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Arland Fiske: Raul Wallenberg – ‘Righteous Gentile’

Raul Wallenberg was the most famous missing person in the world. There was a million-dollar reward for his safe return to freedom. Just a few people claimed to know his fate, but most Westerners did not believe their explanations.

The Wallenbergs are a respected Swedish family, distinguished as statesmen, diplomats and bankers. Raul was born Aug. 4, 1912, into a less wealthy branch of the family. His father, a naval officer, died three months before his birth. Fortunately he had a strong-hearted mother.

After graduating with distinction in architecture from the University of Michigan in 1935, Raul tried banking in South America and Palestine. He found it to be “too calm, cynical and cold.” Architecture was his dream, though he went into international trade. The family thought his talents were in politics.

While in Palestine, Wallenberg came into contact with Jewish refugees from Germany. He was moved with compassion for their persecution and by the anti-Semitism that he found. It touched him more deeply because his great-great- grandfather, Michael Benedicks, was a German Jew.

During World War II, the evidence was mounting that the Nazis were destroying most European Jews. Adolf Eichmann, a heartless sadist, came to Hungary in March 1944 to personally exterminate the country’s Jewish population. His cunning and cruelty knew no bounds. The Allied powers were slow to respond with help. But finally, President Roosevelt gave his support to save them through the U.S. War Refugee Board.

Strange as it may seem, it finally came down to one man, 31-year-old Raul Wallenberg. He joined the Swedish legation in Budapest and assembled 250 Jewish volunteers who were given Swedish diplomatic protection. He rented 32 houses over which he flew the Swedish flag to shelter 15,000 Jews and set up two hospitals, soup kitchens and a children’s home.

The Portuguese, Swiss and Vatican legations also gave help. Surviving many Nazi attempts to kill him, it is believed that he saved more than 100,000 Jews of Budapest by giving them “protective passes.” Bribery and threats of post-war punishment were his weapons against the Nazis.

On Jan. 17, 1945, as the Russian army approached, Wallenberg was summoned to the Soviet headquarters. Though warned against going, he went in hopes to negotiate with them on behalf of the Jewish people. Soviet paranoia and treachery, however, regarded him as a danger to their rule. That was the last day of his freedom.

Until late 1987, there was hope that Wallenberg was still alive. Then the Kremlin advised his family that he had died of a heart attack in a Soviet prison in 1947. Despite this report that had been accepted by his family as authentic, there were former Soviet prisoners who returned to the West that claimed that they had seen him and spoken to him after that time. The new Russian Republic is reported to have turned his file over to his family.

The government of Israel has declared Wallenberg a “Righteous Gentile.” The United States government made him an honorary citizen. He is one of only three foreign nationals ever to be granted such recognition.

As a part of the “New Sweden ‘88” celebration, Gustavus Adolphus College had a special lecture on Wallenberg by Ambassador Per Anger, who had been a personal friend and colleague of Wallenberg.

A tree was planted in his honor at Yad Vashem near Jerusalem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust victims. It was with deep emotions that I paused before that tree, silent in my heart for the Holocaust victims, but proud that a great Scandinavian had sacrificed his life in this mission of mercy.

Next week: Norway honors General Jones.


ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who lives in Moorhead, is the author of nine books on Scandinavian themes.