A hero named Wallenberg: Bernheim puts true bravery in perspective

Published 12:10 am Saturday, January 16, 2016

SALISBURY — In March 1981 in New York, Rachel Oestreicher Bernheim, then Rachel Haspel, was working on plans to start a shoe store — something geared toward helping women with hard-to-fit feet.

She planned to call her venture “Ridiculous Feet.”

But one Sunday morning, Bernheim watched a television interview of a Swedish-born mother whose child was in kindergarten and first grade with one of Rachel’s children. What the mother said changed Bernheim’s life.

For the first time Rachel heard the story of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat credited with saving about 100,000 Hungarian Jews from extermination by the German Nazis during World War II.

Among Lutherans, Wallenberg is considered one of the greatest men of the 20th century.

Bernheim, who is Jewish and a native of Salisbury, couldn’t get his story out of her mind. By the next day, she had volunteered to serve on the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States, never anticipating that over the next 35 years she would become one of the world’s leading experts on Wallenberg.

Today Bernheim is chairperson and chief executive officer of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States. She has delivered hundreds, maybe thousands of speeches about Wallenberg around the world, making people aware that Wallenberg’s name is synonymous with heroism and humanitarianism.

Schools, parks, streets, statues and memorials pay tribute to him today, but back in 1981, Bernheim’s main mission was a simple one: Tell her audiences who Raoul Wallenberg was.

Bernheim did that again Thursday night at a well-attended dinner meeting of the Salisbury English Speaking Union at the Country Club. Bernheim said she probably was more nervous Thursday night speaking to the large crowd as she was in 1981 when she made her first talk about Wallenberg.

She spoke then to a Sunday School class at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Salisbury. Two Rowan County teachers immediately asked her to speak to their English classes. Six weeks later, after Bernheim had returned to New York, she received a letter from one of the Rowan County teachers describing the impact Wallenberg’s story had on her students.

The teacher enclosed a check for the Wallenberg Committee of $645, representing money the students had earned on their own since hearing Bernheim’s talk.

It still makes Bernheim tear up a little.

Sunday marks the 71st anniversary of Wallenberg’s arrest and imprisonment by the Soviet Union. He was never freed.

The public is invited to a Raoul Wallenberg Candlelight Memorial at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on the front steps of St. John’s Lutheran Church. A reception will follow at the home of Ted and Cheryl Goins, 101 S. Main St.

Memorials for Wallenberg are being held Sunday around the world.

In October 1981, he was declared an honorary citizens of the United States. At the time, only Winston Churchill had that honor. President Reagan called Wallenberg one of the century’s outstanding heroes.

U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick said at the time he “symbolizes a central conflict of our age, which is the determination to remain human and caring and free in the face of tyranny.”

In 2014, Wallenberg was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. As early as 1949, Albert Einstein recommended Wallenberg for a Nobel Peace Prize.

So who was Raoul Wallenberg? It’s a question Bernheim has answered many, many times.

Wallenberg was born Aug. 4, 1912, into a Swedish family whose wealth was much like the New York Rockefellers in the United States. It was a family of bankers, diplomats, military officers and bishops of the Lutheran Church, the state church of Sweden.

His grandfather, ambassador to Japan, took over Wallenberg’s education because Raoul’s father had died from cancer three months before his birth. Raoul attended schools in France, Italy and the United States, where he studied architecture at the University of Michigan.

Bernheim said Wallenberg was “incredibly artistic,” and he graduated a year earlier than the normal length of time for architecture students. He received a medal as the top student in his class.

Bernheim said Wallenberg should have been an architect, but his grandfather insisted he go into international banking. It wasn’t to his liking, and Wallenberg returned to Sweden and became a junior partner in a trading company, which dealt with foodstuffs.

Wallenberg was much more suited to this job, and he traveled throughout Europe for the company. One history says that Wallenberg, as a Swedish Christian with an outstanding family name, was able “to travel freely in Nazi-occupied France and Germany and began to know well the eccentricities of the Nazi bureaucracy and was unusually successful in his dealings with the many Nazi officials with whom he was forced to be in contact.”

In the early 1940s, Wallenberg apparently was becoming cognizant and disturbed about the treatment of Jews by the Nazis. Meanwhile, in the United States, President Roosevelt set up the War Refugee Board, whose goal was to save Jews and other potential victims of the Nazis.

After the partial Nazi occupation of Hungary in June 1944, the War Refugee Board’s top priority was saving some 800,000 Jews still living in Hungary, including 250,000 in Budapest.

U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull went to neutral Sweden, which had an active embassy in Budapest in 1944, and he advertised for a person willing to go to Hungary.

The plan called for this person to work under the auspices of the Swedish government and be protected by his neutral Swedish diplomatic passport so that he could issue Swedish passports to Jews in Hungary.

Wallenberg, who spoke five languages fluently, volunteered for the job and would find himself pitted against German Gen. Adolph Eichmann, who saw the “purification” of Hungary — getting rid of all of the Jews — as his final, great task as a Nazi.

