The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010. Pp. x, 294. ISBN 978–0–306–81557–7.
Many educated people do not know the name, game, and fame of the handsome Raoul Wallenberg, although the same cannot be said for Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson. Such persons could profit from British journalist Alex Kershaw's account of a fateful six months in the history of imploding Central Europe and Wallenberg's quixotic but partly successful quest to save Jewish lives marked for total annihilation. The Envoy alternates interviews of survivors and dramatizations of their ordeals with narratives from earlier books. Kershaw also draws on official reports about this humanitarian witness and unintentional martyr; he deserves respect for preserving eyewitness testimonials to chaos and genocide.
Readers will encounter here Budapest's massive (partly self-inflicted) suffering as Soviet armies closed in, two European states' depravity toward their citizens, and one young man's calculated, tenacious, seemingly insane efforts to prevent the continuation of mass murder. How mass? Before the World War II, Hungary had 825,000 Jewish citizens, not counting another 125,000 who had converted to Christianity. Before the German occupation of March 1944, five thousand Jews had managed to flee, while 63,000 were deported to their deaths. Then, in little more than seven ferocious weeks, however, German and Hungarian authorities killed some 600,000 Jews, deporting them to the furnaces of Auschwitz or otherwise "liquidating" them. But, as the industrious and sometimes smarmily charming bureaucrat in charge of state-run mass executions, Adolf Eichmann, once (at least) correctly observed, "A hundred dead are a catastrophe, a million are a statistic" (80).
Pillaging by looters and German "property confiscation teams" quickly advanced to round-ups, legalized extortion, face-to-face robberies, ghettos, starvation, forcible transports, death-marches, and point-blank executions. Eichmann baldly denied to his Jewish community leaders, in Hungary as elsewhere, the by-now well documented existence of Death Camps (42). The British rejected deals offering Jews in exchange for cash or trucks (47). The Allies ignored pleas to bomb and disable such "secondary targets" as torture and killing centers/crematoria. Each day in June 1944 at Auschwitz alone, twelve thousand Hungarian Jews, stripped of their remaining property and dignity, were efficiently murdered as "vermin" (55).
Eichmann, a thirty-eight-year-old Gestapo Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) from Linz, Austria, had arrived on 19 March 1944 in Budapest, Hungary, where "Admiral" Nikolaus von Horthy ruled a landlocked country as Regent for a nonexistent King and Kingdom. Eichmann had "Final Solution" (Endlösung) authority, a staff of ten, and some clerks in his Sondereinsatzkommando (special action unit), that and the occupying muscle of the Third Reich. He settled into a large commandeered office, a life of luxury, and the business of liquidating a significant proportion of the population of a nominally allied Fascist country. Raoul Wallenberg, a thirty-two-year-old Secretary of the neutral Swedes' embassy, came to Budapest on 9 July 1944 on a special mission funded, however inadequately, by the United States, a nation at war with the powers running Budapest. (His contacts with the American OSS probably supplied one pretense for his arrest and subsequent total disappearance, into the Gulag or not.)
Before Eichmann arrived, 725,000 Jews were living, however precariously, in Hungary; 300,000 of them were not Hungarian, but refugees from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere (12). They believed that anti-Semitic Hungary was still a refuge from the killing fields and the Zyklon B gas chambers of the death camps of Central Europe. Auschwitz lay in Poland only 177 miles north of the Hungarian capital, convenient for industrial-speed genocide. Though he proudly proclaimed his anti-Semitism, Horthy had allowed relatively few deportations to the factories of torture, robbery, humiliation, and death. Then the angry Reich, badly faltering in its war against the Allies on three fronts, sent the SS into Hungary on the heels of the Wehrmacht to render Judenrein ("Jew-free") another backward victim of German aggression. As officer in charge, Eichmann complained to Jews and non-Jews that Hungary alone had escaped for too long his efficient round-ups of the Jewish people for extinction in the camps. He planned to rectify that unfortunate situation.
Eichmann, who answered only to Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler (22), knew the war was going badly. But his job, to rid the world of Europe's Jews, was still "doable," if he—the self-proclaimed "bloodhound of the Jews"—hurried. Wallenberg, thus, had to hurry as well that summer. SS Brigadeführer Edmund Veesenmayer proudly "report[ed] to Berlin that … 437,402 Jewish [adults] and children [including, of course, toddlers] had been deported to Auschwitz from Hungary's provinces in just seven weeks, from May 14 to July 8" (60). On 15 October, a new phase of extermination began when Horthy was deposed and arrested and his son taken hostage to ensure his father's "cooperation." Really bad was about to get worse in Budapest, a place Eichmann called "Jew City." Wallenberg saved a few hundred Jews who claimed (truthfully or not) a connection to Sweden as well as many who did not. Eichmann knew the reasons given for most of the passes were bogus, but, like many Nazis, he was a stickler for what passed as protocols of international law. Diplomat Lars Berg, in an autoptic narrative, reported that Wallenberg, while dining with Eichmann one night, refuted the evil little man's Nazi racial theories (117). (Kershaw withholds judgment on the veracity of the account, which at least three scholars have contested.)
