Raoul Wallenberg: Moses of the North

But Hungary has a long way to go to repair relations with its Jewish citizens


Hungary's Foreign Minister, Janos Martonyi

Hungary's Foreign Minister, Janos Martonyi

"Raoul Wallenberg did not save just my world, but many, many worlds. He was our Moses from the North." Thus spoke Annette Lantos, who, together with her late husband, congressman Tom Lantos, was one of the tens of thousands of Jews saved by the Swedish special envoy to Budapest from 1944-1945.

Mrs Lantos, who spoke at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of Wallenberg's birth, held in Hungary's National Museum on Tuesday, said that the wartime envoy was "a humanitarian in the midst of hell".

If there is such a thing as a Holocaust hero, Wallenberg was one. Selected to lead a US-backed rescue programme for Hungary's Jews, he was assigned to the Swedish legation in Budapest in 1944 and set about creating safe houses and issuing thousands of visas.

Wallenberg regularly risked his own life, sometimes snatching Jews from trains bound for death camps and regularly sleeping in different houses to avoid capture by the Germans or the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascist movement, which proved to be an enthusiastic collaborator with the Nazis.

Miklos Ebner, now a tour guide in the Judaica museum of Budapest's Great Synagogue, survived because he found his way into one of Wallenberg's safe houses. "My mother pretended to be pregnant so that she got sent back from the brick factory. We spent the next year with her in a house protected by the Swedish consul."

Yossi Peled, Israel's Minister without Portfolio, drew an emotional silence from the audience as he spoke about the murder of his family at Auschwitz. His mother survived Josef Mengele, he said, and his father died with the rest of his family. "When I stand here today, I think of him and hope he is up there looking down at me." But the lavish ceremony, which included speeches from the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and his Hungarian counterpart Janos Martonyi, stood in stark contrast to the reality of Jewish life in Hungary.

Swedish consul was a genuine Holocaust hero

Later, standing in front of the bimah of the Great Synagogue, the president of the 150,000-strong Hungarian Jewish community, Peter Feldmajer, said that Jew-hate had not gone away. Even now, "antisemitism is widespread in this society, mainly as hate speech. Verbal attacks on Jews are normal, part of everyday life."

To add to Jewish worries, Jobbik, an openly xenophobic and antisemitic political party, is now backed by a quarter of the electorate, according to a recent poll. The ruling party, Fidesz, allowed the Budapest mayor to evict the director of one of Hungary's most prominent theatres and replace him with a dramatist well-known for his antisemitic views.

So the Wallenberg commemoration appeared to be an important opportunity for the government to show that Hungary is not the hub of antisemitism that it appears to be.

And yet, remarkably, the issue of Hungarian culpability in the Holocaust was swept under the carpet by the majority of Fidesz politicians. At the commemoration service, Mr Martonyi was the only Hungarian speaker directly to tackle the issue, acknowledging: "Hungarians did provide assistance in the extermination of the Jews." Worse, the ceremony's programme listed "exposing the crimes of Communism", as one of the reasons for holding the centennial.

Fidesz politicians remember Wallenberg primarily for his abduction by the Red Army in 1945, disappearance and probable death in a Russian gulag. A senior Foreign Ministry official commented: "For Hungary, Raoul Wallenberg is important because he symbolises the suffering of the Hungarians under the Communists, not only the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust."

● Sweden has announced that it is to open an investigation into Wallenberg's death. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has asked experts to explore whether there is new information relating to his death.

Last updated: 12:35pm, February 3 2012