Kati Marton Discusses the Lasting Legacy of Raoul Wallenberg

On April 25, author, journalist, and CEU Trustee Kati Marton discussed her book Wallenberg: Missing Hero on the occasion of the book's release in Hungarian and the centenary of Wallenberg's birth. CEU President and Rector John Shattuck credited Marton with educating him about Wallenberg some 17 years ago when they first met during the Dayton Peace Accords where Shattuck and Marton's late husband, diplomat Richard Holbrooke, were working to negotiate peace in the Balkans. Shattuck said Marton's book, first published in English in the 1980s, was an inspiration to him as he was serving as U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the early 1990s.

Swedish Ambassador to Hungary Karin Olofsdotter recounted the story of Wallenberg coming to Budapest at age 30 “with only one mission: to save as many Jewish lives as possible.” The operation was initiated and financed through the U.S. government but was carried out within the Swedish legation in Budapest. Wallenberg was not a diplomat but he built relationships with key members of the Hungarian government and the Third Reich to win concessions for Jews. Marton called him “a great student of human nature” who knew exactly what each person wanted in return for favors. “Wallenberg was very entrepreneurial,” Marton said. “He knew he had to out-Nazi the Nazis, who were impressed by authority. Any sane person knew that the war was nearly over, so Wallenberg could use the threat of war crimes tribunals to his advantage.”

Marton also spoke about Wallenberg's efforts to “give Jews a sense of dignity and hope” even as they were being herded on forced death marches. He drove alongside them and handed out clothing, food, and liquor. “Ultimately diplomacy has to be about human beings,” Marton said. “And if there is a possibility of saving a life, to hell with the red tape; to hell with 'that’s not how we usually do things.'” Wallenberg is credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews—perhaps as many as 100,000—by issuing them Swedish passports, stalling mass deportations, and intervening to prevent the Nazis from annihilating the last 70,000 people in Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.

When the Soviet Army arrived in Budapest in the winter of 1944-45, Wallenberg did not hide from them as most diplomats did. He approached them in hopes of forming a productive partnership after the war. Instead, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Soviet Union. “Russians did not believe that anyone but an American spy would risk their life to save Jews,” said Marton in explanation.

Wallenberg's fate remains a mystery. The Soviet government officially reported that Wallenberg died in his prison cell in 1947. His family tried desperately over several decades to get information about his case. But with no help from the Swedish or U.S. governments, they failed in every attempt. In the 1990s, Sweden officially apologized to the Wallenberg family for its inaction.

Sweden has declared 2012 as Raoul Wallenberg Year and many events commemorating his life and heroism are taking place around the world. “I truly do believe that the courage of Wallenberg must serve as an example to all of us and for the generations to follow,” said Ambassador Olofsdotter. “Today, in Europe and all around the world, minorities are discriminated against, democracy and freedom of speech is threatened, there is anti-Semitism, we have Islamophobia, and general xenophobia. As long as this is going on, the deeds and the ideas around Wallenberg have not been fulfilled and his work is not done.”

Marton called the writing of the book a life-altering undertaking that ultimately led to the disclosure that her grandparents were killed at Auschwitz—a family secret until then. And she emphasized the importance of words and how, collectively, people must be conscious of hate speech. “Genocide is never a spontaneous act and the world really does have time to react,” she said. “Words really matter; it starts with words. Then the words become enshrined in laws and the laws turn into action. Long before the killing machines and the gas chambers, there were words.”

Marton, a Hungarian-American, is the author of eight internationally acclaimed books. She is an award-winning journalist and a leader in human rights advocacy.