At this fateful date, a month after D-Day, your reviewer was one month old, safe behind an ocean in the United States. My grandfather, Karl Lateiner, was a Viennese-Jewish atheist, a bicycle racer, camera parts inventor, and Swiss-trained, expert watch repairman. He, his wife, and baby son had left Mitteleuropa via Hamburg in May 1910 in an ordinary passage on the USS Grant. Several of my grandmother's brothers, including Richard Gitter, had remained in Austria. Unlike so many others, Dr. Gitter barely escaped after March 1938 with his wife Lena and dirndl-wearing daughter Hannah. Gitter, medical doctor to a Viennese theater, as a Jew had lost his position after the Anschluss and fought in the street against Austrian Nazi-sympathizers (so family history runs). He could not have immigrated to the quota-counting United States, had his American nephews not "vouched" for him, swearing he would not become "a burden to the state." He became a hospital orderly in Washington, DC, until he could pass the requisite medical certification exams. He rightly considered himself lucky. Several of his siblings died in concentration camps. Had Karl Lateiner not been so enterprising, leaving intellectually innovative Vienna for New York, I would never have been born. Thus, I admit an easy, even tearful sympathy with Raoul Wallenberg.
Kershaw, author of several books about World War II, offers not the first detailed account of Wallenberg's courage, a berserker's rage to save rather than take lives. The Swede's (in the deepest ethical sense) heroic rescues, achieved without using deadly force, are unequaled for repeated courage and sheer numbers of lives saved in the blood-drenched, heart-breaking annals of German and Austrian criminality and Arrow Cross (national socialist) Hungarian thuggery, indeed in all the annals of history. The more people know of and remember Raoul Wallenberg, the better, whether from a commemorative postage stamp, or through Holocaust Museums, films, television specials, or books like The Envoy. Despite Wallenberg's efforts, more than twenty thousand Jews stranded in Budapest were horribly murdered in the last three months of a lost war.
Wallenberg is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for "number of human lives saved by any one person" (255): estimates range from 20,000 to 100,000 souls, but Wallenberg grieved deeply over the many times he arrived at a train station too late. His fearlessness in pulling people from death under the eyes of the Third Reich's vicious, trigger-happy minions redounds geometrically to his credit. Other gentiles participated in such righteous work, but none on the same scale or in the face of the perils Wallenberg knowingly braved. His photograph was circulated among Budapestian killers who would have loved to shoot him dead (152). German and Austrian state killers seem relatively civilized and law-abiding compared with some of the Hungarian Jews' merciless fellow citizens.
Eichmann, contrary to his bold promises, fled Budapest as the Russians advanced, regretting to leave his Jew-killing campaign incomplete. He spoke of suicide to comrades but was captured in May 1945 under the pseudonym Otto Eckmann. He had wisely over the years destroyed all photographs of himself—so much for a "Thousand Year Reich." He escaped from a POW camp and, with help from the Catholic Church's "Ratlines," safely reached Argentina and another career. Kershaw tells concisely the story of the hunt, capture, and trial of this master and enthusiast of Nazi genocide. He was never "just following orders" (206). In fact, he disobeyed an order from a frightened, more imaginative Himmler to stop the marching off to death of starved, frozen civilians and the killing of Jews (127, 206). The Soviets liberated Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. The rail-lines were long cut.
Kershaw interviewed several men and women whom Wallenberg had saved. The unimaginable but lacunose story of his ending has often been told, but elements of it remain obscure; the number of surviving witnesses shrinks daily. Wallenberg spoke truth to amoral power, to Edward Veesenmayer of the governing SS and to Eichmann himself; he confronted Gestapo and Iron Cross murderers. On no greater authority than his increasingly fragile diplomatic immunity, he pulled men and women from fatal arrests in synagogues, trains, and forced death marches to Vienna. He employed over four hundred Jews, housing them tightly in ten buildings. He embodied chutzpah—tirelessly negotiating with or even bullying SS officers herding sick human beings onto death-trains, ordering rationing officials to provide for those jailed in the ghetto (139), preventing teenage execution gangs claiming state authority from gunning down innocent Jews and pushing them into the "red Danube." "The fact that some Jews survived the shootings along the Danube irked the Arrow Cross, one of whose officers remarked: 'The trouble is not that this [mass killing of Jews] was done but that some were left alive, because so long as they aren't completely exterminated, they'll all turn into vindictive swine'" (142).
