A REVIEW OF
THE HERO OF BUDAPEST: The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg
By Bengt Jangfeldt; I.B. Taurus, publisher; 406 p.
I came across this book in the process of wrapping up my research for my second novel, Accidental Saviors. My novel centers on two expatriate Finns who find themselves living in Germany at the outbreak of World War II. Though initially reluctant and by no means intending to, Felix Kersten and Algot Niska involve themselves deeply in the saving of Jews from the persecution and likely death at the hands of the Nazis.
Strangely enough, neither Kersten nor Niska was able to articulate explicitly why they as citizens of a neutral country would become engaged in such hazardous and potentially life-threatening activity on behalf of persons whom in most instances they did not even know. Perhaps their motivation was too personal, or too complex and convoluted, to be articulated succinctly in their memoirs, which are the primary sources of information for the premise of Accidental Saviors.
I am glad that I happened upon Jangfeldt’s excellent work about another savior of Jews, the Swede Raoul Wallenberg. Next to Oskar Schindler, whose heroic activity on behalf of Jews, after all, was the subject of an Academy Award-winning movie, Wallenberg is perhaps the best known “righteous Gentile”. At great personal risk, and with single-minded commitment, Wallenberg managed to save up to 8,000 Hungarian Jews from the occupying Nazis, their puppet Hungarian government and the state-sponsored terrorist organization, the Arrow Cross.
Because previously unused Russian archival sources have become accessible in the last decades, Jangfeldt is able to give a fuller and more detailed account than ever before of what Wallenberg accomplished and how he did so. As a Swedish diplomat appointed to Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg distributed so-called “protective passports” among the Jewish population that had even the least connection to Sweden. Not only that, he established a network of thirty-two “safe houses” throughout Buda and Pest where many other Jews were able to find refuge from the anti-Semitic authorities. He provided food for Jews who were herded into ghettoes and even established a Swedish hospital to treat Jews in his private flat.
I picked up the book in order to compare and contrast Wallenberg’s clandestine career as a “savior” with those of the two principal characters in my novel. I also hoped for more insight into the question of why: why risk your own life in order to save the lives of strangers?
It turns out that like Kersten and Niska, Wallenberg didn’t ever explain what his motivation might have been to accept the risky mission in Hungary. By way of the thorough telling of Wallenberg’s story, however, Jangfeldt points to the many intertwined familial, social and psychological factors that seem to have played a role in Wallenberg’s decision to go to Budapest. Wallenberg was from a wealthy semi-aristocratic banking family in Sweden in which the expectations to succeed in business and accomplish big things were high. Raoul, however, enjoyed only modest success in the family business at best. Instead, he began working for an import-export firm owned by a Hungarian expatriate Jew in Stockholm, Kolman Lauer. Without initially being aware of it, in seeking to escape the limitations and pressures of the family banking firm, he wandered rather aimlessly into a relationship with an employer who, with the backing of American funds and moral support, was engaged in an effort to save Jews back in Hungary. It turned out to be a turning point in Wallenberg’s trajectory. He quickly grew bored and dissatisfied with Lauer’s mundane import-export line of work, but accidentally discovered a more challenging and constructive vocation.
Through Lauer, Wallenberg was recruited by the War Refugee Board, which had been established recently by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to support the work of Jewish organizations, resistance groups throughout Europe and diplomats of neutral countries like Sweden. Wallenberg was given a sizeable budget by both the War Refugee Board and the Swedish foreign ministry, and a carte blanche in organizing and managing the Swedish delegation in Budapest to conduct schemes to fulfill the mission of saving Jews.
Wallenberg’s marker at Yad Vashem at the World Holocaust Center in Jerusalem
Jangfeldt makes sure the reader is impressed by at least three of his hero’s attributes: his exceptional organizational abilities; his genuine affability and gregariousness that enabled him to form relationships with both allies and the enemy, such high-ranking Nazis as Adolf Eichmann; and his tireless energy for the work of saving lives. Jangfeldt provides numerous examples of how Wallenberg makes personal sacrifices of time and energy to handle the seemingly most trivial details to ensure that a rescue operation should succeed.
It turns out that like Kersten and Niska in Accidental Saviors, it was in the process of saving Jews that Wallenberg was converted to a heart-felt love for them. That is the “triumph” in Jangfeldt’s subtitle.
A significant number of pages in The Hero of Budapest, however, is devoted to the second part of the subtitle, the “tragedy”, the irony, of Raoul Wallenberg. When the Russian forces were about to enter Hungary from the east and “liberate” the country from the Nazis, Wallenberg was filled with urgency to make contact with the Russian military leadership to negotiate compassionate treatment of the Jews, especially the ones in his safe houses or in the ghettoes. Against all advice, Wallenberg and a driver left Hungary hastily for a regional Russian military command post near the Romanian border. Fatefully, they tried to smuggle money, valuables and documents which had been stored in Wallenberg’s office, out of the country so that they would not fall into the hands of the Nazis before they evacuated and be used for nefarious purposes. They were welcomes to the Russian command post. However, their vehicle was confiscated and the concealed cargo discovered and confiscated. The content of the documents particularly, in which Wallenberg had meticulously recorded his conversations with high-ranking Nazis, resulted in his arrest as a suspected Nazi spy. The Soviets moved him from jail to jail and kept him in custody for two-and-a-half years before he reportedly died of a “heart attack” Jangfeldt provides plenty of evidence that Wallenberg’s death was not due to natural causes at all, but rather chemicals he had been fed by Soviet doctors that were intended to trigger a heart attack.
Swedish researcher Bengt Jangfeldt
Wallenberg was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and named by Israel as one of the “Righteous Gentiles Among the Nations”.
Wallenberg’s story is an utterly fascinating one. Jangfeldt’s book is thoroughly researched and related to the reader in an engaging manner that is, frankly, quite user-friendly for such a work with such a broad scope of research. One cannot read about Wallenberg’s bravery and not be transformed and left with the questions: Who are the unfairly persecuted in our world today, and what will I do for their sake and on their behalf?
Until the next post, readers, this is the day you have been given as a gift. Cherish each unique moment of it.