesse (protective passports) to those who managed to reach him at the Swedish legation in Budapest. He brilliantly negotiated with the Nazis and later the Arrow Cross gangsters (Hungarian Fascists) who ran Hungary in the final few months of the German occupation, until they recognized the validity of these fictional documents and exempted their owners from deportation and having to wear the yellow star.

He bought or leased 32 large apartment houses and succeeded in declaring them Swedish territory within Hungary. Thousands of people were crowded into these protected houses, many of whom Wallenberg personally brought back from the forced marches heading towards death camps. He rushed the saved persons to the protected Swedish houses in Budapest. He even brought people back from the railroads cars, pulling them out of deportation trains and from the banks of the Danube River where they were to have been summarily executed.

Unfortunately, the Wallenberg story is not complete.  On January 17, 1945, after the Soviet Union liberated Budapest, the leader of the Red Army summoned Wallenberg to his headquarters in eastern Hungary.  The story becomes unclear after that point.  We know he disappeared into the Soviet Gulag, but we know little of the details thereafter.

When Annette and I began our work on behalf of Wallenberg in 1975, we had two goals in mind. First and foremost, we wanted to find him and free him from the horrors of the Soviet Gulag where he was languishing. Our second goal was to educate the world about Raoul Wallenberg’s life and accomplishments and to inspire all those who are touched by his story to become better, more unselfish, and more caring human beings who are willing to transcend the barriers of race, religion or nationality in their concern for others.

Raoul Wallenberg was the son of Sweden‘s most distinguished, powerful, and wealthy family.  He had endless horizons and opportunities before him.  But he voluntarily left behind the security, comfort, affluence, and joy of peaceful Stockholm to go to the hell of Budapest.  With courage that defies description, he placed his own frail, unarmed body between the Nazi war machine and the intended, innocent victims.

Wallenberg did not go to Budapest because the people of Budapest were part of his community.   He was a citizen of Sweden, and were citizens of Hungary. He spoke Swedish, and we spoke Hungarian.  He was a very wealthy man, and we were destitute.  He was a Christian Lutheran, and we were Jews.  But he came of his own free will to Hungary and daily offered his life as he confronted the Nazi murders in the attempt to save innocent people whith whom he had nothing in common except his humanity.  And he saved as many as one hundred thousand.

Raoul Wallenberg not only fought evil,  he also fought indifference, which is the twin of evil. Those who kill are murderers, but those who stand by and do nothing in the face of murder share a complicity in crime.  Wallenberg’s message was loud and clear: we must not only fight evil, but we must also struggle against indifference.

We do not know if Wallenberg is still alive, but there is no question that today he lives because of what he has done. He not only saved lives, but he saved our faith in humanity. Every day his story continues  to touch the lives of thousands of young people the world over, who, learning of his heroism are inspired to be better people and to dedicate themselves to fight for the rights of others who are still persecuted and oppressed throughout the world.

Long after the sound and fury of the twentieth century are relegated to the garbage heap of history, the ideals and the memory of Raoul Wallenberg will live on. He will live on to teach future generations perhaps the most important lesson of human history – that in order to survive, in order to create more livable conditions in this world, we must accept the responsibility of becoming our brother’s and our sister’s keepers. This is the meaning of Wallenberg’s legacy and this is the meaning of our struggle for human rights across the globe.