A Good Man

Raoul Wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg; drawing by David Levine

The horrifying story of the sufferings of Hungarian Jewry at the hands of the Germans has most recently been studied in detail in a monumental work, Randolph Braham’s The Politics of Genocide.1 When the Germans occupied Hungary, there were 246,803 Jews in Budapest (over 800,000 in the entire country), including 62,350 converts to Christianity, or descendants of converts—whom, of course, the Germans did not distinguish from Jews. Of this total, 100,803 were killed in one way or another. That the figure was not higher was in part due to the fact that deportation of Jews to the murder camps was halted by defeat in the war, and in part to the efforts of both Jews and non-Jews and of the latter particularly of the Swiss and Swedish governments. When the threat to the Jews became apparent, the US government appealed to the neutrals to do what they could to save the Jews of Hungary. The Swiss consulate in Budapest played a valiant role in issuing passports to Jews, especially children. But it was the dramatic activity by the Swedish special diplomatic envoy, Raoul Wallenberg, that has caught the imagination of the free world, and remained a legend ever since.

The specialist in the murder of Jews, Eichmann, devoted himself to the task of deporting the entire Jewish population of Hungary for incineration in the death camps (if they had not previously been done to death by slave labor) with a dedication to duty and an enthusiasm that still seem hard to credit. Whether this was due to ideology, ambition, or psychopathology is hardly relevant: our experience of communism and its sister-faith Nazism should by now have taught us that it is not the cause, but the obsessive capacity of the individual to persuade himself that he is serving a cause, that is the driving force of those who are smitten by the disease of totalitarian ideology. By the time Wallenberg arrived in the Swedish legation in Budapest, Eichmann’s activity was well under way.

Raoul Wallenberg came from a distinguished Swedish family. He had studied architecture in the United States and had traveled a good deal before settling down to a career. His travels included a visit to Palestine, where he met Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. One of his great-grandfathers was Jewish. At the time of his appointment to Budapest at the age of thirty-two, he was the business partner of a Jewish refugee and had seen a good deal of Nazi anti-Semitic policy in the occupied countries of Europe which he visited. When President Roosevelt set up the War Refugee Board (WRB), with the task of saving Jews and others from Nazi persecution, the board’s representative in Stockholm, Ivar C. Olsen, had included in his advisory committee Wallenberg’s partner, Koloman Lauer. It was through him that Raoul eventually came to be selected as the Swedish diplomatic officer of the…

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