Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Book Report

    On September 12th, Papa, Mama, my sister, and I were in town for a viola recital and took a few moments before finding our seats—or actually even the parking lot—to stop at the library to drop off books and get new ones. I thought we had allotted ourselves plenty of time to browse before picking out the books we found interesting, but when we got to town, we discovered we had taken a long time driving there. Well, I wanted to get my limit of books, so I took hurried glances at the shelves, trying to spot the fascinating ones by covers and titles. I always let a few books slip through this first process of selection because I have found fascinating books hidden under an uninteresting title. The next thing I do when selecting books is to quickly flip through the pages for an interesting bit of dialogue or a captivating passage. (Even with this selection process, a few dull books always slip through.) As I was in a hurry, these were the only ones of my book-choosing methods that were employed, and I didn't give careful thought to even these! So, I grabbed a book, flipped through it: uninteresting, put it back. “This looks interesting: keep!” Grab another, look, flip through it: “Yes, this looks fascinating.” A name of a book looked familiar: Wallenberg. “Hmm...It seems to me that many years ago I was reading a book of ours with many short stories and one was about him. I suppose a book about him would be interesting,” and so I picked out one of the books on Wallenberg and reached my limit of ten books.  
     We arrived at the concert with plenty of time to spare, and had an enjoyable evening. At home, I started looking over my books again with the intent of finding the first to read. I opened Lost Hero: The Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg. It was interesting, as I had expected, and Mama asked if I would read it aloud. So I read whenever I could.
   The book starts out with a background to the Wallenberg story. The Nazis' Final Solution had touched all the Jews in Europe except for the Hungarian Jews. Hungary, a member of the Axis, had wanted to keep some of their Jews, and did not want to go along with all the Nazis' ideas.
The Germans knew that Hungary was considering negotiating a separate armistice with the allies. Fearing that the buffer of surrounding countries would be deflated, the Nazis marched into Hungary and took over the government. Adolf Eichmann, the head of the Gestapo's Jewish affairs section, was sent by Himmler to Hungary with orders to get rid of the Jews as quickly as possible and let none escape.
   By June 30, 1943, 7000 Hungarians had been deported to Auschwitz and the Hungarian countryside was free of Jews. Right before Eichmann could start deporting Jews from Budapest, the Hungarian regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, ordered the deportations stopped. Horthy didn't want to lose all the wealthy and important Jews. Meanwhile, the Allies had learned of the Nazi atrocities toward Jews, and even though they appointed committees to see what could be done, no measures for halting the extermination of the Jews were taken. Finally, in January of 1944, a report, which charged the State Department of being fully capable of rescuing the Jews but so callous that it used its capabilities instead to prevent the rescue of Jews, was handed to the President of the United States. A week later, the War Refugee board was established. One of its plans was to send in a neutral diplomat into Hungary to try to put some Jews under the protection of a neutral government. 
    They chose a Swede named Raoul Wallenberg. He was from an important banking family in Sweden. His grandfather was a diplomat. Raoul had visited the United States to study architecture at the University of Michigan and had also traveled to Palestine to work in a bank for a trading company. He was currently working for the Middle European Trading Corporation.
   Wallenberg was patriotic, calm in the face of danger, and greatly disturbed by the persecution of the European Jews. He knew how important time was in saving as many lives as possible. He immediately formed on organization to distribute Swedish protective passes to the Jews.
Other neutral countries also permitted a specific number of protective passes to be given to the Jews, but the Swedish passes were more respected. Wallenberg knew if there were too many Swedish passes, their value would lessen, so he had to distribute them wisely, but he wouldn't order those counterfeiting them to stop. He would go right to the leaders of the opposition, and amazingly, it seemed they would bow to him. At a meeting with Wallenberg, Eichmann even offered to ship the protected Jews out to Sweden for him, but he did not accept the offer, knowing that as soon as those Jews were gone, his chances of saving any more would also vanish.  After Wallenberg left the meeting, Eichmann ordered him liquidated. But Wallenberg didn't give up. He worked tirelessly and barely slept. Once, Wallenberg's car was crushed by a military vehicle. His life was in danger, but he still gave his all. He succeeded in stalling the Hungarians when they decided to give in to the Nazi's demands for the deportation of the Jews.
