Honoring Raul Wallenberg and the Righteous Among the Nations in Hungary

In conclusion, it is worth thinking about the meaning of rescuing.

It is about liberation from detention. Liberation, escape or protection from violence, peril, evil, from the limitations imposed by force. It may mean getting free from custody, assisting or achieving the escape, the breakout.

For the above-mentioned deeds, sixteen Hungarian citizens received the Righteous Among the Nations award between 1964 and 1970; by 1989, their number had reached two hundred. In respect of several hundreds of Hungarian rescuers, memorial plaques have been placed and trees have been planted in the large park of the Yad Vashem Memorial Center in Jerusalem. Lately, as space has become scarce, a touchingly beautiful memorial garden has been created. At this place, the names of those whose contribution to rescuing Jewish people at the time of the Shoah has been confirmed through the annual thorough legal procedure, are carved into walls of stone.  

The Righteous Among the Nations award is tremendously prestigious. Thorough scientific research has to precede and support every individual nomination. By 2009, the number of persons decorated by the Yad Vashem Memorial Authority for rescuing Jews on the territory of Hungary had surpassed seven hundred fifty. Every year, the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest presents several documented cases for the Israeli award. The Hungarian authorities bestow a Medal for Courage upon these people.

Many do not expect gratitude or recognition for their risky actions of rescuing. They have fulfilled their moral and human obligations – they claim – and would not accept any award.

The terrible facts about the tragedy of Jewry in Europe still shock compassionate people. In our days, the concrete examples of selfless responsibility, the cases and the actions of rescuing are coming into the focus of public attention. In our age full of challenges these provide unyielding moral examples and strengthen national self-respect. The Israeli authorities acknowledged some twenty-three thousand people worldwide for their deeds during the Shoah. It is generally accepted that rescue operations, as the most outstanding displays of humanity, convey, through many examples, firm moral values. These accomplishments represent authentic denials of bias and prejudice, of false generalizations repeated for decades. The newly discovered facts related to rescuing contribute to painting a more realistic picture of the years of war.

It is remarkable that the exhibition of Righteous Among the Nations displays values standing out even after six and half decades. In Switzerland, linked to this subject, the names of Carl Lutz, vice-consul accredited to Budapest, and of Friedrich Born, protector of numerous Hungarian institutions, among them the Monastery of Pannonhalma, are mentioned as examples. Lutz's commitment is honored with a memorial on the territory of the former central ghetto. A memorial plaque was unveiled in his honor in Washington, D.C. in 2010. At this solemn event, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, János Martonyi pointed out that the plaque was a reminder proving that the "most courageous could successfully resist the power of hate."      

The tribute to Wallenberg is lasting and vivid worldwide. The US authorities have acknowledged his courage by granting him posthumous citizenship. Streets bearing his name are located in more then twenty towns of Israel. (On 6 July 1997 a memorial plaque in his honor was unveiled in Érsekújvár/Nové Zámky, Slovakia, followed by a memorial in Pozsony/Bratislava, although he never visited those places.) In the Hungarian capital, a hospital ward and a street were named after him already in 1945. Jenő Lévai published a book on his life and struggle in Budapest at the end of 1947. Within months, new editions were printed. His clients, survivors kept on expecting news from him for years. In vain, and decades of silence followed.

In the 1990s, there was a turn regarding the research of persecutions during the war and the history of rescuing in Hungary. Memoirs, digests were published and valuable documentaries were made. The topic was included in school curricula and institutional education. Memorial plaques were placed at many locations in the capital, honoring the Righteous.

An exhibition, organized by Mária Ember, Péter Bajtay, József Sebes and Emil Horn, was staged in Budapest from 4 August and 31 October 1992, titled "Raoul Wallenberg Was Born 80 Years Ago". Personal belongings of Wallenberg returned from Moscow were displayed, along with family documents, letters of protection, photos of his driver, Vilmos Langfelder. The catalog of the exhibition, completed with the copies of documents was published with the motto "… to preserve the memory of the Wallenberg exhibition in Budapest". In the series Faces of the City, a volume by Mária Ember Wallenberg in Budapest was published. Schools were named after Langlet, Perlasca, Wallenberg and, most recently, after Gennaro Verolino.

In 1992, the Foundation for Righteous People was established. It still pursues its noble aim of supporting the needy rescuers. On 6 June 1993, the Raoul Wallenberg Association evaluated its five years of activities. In the paper it declared: "For the formation of an honest Hungarian historical consciousness it is indispensable to harmonize the parts of school textbooks that provide a distorted and incomplete description of the holocaust with the facts discovered by scientific research and their significance."

Following a public initiative, a committee was formed in July 1998 to restore the Wallenberg monument in Budapest, made by Pál Pátzay. A copy of the original statue and the pedestal, discovered in Debrecen, was reproduced by sculptor Sándor Györfi. Half a century after its demolition, the second Wallenberg monument in Budapest was unveiled on 18 April 1999.

Since 2001, Wallenberg's birthday, 4 August is traditionally celebrated as the Day of Humanity. On this occasion, the Hungarian heroes of committed humanity are acknowledged. Until the present day, the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has contributed sixteen million HUF from private donations to commemorations. In the series of Wallenberg Booklets, six volumes have been published related to the work of the courageous Swede. In 2007, Memories of Wallenberg was printed, containing the bibliography of articles, periodical publications and studies published in Hungary about the Swedish embassy secretary.

In the summer of 2010, the Council of the City of Budapest decided on naming sections of the Danube quays after rescuers, mainly foreigners. With the aim of cultivating the moral legacy of the knights of humanity, the Society of Righteous People was founded. On 5 October, a play in two acts by Ernst Pichler, "Wallenberg, or The Endgame in Lubyanka" a theatrical adaptation of Wallenberg’s Soviet detention was staged in Szekszárd.

The Government of Hungary, in its act 1378/2011 (8 November) decided to duly commemorate the rescuer Swedish diplomat in 2012 in the context of the Raoul Wallenberg Year. In the framework of the memorial year, the capital and the whole country will take measures to celebrate the centenary of Wallenberg's birth on 4 August 2012. The Commemorative Committee, created by the Government's decision has undertaken to preserve and disseminate broadly the memory and valuable moral legacy of the humanitarian stance taken by the Swedish hero and his Hungarian supporters.

Szabolcs Szita