February 1, 2012
A Necessary Example of Tolerance
(The Economist) THE last time Raoul Wallenberg
was seen alive by his friends and colleagues was on January
17th 1945. He left his safe house in Budapest to meet the
commanders of the Red Army, which was besieging the city.
Wallenberg and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, were arrested
and then they disappeared into the maw of the Gulag.
A Swedish diplomat posted to Budapest, Wallenberg saved
tens of thousands of Jews during final months of the second
world war. He managed this without weapons but armed with
a giant bluff. He extended Swedish protection across dozens
of apartment blocks throughout the city and issued so-called
"safe passes" to their residents. Carl Lutz, a
Swiss diplomat, cooked up the idea, but Wallenberg ran with
it. The pieces of paper, with their official-looking stamps,
soon meant the difference between life and death.
According to legend, when Rodion Malinovsky finally liberated
Budapest from the Nazis in February 1945 there were so many
Swiss and Swedish flags flying that he had to ask someone
if he was really in Hungary.
This year marks the centenary of Wallenbergs birth.
A new exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum in downtown
Budapest traces his life, from his childhood as a scion
of the powerful and wealthy Wallenberg banking family to
his disappearance. Hungary is often criticised for failing
to confront its past, but this exhibition is the latest
step in what has been a long and painful process of reckoning.
Budapest has the regions only Holocaust museum and
each spring tens of thousands of residents and locals participate
in a memorial event called the March of the Living
through the city centre. The Holocaust was the "tragedy
of the whole Hungarian nation," said Janos Martonyi,
Hungary's foreign minister, at the opening ceremony of the
Raoul Wallenberg Year. The Hungarian state was weighed
in the balance and found wanting," he added. "It
was unable to defend its citizens and, while under occupation,
assisted their deaths.
Wallenberg lives on here in memory. Most of the buildings
and safe houses where he lived and worked are still standing,
and it is easy to walk in his steps. The former Hazai Bank
on Harmincad street, in the heart of downtown, is now the
site of the British embassy and features a fine memorial
plaque. The former Red Cross building on Benczúr
utca, in the diplomatic quarter, is now the Austrian embassy.
The safe houses in the former International Ghetto, on the
riverside in District XIII, are now comfortable middle-class
Perhaps its because we dont know his fate that
Wallenberg remains such a powerful a figure. He almost certainly
died in Russia, but we do not know how or where or when.
As late as the 1980s there were rumours that former Gulag
prisoners had seen or heard of him. Wallenberg has now become
an icon of courage, proof that one man can make a difference.
What would he think of Jewish life in todays Budapest?
He would probably be cheered because it is thriving, but
saddened because so is the far-right. Nowadays most estimates
put the size of Hungarian Jewry at around 80,000 to 100,000,
making it the third-largest community on mainland Europe,
though only around a tenth of its pre-war numbers. The city
has all the rudiments of Jewish life, with many working
synagogues, Jewish schools, and a kosher butcher and cake
shop. The old Jewish quarterthe former site of the
main ghettois now the hippest part of town, home to
plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants. Jewish life is increasingly
public, and the city hosts a Jewish Summer Festival and
a Chanukah festival every year. Politicians from the governing
Fidesz party annually light the Menorah.
But as Shlomo Köves, a local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi,
points out, few of these Jews are at all observant. Many
Holocaust survivors wanted little to do with the religion;
some did not even tell their children that they were Jewish.
Only now, two generations later, is a new wave of young
Jews speaking openly about their heritage and identity.
This is happening at a time when anti-Semitism is on the
rise, thanks in large part to the growing strength of Jobbik,
the far-right party, says András Kovács, a
sociologist at Central European University.
Jobbik, the third-largest group in Parliament, denies it
is anti-Semitic and says it is only against Israelis trying
to buy up the country. Physical attacks against Jews remain
extremely rare, but tolerance for anti-Jewish prejudice
appears to be growing. Nearly a quarter of Hungarian adults
said they found Hungarian Jews disagreeable
in a recent survey, up from 10-14% in 2006. One far-right
website, even more extreme than Jobbik, has nearly 40,000
likes on its Facebook button. Many of its fans are employed
and often well-educatedhardly the cliché of
the neo-Nazi skinhead. Perhaps a visit to the Wallenberg
exhibition would encourage a bit more tolerance.
"To me there is no other choice: Raoul Wallenberg
1912-2012" is at the Hungarian National Museum until
February 12th. It then travels to Moscow, Berlin, Tel Aviv,
Washington, DC, New York and Ottawa/Toronto