A Steely Hope
By Audrey Stallsmith
Life isn’t fair. Nowhere is that more plain than in the case of what happened to Raoul Wallenberg. He was the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the latter half of the year 1944, by issuing them protective passports.
Although he appears somewhat slight and balding in photos, more white-collar-type than hero, Wallenberg came from a wealthy family and apparently was a master at bluff. He would distribute his official-looking papers right under the noses of SS or Arrow Cross soldiers (Hungarian fascists) and then calmly walk off with as many Jews as he thought he could get away with at the time, housing them in buildings flying the neutral Swedish flag.
According to Alex Kershaw’s book The Envoy, Wallenberg often had to wrest some of his charges back from SS or Arrow Cross soldiers who had attempted to steal them away. On the occasions when he had received enough advance warning, he usually succeeded in making those rescues, even though he himself was armed with nothing more dangerous than a bullhorn.
Although not naturally a courageous person, Wallenberg could be fearless when lives were at stake. His managing to survive, after the fascists caught on to what he was up to, seems a major miracle. Survive, he did, however, until the Russian occupation of Hungary.
Instead of returning home to a hero’s welcome then, Wallenberg ended up in a Soviet prison camp and is supposed to have eventually died there—possibly in July of 1947, possibly not until much later. The Russians probably didn’t like his supposed ties to the OSS (the precursor of the CIA).
Considering that his rescue work was being funded by the U. S. War Refugee Board and that his own Swedish government had given reluctant consent to it by making him an envoy, you’d think someone would have tried harder to find him. His mother and stepfather complained bitterly about this lack of action on the part of their government to no avail.
In the meantime, the Hungarian Jews who survived the war found themselves behind the Iron Curtain after its conclusion, subject to the same rape and pillage by the Russian army as was the rest of the population. Although some managed to escape and flee to the U. S. or eventually to Israel, it’s no wonder that many continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives.
No, life isn’t fair. If we think we always will be rewarded for our good deeds in this life, and a period of tribulation naturally will be followed by a happily-ever-after as in the movies, we’d better think again.
Fortunately, some of us still hold that steely hope--which the Bible calls faith—that, while life and our fellowmen may not always be good, God is. By the time Wallenberg arrived in Hungary, many of the Jews there had been so beaten down by their ill treatment that they no longer possessed the courage to hope. When word got around that a man at the Swedish embassy was handing out free passes, the skeptics simply didn’t believe it, but others went to see.
Also, when Wallenberg would approach a trainload of Jewish prisoners, loudly demanding that they show him proof of their connection to Sweden, some just looked at him blankly. Others, however, quickly grasped what he was hinting at and would hand him any papers that they happened to have on them at the time. Since this was all for the benefit of the watching soldiers, Wallenberg did not care what those papers said.
God too doesn’t demand proof of our worthiness for heaven. He only requires that we ask for the free pass. He only wants our willingness to put ourselves in His hands. He doesn’t guarantee that our lives will be easy after that point, just that he will always be there for us.
If Wallenberg did, indeed, die in 1947, he would only have been 34 years old at the time, but he and other neutral ambassadors in Hungary may have saved more than 100,000 lives. Some believe it was his warning to a German general, about what was likely to happen to war criminals after an Allied victory, which prevented a last-minute slaughter of the Jews remaining in the Budapest ghetto—and, perhaps, of those being protected by neutral embassies as well.
I don’t know whether Wallenberg had any faith in God himself. We can only hope that, while languishing in the Soviet Gulag, he still possessed the hope he’d given to so many others.
Did he regret ever having come to Hungary? I doubt it. He could look back on the fact that he’d accomplished much more during a few months than the rest of us do in a lifetime. Like another Man who also died young and, in so doing, saved far more than lives.