During the Holocaust, Raoul Wallenberg spent just six months in Budapest, Hungary, but his courageous and creative efforts to save thousands of Jewish lives continue to be celebrated almost 70 years later.
On Monday, federal, state and local officials rededicated Raoul Wallenberg Square and its commemorative statue at Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, a day after what would have been Wallenberg’s 101st birthday.
Fairfax Avenue was shut down at Beverly Boulevard to honor the “Angel of Rescue.” Several people spoke, including three Holocaust survivors who had personal interactions with Wallenberg.
Co-host Perla Karney, vice president of the Museum of the Holocaust, said Wallenberg was a “man on a mission” who understood that conventional rules did not apply during a genocide.
“He declared, ‘When there is suffering without limits, there can be no limits to the methods used to end the suffering,’” she said.
Karney said the Swedish diplomat arrived in Budapest in July 1944 and worked “tirelessly” to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi gas chambers until January 1945, when he was taken into custody by the Russians and “disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.”
“Wallenberg fearlessly challenged the Germans, going so far as to stand on top of trains that were jammed with victims being shipped to Auschwitz and personally confronting [Nazi Adolf] Eichmann who had twice planned an attempt on Wallenberg’s life,” she added.
When the Museum of the Holocaust was constructed in Pan Pacific Park, Karney was among a group of people responsible for determining the layout of the museum, which has a chronological history of the Holocaust.
“When we arrived at the ‘Wall of Heroes of the Holocaust’, we were proud to recognize Raoul Wallenberg in our permanent exhibition titled, ‘Rescue, Resistance, World Response’, and honor him for his tremendous sacrifices on behalf of the thousands of Hungarian-Jews who owe him their lives,” she said, adding that the museum has some of the original Swedish protection papers of those who were spared, thanks to Wallenberg.
Consul General of Israel David Siegel referenced a quote from Jewish tradition: “He who saves a single life it is as if he has saved the entire world.” He said Wallenberg personified that statement and risked his life for thousands of men, women and children he had never met.
“He saved not only individuals, but entire generations, communities — including world leaders, such as the late U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, a world human rights leader and warrior,” Siegel said. “Jewish people in the Jewish state will forever cherish and enshrine his legacy.”
The consul general introduced the three Holocaust survivors. Marianne Engel was born 94 years ago in Budapest, and she crossed paths with Wallenberg at the age of 24, when she volunteered to work as a typist to help him fill out passes.
“Thank you, Mr. Wallenberg, we owe you,” she said.
Artist Erica Leon was saved by Wallenberg, though she didn’t know his name until she saw a picture of him — “the face which I could not forget” — many years later in an Italian magazine. With his help, she was liberated in 1944.
“It would be very nice to have more such people like Wallenberg,” Leon added. “The whole world would be much nicer.”
Andrew Stevens was born in Hungary in 1928, and became part of an underground movement to help save the lives of Hungarian Jews by forging documents, some of which were used by Wallenberg. Stevens received the Hungarian Golden Cross of Merit in 1997 for his actions.
“He was an unbelievable man,” he said. “[Such] a wonderful man … doesn’t come around too often, once in a century.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) gave a brief history of Wallenberg’s time in Hungary. He said the diplomat, who was a member of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden, was 32 years old when he volunteered to go to Budapest.
Schiff said Budapest had been a safe haven until March 1944, when Adolf Hitler, frustrated by the Hungarian government’s refusal to deport Jews, sent troops to Hungary to force the process.
When Wallenberg arrived, the conditions were “horrendous” for those not yet deported, but within a month he persuaded the Swedish government to issue passports to Hungarian Jews, Schiff said. He distributed at least 20,000 passports.
In October 1944, the Hungarian government considered signing an armistice with the Allies, so the Nazis replaced the country’s leadership with those from the Iron Cross movement, Schiff said. The following winter, pro-Nazi Hungarians “released a reign of terror,” killing more than 10,000 people and marching thousands of Jews from Budapest to Austria, he said. Schiff added that Wallenberg carried food and supplies to the marching Jews and saved some by saying they were protected Swedish citizens.
“The Angel of Rescue” also came to the aid of a ghetto with a population of approximately 15,000, Schiff said. Wallenberg warned the potential perpetrators that if they raided the ghetto, they could be tried as war criminals. The ghetto was left alone.
Schiff said Wallenberg knew he was a target, and he was last seen leaving Budapest by car to meet Soviet military officials in eastern Hungary in January 1945. The Soviets refused to release information about his disappearance until 1957, when an official claimed that he died of a heart attack in a Soviet prison, the congressman said. No one has been able to determine what actually happened to Wallenberg.
Schiff said Wallenberg was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal after President Barack Obama signed the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Act into law on July 26, 2012. He is one of just 31 foreign citizens to receive the medal, which requires a two-thirds vote from Congress.
“He’s honored throughout the world for his actions in World War II, and I’m proud to be here with all of you to rededicate ourselves to honoring him for having courage to do the right thing no matter what,” Schiff said. “That is a rare and cherished quality and well deserving of our celebration and commemoration.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, 3rd District, who formerly represented the area on the Los Angeles City Council, said the original dedication of the square and statue was in December 1988.
The statue was created by Italian sculptor Franco Asseto. Yaroslavsky said the wings on both sides of the statue reference Wallenberg’s nickname, “Angel of Rescue,” while the transparent elements of the statue represents the fact that Wallenberg never got to fulfill his life. He said the 1988 dedication was the first time the city had named an intersection after an individual.
“The lesson you should all take from Raoul Wallenberg is that when you’re in a position to do something to help somebody else — whether it’s to save their life, give them shelter or give them food — as inconvenient as it may be, as risky as it may be, we have an obligation to reach out and help our fellow man,” Yaroslavsky added.
City attorney Mike Feuer, who also previously represented the area on the council, said Wallenberg’s story is one that must continue to be told to children.
“It is our collective responsibility to use the commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg’s life and the rededication of this corner … to teach our kids to remind them when the stakes are high, they have obligations to rectify injustice wherever they find it,” he said. “That is our collective responsibility.”
Councilman Paul Koretz, 5th District, whose staff spearheaded the event with plenty of community assistance, said Wallenberg was a selfless hero with a monumental conscience.
“He said he would never be able to go back home if he didn’t know inside himself that he had done all he could to save as many people as possible,” he said. “Unfortunately, he never made it back home, but his legacy lives on to this day and forever more.”
Koretz presented a certificate honoring Aug. 5 as Raoul Wallenberg Day in Los Angeles. He asked the audience to use his legacy as a daily reminder to do what is right.
“In the face of evil, let us refuse to be bystanders,” Koretz said.
Prior to the event, a reception was held at the Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center. There, deputy consul general of Hungary Oliver Pinter praised Wallenberg and the event being held in his honor.
“He was the light in the darkest hours of our history,” Pinter said.
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