Raoul Wallenberg: A very different kind of superhero

Posted: August 04, 2012

As I sat across from Raoul Wallenberg's half-sister, Nina Lagergren, at a hotel in Stockholm years ago, she breathed fresh truth into what would have been a cliché coming from most others: "The hope is with the young."

Back in 1944, her older brother had put his life on the line for the young, declaring in Budapest, Hungary, "I have come to save a nation; I must save the children first." Sent by the U.S. War Refugee Board, he saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jewish men, women, and children in just six months. Wallenberg, who would have marked his 100th birthday today, was once credited in the Guinness Book of World Records with saving more lives than any other individual, and he did so without ever using a weapon.

Without ever using a weapon? How many of our children can imagine such a hero? In a culture saturated with violent fictitious "superheroes," imagine the contrasting lessons of Wallenberg's legacy.

Wallenberg used his keen intellect and ingenuity — fueled by his fervent belief in the moral responsibility he was entrusted with — to outwit the Nazis. And he gave the Jews he saved another priceless gift besides their very lives: Vera Goodkin, a New Jersey college professor whom Wallenberg saved when she was 14, once said, "Because he believed the Jews were worthy of saving, this righteous Christian gave them back their dignity."

Wallenberg took on the role of diplomat for his neutral home country, Sweden, to implement his incredible rescue of Budapest's Jews. He issued elaborate, fabricated immunity passes, sheltered Jews in Swedish safe houses, and audaciously but effectively intervened in deportations and death marches — bringing food, water, and the protective Schutz Passes — despite death threats and attempts on his life. And toward the end of the war, he prevented the bombing of Budapest's central ghetto, packed with 70,000 Jews, by boldly threatening a Nazi general.

In January 1945, shortly after he approached occupying Soviet troops for food and medical supplies for the survivors of Budapest, he was illegally arrested by the Soviet secret police. Tragically, he was never seen again as a free man, and how and when he died remains a historical mystery. (The Russians have never provided an incontrovertible explanation of what exactly happened to him.)

In 1981, Wallenberg was declared an honorary U.S. citizen, the second so named (after Winston Churchill). Last week, President Obama signed a bill posthumously awarding him the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.

But what's more important than the Wallenberg memorials found worldwide, his sister told me, are the classrooms where his ideals are instilled and explained. Lagergren described such lessons as "living monuments," saying, "We must get out Raoul's message; we must pass it on to new generations, the idea that he risked his life every day in Budapest to fight for human rights."

Emulating Raoul Wallenberg's altruistic and peaceful choices is a challenging imperative. Actively teaching our children about those choices is the best way to perpetuate his precious legacy of life.

Ilene Munetz Pachman is a writer and retired teacher who lives in Bucks County. She helped lead the successful effort to honor Wallenberg with a commemorative U.S. postage stamp. She can be reached at pachman@verizon.net.

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