This year, the Alaska Legislature unanimously passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 18 which establishes August 4, 2012 as Raoul Wallenberg Remembrance Day.
In 1944 the world was dangerous and unstable, engulfed in the deadliest conflict in human history which claimed the lives of nearly 70 million people. Germany’s Hitler was committed to a vision of a master race of Aryans and the annihilation of the Jewish people, and to all he deemed worthless and inferior.
Into this dark hour a bright light of salvation shone in the life of Raoul Wallenberg. In 1944, Wallenberg served as a Swedish diplomat in Budapest and is credited with saving over 100,000 Hungarian Jews from Nazi genocide. The Guinness Book of World Records honors Wallenberg as saving more people from extinction than any other person in history. The late U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, rescued by Wallenberg in Budapest, served for several years as economic adviser and chief of staff to former Alaska Congressman Mike Gravel.
So who was this Wallenberg, and how was he so prepared to battle Hitler’s machine, and rescue so many?
Wallenberg was born in Europe on August 4, 1912 to Swedish Christian parents. His father, Raoul Wallenberg Sr., was an officer in the Swedish Navy, and grandfather Gustav Wallenberg was the Swedish Ambassador to Japan. Wallenberg lost both his father and grandfather to untimely deaths during the first year of his life, and was raised by his mother and grandmother. His half-sister, Nina Lagergren, says the two bereaved women focused all their love on Wallenberg, who grew to be an unusually generous, loving, and compassionate person.
Wallenberg attended college in the United States, graduating in 1935 from the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture. One of his classmates was future President Gerald Ford. He then returned home to Sweden to study banking and commerce.
In 1939, after working in South Africa and Haifa, Palestine, Wallenberg traveled to Hungary, where he worked for the Central European Trading Company. His business partner had close relatives living in Budapest and through them he began to know the Hungarian Jewish community and was increasingly concerned with the fate of Europe’s Jews who were beginning to fall prey to Hitler’s advance across Europe.
In January 1944 U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull requested the cooperation of Sweden, a neutral nation with an embassy in Budapest, to protect the 750,000 Hungarian Jews facing extermination by the Nazis. Wallenberg possessed the language and cultural skills as well as the commitment to answer this call. He agreed, and went to Hungary under his official capacity as a Swedish diplomat.
With extraordinary courage and total disregard for the constant danger to himself, Wallenberg out-dueled Nazi Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann in Budapest from July through December 1944, saving more than 100,000 innocent men, women and children from the death camps. Following the liberation of Budapest by the Soviets, Wallenberg then endured tragic imprisonment and death in a Soviet Gulag in violation of his diplomatic immunity and international law.
The story of Raoul Wallenberg’s epic struggle against Nazi genocide, and his tragic abandonment by his own country, is dramatically told in Alex Kershaw’s new bestseller, The Envoy.
On July 11, 2012 Congress passed H.R. 3001: The Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Act, which currently awaits President Barack Obama’s signature.
In 1981 President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 97-54, a joint resolution of the House and Senate, declaring Wallenberg to be an honorary citizen of the United States, an honor shared with only one other person, Winston Churchill.
At times we are a bit trivial in our use of the word ‘hero’. Raoul Wallenberg Remembrance Day reminds us of what true heroism is. So this Saturday, please take a moment to remember the extraordinary life and sacrifice of this Swedish diplomat, and to honor the courageous valor of a man whose life demonstrated moral courage and love in the face of incomprehensible evil, and showed us that one person can make a difference.
Sen. Fred Dyson represents Eagle River as a Republican in the Alaska Senate. He is a longtime Alaska resident, for the last 36 years living in Eagle River. He and has been married 46 years to Jane Dyson. They have three children, seven grandchildren, and numerous foster kids.
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