    But Eichmann would not be deterred from his goal either, he also knew that time was key. He started death marches to Germany without Hungarian permission. These marches contained mostly the young, old, and weak. The healthy, strong Jews were in a battalion of workers whom Wallenberg had persuaded the Hungarians to keep in the city. 
   When Wallenberg heard of the death marches, he immediately got together a caravan of trucks full of food and workers, and headed out to the group farthest away at the train station. He had to pass many tired, hungry, and rugged Jews on the way, but he knew that those at the station would need help the most.  When he got to the station, he persuaded the officer in charge of loading the Jews onto the trains to let him take some off. He said that he was sure some of the Jews had protective passes and that some might have been stolen from them. He told all the Jews with protective passes to form a line and get into his truck. He looked at a blank page in his book and started calling out common Jewish names. He knew he couldn't rescue all of them, so he went through whispering, “I want to save you all, but they will only let me take a few. So please forgive me, but I must save the young ones because I want to save a nation.” He was able to save 300 of 3000 gathered at the train station on November 23rd. He unloaded most of his food for those he left behind to make room in his trucks. On the way back he would stop to grab children from the dying and hide them on the floor of his car, and also to hand out more passes. His trucks were too full to take any more adults back with him, so they would have to try to make it back on foot. He set up a soup kitchen to dispense the last of his food and medicine, but he knew it was hopeless for these marchers; even if they were permitted to go back, they were too weak to walk back to Budapest. 
    But then Eichmann seemed to come to a dead end. The SS didn't want the Jews Eichmann had brought to the border. The Hungarian Nazis (Arrow Cross) didn't want to escort the marches anymore, and Himmler closed the death camps. It seemed as if only Eichmann and Wallenberg cared passionately about the fate of the Jews. 
   Eichmann decided to take the work brigades. Wallenberg rushed down to the station, and once again, the officer in charge capitulated to his authority. But he was only able to save about 300 of the 17,000 in the work brigades, because the next time Wallenberg went down to the station, the officer in charge had been replaced by a senior officer who chased Wallenberg from the station. This failure made Wallenberg very miserable.
     But the Russians were coming and he worked to keep as many Jews as he could until then. The invasion was imminent, so he also made plans for a foundation to help the Jews after the war. The Germans pulled out, but that seemed only the beginning of terror. The Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) now roamed free, scorning laws and authority.  While the Germans were in charge, at least there was order and some respect of authority, but now it was just chaos. The Arrow Cross would randomly pick a house of Jews and bring them to their torture chambers and then march them down to the Danube and shoot them. Arrow Cross leaders who may have kept order went into hiding, and evil had free reign.
   This seemed the most dangerous time; still, while traditional authority and power was crumbling, Wallenberg seemed to be a powerful force.  When Wallenberg's driver was taken, he got a new driver and told him to drive to the place where the old driver was held, Wallenberg walked in and took him back. He saved many of his people with ingenious methods. It was amazing that amongst such lawlessness, he still was able to exercise authority.
     For the last few days, everyone went into hiding. The Russians started going through the town. Wallenberg was the first neutral diplomat to be liberated. He was planning to go to the temporary Russian headquarters in Debrecen to propose his plan for post-war aid to the Jews and to discuss the liberation of the Jewish Ghettos. He was never seen free again.
     Some think he was one of the first victims of the Cold War. Others believe that he may have been killed in the chaos immediately following the invasion. Years later, Soviet officials claimed that unbeknownst to them, he was captured by some of their men and died of a heart problem in prison in 1947. But by then, all the people involved in this claim had already died. Wallenberg did not have heart problems, so the Soviet's explanation seemed unlikely to the author of the book. The most convincing theory of his disappearance is that the NKVD arrested him, and he remained a prisoner for the rest of his life. Sightings lead many to believe that he was imprisoned up to the mid-1960s when he was believed to have died.
      I really enjoyed reading this book, but the end of the book is quite sad, as the mystery of his disappearance was never fully solved. It was encouraging to read that one man was able to do so much to save lives, and would do it even though there were so many against him.
    But if God was for him in rescuing Jews, who could be against him?