The Challenge of Royal Wallenberg
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the names of the victims will again be read from the steps of Widener Library. Yet remembrance has a different angle this year, the year that Hollywood made the Holocaust into a movie.
Aside from the unquestioned good of bringing the Holocaust to the front of the national consciousness, "schindler's list" has given heroism a face.
The film has made Oscar Schindler the Holocaust hero. His very human qualities his greed, his lusts, his apathy are displayed as evidence that normal people can do great good. If Schindler could become a humanitarian, any of us can.
There is much to be said for this lesson. Too often people think the work for saving lives is work for saints and martyrs, not regular human beings.
But it is a measure of the style of Hollywood that often there is little room for more than one hero. This inevitable tendency of the silver screen overshadows others whose legacies might be just as meaningful, or more meaningful, than that of Schindler.
Like most of us, Raoul Wallenberg grew up in comfort and security. His native Sweden was a peaceful haven form the trumoil that swept much of Europe in the 1930s. Being from a well-off family of financiers, he spent his college years abroad, at the University of Michigan. In his studies, he showed promise as an architect.
Everything pointed to a happy, wealthy lifestyle for the young man. He return to Sweden and leisurely began planning a career.
Then, suddenly, he was made an extraordinary offer. The Swedish government, in conjunction with the United States, wanted to send someone to occupied Hungary in a attempt to bring out Jews. Sweden, as a neutral country, had a legation in the country and still had some sway with the Nazis and their Hungarian allies. To the chagrin of his family, Wallenberg turned away from the comfort of his life as a dilettante and accepted the offer.
Once in Budapest, Wallenberg turned the Swedish legation into a whirlwind of activity. Using printed Swedish indentity cards, he gave thousands of Jews protected status and moved hundreds from the ghettos into safe houses. His efforts were soon brought to the attention of Adolf Eichmann the Nazi sent to Hungry to handle to extermination of the Jewish population. Eichmann was as determined to kill the Jews as Wallenberg was to save them.
As Allied troops neared the city, Wallenberg engaged in a frantic race against time. He bribed, badgered and threatened the soldiers and officers charged with carrying out Eichmann's order. He drove to train depots and pulled Jews off trains headed for the death camps, putting himself more than once in imminent danger.
Yet all his efforts seemed about to come to naught when the departing Eichmann ordered the Budapest ghetto sealed and every Jew inside killed. As the tanks and machine guns encircled the neighborhood, Wallenberg charged into Nazi headquarters and assured every officer there that he would personally see then hanged for war crimes when the Allies took the city.
The order was revoked.
Soviet troops entered the city a few days later, and Wallenberg immediately went to them with plans for the reconstruction of the city and the rejuvenation of its people. Wallenberg was never seen again.
The Soviet Union claimed that he died in 1947 in a prison camp, but rumors that he lived on in the gulags have been reported as late as five years ago.
In all, Wallenberg saved over 50,000 Jews during his time in Hungary. His name, like that of Oscar Schindler, is on the Avenue of the Righteous in Jerusalem.
If Schindler shows us what a person can do when faced with an extraordinary circumstance, Wallenberg shows us how a person can seek out those circumstances.
Most of us here will never be in the situation Schindler was, where the society in which we live has been perverted into one of pure evil. So while we may ponder how we would react in such a situation, the question is a hypothetical one.
Yet all of us are in Wallenberg's situation at this very moment. While we live in safety with the prospect of a comfortable life ahead of us, the world around us is filled with the evil; from Bosnia to the Sudan to Burma, millions still suffer.
Hollywood may be able to celebrate only one hero, but we can do better. Wallenberg's legacy is too valuable to lose.