Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Hungarians honor Swede who saved Jews from Nazis. Monument unveiled despite past Soviet disapproval

More than four decades after his exploits, open public recognition has been accorded to a legendary hero of Nazi-occupied Hungary. A monument was unveiled here on Thursday to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish aristocrat and diplomat who, by a combination of ingenuity and courage, saved an estimated 100,000 Hungarian Jews from Adolf Hitler's extermination camps.

The event comes 42 years since Wallenberg disappeared into Soviet captivity and, according to the Russians, died in a Moscow prison a year or so later.

About these ads

A street in central Budapest has long been named after him. But the Town Council's decision to honor him with a formal tribute follows two attempts that were frustrated by the Soviets.

The first statue stood briefly in the spring of 1949 on the site of the former Jewish ghetto in St. Stephen's Park here. Mysteriously, on the very eve of unveiling, the statue vanished. The removal was, according to witnesses at the time, carried out by the Russians.

The second attempt was in January 1984, when the Hungarian Historical Society called for a Wallenberg monument in the Hungarian capital. Approval promptly appeared in the newspaper Magyar Nemzet, a recognized channel for government opinion, for what it described as a timely ``worthy gesture'' of remembrance. Shortly afterward, it became known the Russians had again intervened to put a stop to the monument.

That, however, was approximately a year before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. If there has since been some shift in attitude, it would be consistent with a series of concession in East-West relations that Mr. Gorbachev has already made in the past year.

The unveiling of the new monument - it is standing in a small park - had added significance because, though the ceremony was part of Hungary's ``month of peace'' marking the end of World War II, it took place about the time the World Jewish Congress held a meeting here. That meeting was the first-ever gathering of the congress in an East-bloc capital.

Wallenberg's rescue of some 100,000 Hungarian Jews in the short space of six months as Hitler's armies crumpled in defeat ranks as one of the great acts of individual daring in the war. Using his status as a neutral diplomat, he provided many Jews with forged passports and Swedish visas. Many more, who faced imminent arrest and deportation, he spirited away to ``safe houses'' and, when these fell under Nazi suspicion, he raised the Swedish flag above the premises.

Wallenberg himself has not been seen since early 1945 when he left Budapest for Debrecen in eastern Hungary. Just what happened to him remains a mystery to this day.

About these ads

The Soviets have always stuck to their initial but never convincing explanation that Wallenberg died in Moscow in 1947. Since then, a series of reports and rumors, largely from former European prisoners of war in Soviet camps, suggested that he may have lived at least into the early 1970s.

So far as the Swedish government is concerned, Wallenberg legally is still alive; he will be so, the Swedes say, until there is adequate and acceptable detailed evidence reliably establishing the contrary.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.