Raoul Wallenberg’s World War II Heroism a Lesson for World Doing Nothing About Syria

The Swedish activist’s World War II heroism should inspire us to act in Syria to stop systematic slaughter, says Kati Marton.

One hundred years after his birth, we honor Raoul Wallenberg best by reflecting on what motivates some people to risk their lives for others, while those in positions of power stall and give heart to the murderers. Why did millions have to die before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dispatched Wallenberg to rescue Europe’s last surviving Jewish community? Why are mass murderers more determined than rescuers? Why so few Wallenbergs?

These questions are tragically relevant after Rwanda, after Bosnia, and now as the international community dithers while a killer holds sway in Syria. As Bashar al-Assad slaughters his own people in places like Homs, it again brings to mind Wallenberg’s heroism—and the need for good people to act.

In the summer of 1944, the Jews of Budapest wondered, who would risk his life for them while uniformed murderers prowled the streets hunting for Jews? An inexperienced 32-year-old Swede volunteered, and saved thousands. Wallenberg’s successful rescue makes clear that mass murder can and must be stopped. But the rescuers must be as zealous about their task as the murders are about theirs—and more creative.

Mass murder takes preparation. The world has time to react. Before the killing are the words that dehumanize the “Other.” So it was with the Nazis’ attempt to turn Jews into subspecies. The laws that institutionalize the hate follow the words. Park benches that read, “No Jews Allowed,” preceded the gas chambers. A year later, Jews were booted out of their jobs, and then their homes. They were pushed into transports whose meaning was crystal clear the next year, and still Washington and London held ministerial conferences and debated what to do.

Part of the explanation for this dismal record is humanity’s capacity for willed blindness. Partly, it stems from a very human inability to imagine the unimaginable. “I didn’t say he was lying,” Justice Felix Frankfurter said after Polish diplomat Jan Karski briefed him on the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. “I said that I cannot believe him.”

Some people understood Hitler’s Mein Kampf, published in 1925, to be a genocidal tract. Hitler made it clear that it was his sacred mission to destroy the Jews. (The grandfather of my late husband, Richard Holbrooke, read it in his hometown of Hamburg, Germany, and moved to South America shortly after.)

By 1944, when President Roosevelt acted to save Jews by setting up the War Refugee Board, which sent Wallenberg, all but the most deluded Nazis knew the war was lost. But Adolf Eichmann would not rest until he achieved his final mission, the extermination of 200,000 Hungarian Jews. The race was now between Wallenberg, the volunteer, and Eichmann, the seasoned killer.

Through a combination of stratagem, with money from the War Refugee Board and Jewish Agencies, Wallenberg rented buildings from which he flew the flag of Sweden (an illusion of diplomatic immunity in the mayhem of Nazi-occupied Budapest that somehow worked). He hired hundreds of Jews as his “assistants,” gaining them a degree of immunity as well. Most important, he crafted Swedish passports of his own design, which made instant Swedes out of anybody who wanted one. He proved to be a good actor; his imitation of Teutonic authority impressed weak Hungarian officials and even German generals. Befriending the wife of the Nazi foreign minister, he won an invaluable ally close to the highest authority.

He improvised endlessly. When one ploy failed, Wallenberg quickly tried something else. He was able to inspire and motivate others to acts of courage—as great leaders must. Wallenberg brought the same passion to rescue as the killers did to murder.

The very opposite of a diplomat tied up in red tape and protocol, Wallenberg was a man on a mission. He gave the utterly reduced, desperate Jews of the city things no one else had: dignity and hope.

Toward the end of 1944, even as Russian guns reverberated in the city’s outskirts, Eichmann was still determined to finish the job. Now, the Nazis and their Hungarian allies force-marched thousands of Jews to the German border. Pursuing the ragged columns, Wallenberg was a driven man. He shouted out, “Raise your hand if you hold a Swedish passport!” This way he pulled scores from the death marches, and speeded them back to Budapest. At a minimum, he thrust food, cognac and blankets at the marchers—a final human gesture for those en route to an inhuman end.

Wallenberg’s own end was no less heartbreaking. Along with thousands of others deemed either dangerous or useful for hard labor—he was taken prisoner by the Soviet forces. He died in 1947 in Soviet captivity. But it was not until the 1980s that the world took real notice of the missing Swede.

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Wallenberg’s story also illustrates that sometimes obeying the law is not the highest act of morality. Jews who defied not only the Nazis but also their own leaders and didn’t report to collection places, who didn’t wear the yellow star—high-risk moves—had a chance to survive. The orderly acceptance of every degrading edict was ultimately not in the Jews’ interest.

Raoul Wallenberg showed the world that rescuers need not always be outsmarted by mass murderers.