The purge began in the rural areas outside Budapest.

“The numbers are huge,” Bernheim said of the lives lost after Eichmann’s arrival in Hungary. “It sort of overwhelms you.”

She referred to the diary of a 13-year-old Hungarian girl who was taken into custody in April 1944 and who died at the hands of the Nazis. The girl talked of how the world was closing in, getting smaller and smaller.

One diary entry stated how the German police had come that day to take her bicycle. They were taking anything with wheels, so they could never be used in escape attempts.

Bernheim said Wallenberg arrived in Budapest July 9, 1044, with a long winter coat, a knapsack and his Swedish hat. Walking to the Swedish embassy he saw long lines of people waiting outside in the summer heat, hoping to receive from the embassy a mimeographed document saying they were under the protection of the Swedish government and waiting for transit to Sweden.

Bernheim said Wallenberg knew these documents would not pass muster with the Nazis. He went about redesigning the Swedish protective passport — the Shutz-Pass (Safe-Pass) —  into an official-looking, Swedish-colored document embossed with the three crowns of the country.

Bernheim said the new Shutz-Pass was designed to impress even the most suspicious Nazi soldier or SS officer. “This document was responsible for saving so many, many lives,” Bernheim said, putting the number in the thousands.

In Budapest, Wallenberg also met with heads of the Jewish community and persuaded them to place 32 large apartment buildings under control of the Swedish government — in effect, making them “safe houses” and extensions of the neutral Swedish Embassy and under its control.

Wallenberg set up hospitals, schools, orphanages, and soup kitchens in these buildings, too. “It was an incredible achievement,” Bernheim said.

If Wallenberg received word of potential raids on the safe houses, he would dress blond, blue-eyed Jews in SS uniforms and station them in front of the buildings to act as guards.

There are accounts of Wallenberg defying the Germans and standing on top of a deportation train, handing out Swedish papers to all the hands that could reach him and insisting that those holding the papers be allowed to get off the train.

Bernheim also told a story of Wallenberg pulling Jews out of death marches toward the Austrian border or bringing the marchers food and medical supplies in the middle of the night.

“The stories are as infinite as the number of people saved,” Bernheim said.

As Soviet troops were making their way to Budapest and the Nazis were pulling out, Eichmann ordered that 70,000 Jewish men, women and children from the international ghetto and being held in a Budapest stadium be killed in one night.

Though he was already gone, Eichmann ordered the stadium to be blown up with all of the Jews inside.

Wallenberg heard of Eichmann’s order and sent word to the German officer left in charge, a General Schmidthuber, that he would see Schmidthuber hanged as a war criminal if any of the 70,000 Jews were harmed.

Because of Wallenberg’s strong reputation and the fact Soviet troops already were on the outskirts of Budapest, the general countermanded Eichmann’s order and 70,000 Jews were saved with one action.

On Jan. 17, 1945, Wallenberg and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, left Budapest for a meeting with Russian Commander Marshal Malinovsky in Debrecen, Hungary. Wallenberg hoped he could negotiate with the Soviet commander for some relief supplies for people back in Budapest.

On their way to the meeting, Wallenberg and the driver were taken into “protective custody” by the Soviet secret police. By Jan. 21, Wallenberg was in the Lubianka Prison in Moscow and no one heard directly from him again, though many released prisoners over decades to come spoke of having seen him.

For years, Bernheim and her committee worked on the assumption that Wallenberg was still a prisoner in the old Soviet Union and worked tirelessly through diplomatic channels for his release.

Wallenberg was 32 when he was taken prisoner.

For 12 years after his arrest, the Russians denied any knowledge of Wallenberg’s whereabouts. Finally, in 1957, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko wrote a note to Swedish authorities saying a record of Wallenberg’s imprisonment had been found.

The Soviets’ position was that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack July 17, 1947, at the age of 35. The Russians said his body was cremated.

Bernheim and other Wallenberg researchers never believed this account and kept on pushing for Wallenberg’s freedom through the 1980s.

In 1989, the Soviet government invited Wallenberg’s sister and brother to Moscow, where they were given Wallenberg’s personal effects, including a report on what the government still claimed was his 1947 death.

The items given to the family were Wallenberg’s diplomatic passport, two other identification documents, two food ration cards, notebooks, a sum of money in various currencies and a number of other personal items.

Wallenberg’s sister, Nina Lagergren, refused to sign a paper from the Soviets that said the family agreed the Soviets had done all they could on the Wallenberg case and that it should be closed.

At Thursday’s dinner meeting in Salisbury, Bernheim offered members of the audience 26 pages of chronology behind the Wallenberg case, documenting things related to Wallenberg since he was taken prisoner by the Soviets.

Bernheim and her committee, which she stressed is a nonprofit educational organization, not a foundation, went on to establish a school program on nonviolent heroism and humanitarianism that has reached some two million people over the years.

One of the program’s underlying messages is that all of us are capable of heroic deeds and that what we do matters.

Bernheim has been communicating this message through Wallenberg for a long time.

“It’s an unbelievable story,” she says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.