Kershaw rightly emphasizes Wallenberg's undiplomatic willingness to break any diplomatic rule if it would save a life, any life, including broken and starving lives. Swedish born into status and wealth, American educated (Univ. of Michigan), fluent in German and Russian, eager to do something in life more ambitious than pursuing the sort of banking career his family was famous for, Wallenberg, having arrived in Budapest in July 1944, barely rested until the Germans left and the hard-fighting Soviet forces burst in on 17 January 1945 with food and medical aid—an event that spelled liberation for the starving, doomed Jews, but arrest and disappearance for the agent of their survival. The Soviets arrested many diplomats and may have believed Wallenberg was a double agent for the OSS and the Nazis. By their logic, no one would risk his life for purely "humanitarian reasons" (254). The Holocaust's greatest hero became a "missing person" and probably, as the Russian government now maintains, soon an executed one. Dag Hammerskjöld, Swede and UN Secretary-General (1953–61), later said of his valiant countryman, "I do not want to begin World War III because of one missing person" (212). How to argue with that rational point?
Kershaw writes for readers who know nothing of Wallenberg, but also for those who may not have studied his modus operandi or the post-Glasnost revelations of his Soviet captivity. His book's twenty-one chapters survey the architects of the Final Solution, the persecution of the Jews before and during the German occupation, the accelerated killings, and then the local, undocumented butchery of twenty thousand Jews by the Reich-puppet Arrow Cross "government." The book's final section (chaps. 15–21) details the Red Army pillage and rape (literal, if you were a woman or girl who fell into Soviet hands) of Budapest. After sustaining heavy losses (80,000 troops in 102 days), our Soviet allies defeated the still determined German war machine and disappeared Raoul Wallenberg into the USSR's prison/ interrogation/ NKVD execution machine. He was alive in 1947 and perhaps for decades afterward in the Lubyanka Prison, another paragon for documenting state murderers. This last part of the book is rather disjointed, jumping from limited information about Soviet sightings of Wallenberg, to the lives of some of his surviving protégés in New Jersey and Stockholm, his family members' grief, including suicides, and an infuriating lack of official cooperation in efforts to recover him. In 1989, the Soviet government returned the "lost" hero's cigarette case, passport, prison card, and pocket agenda to his family (265). Case closed … for them. "Messiah" sightings have ceased.
The book includes thirty-six photographs, endnote references for stories and quotations, and a rich bibliography. Kershaw has meticulously researched his subject, one less familiar than many others involving American or British figures of the Second World War. Contrary to the book's subtitle, however, as Wallenberg often lamented, the Jews he saved were far outnumbered by those murdered by poison gas, bullets, starvation, disease, hunger, and inconceivable torture and brutality (heads crushed, infants thrown in the freezing Danube). The less aggressive, Swiss vice-consul, Carl Lutz, also rented or bought seventy-two buildings to shelter and protect Jews and gave them Swiss Schutzpassen (Safe-Conducts). He, too, was arrested and beaten by lawless Hungarian law-enforcers (62, 131). Practically unknown today, he was able to return home after the war.
The record of Sweden's response to Wallenberg's services and arrest is decidedly mixed. It sent him to Hungary to serve the embassy and, specifically, to save Jews, but the staff members there disliked his swashbuckling style, despite the miraculous results it yielded. After his arrest by the liberating Soviet army (an irony equaled only by the commencement of the Nazis' arrests of Jews as Passover began in 1944), the Swedish government and people did not press for his release. Cold War fears of possible Soviet aggression may have inhibited their diplomatic corps. Other Wallenbergs, who had made significant profits by their dealings with the Third Reich, were lying low after the war. Sweden had supplied the Nazis iron ore, ball bearings, and V-2 rocket parts (259). The United States, for its part, never made Wallenberg's recovery a priority, although much later (1981), due to an initiative of the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the US Legislature, Rep. Tom Lantos (himself a Hungarian who escaped thanks in part to Wallenberg's actions), Congress conferred honorary citizenship on a foreign national for only the third time in the nation's history.
Wallenberg saved many thousands of Jewish lives from Nazi genocide at daily and dire personal risk to his own. Once the invading Soviet "liberators" had imprisoned him, Budapest's freest spirit never saw freedom again. Wallenberg called himself a Hasenfuss, "timid rabbit" (150, misspelled). He was a marked man for recording and even secretly photographing Nazi and Arrow Cross atrocities. He thought the Soviets would recognize his humanitarian achievement. Others warned him—as so often, in vain—against making his final diplomatic trip—to the Soviet army HQ.
Kershaw is reporting dramatic events, not developing an academic thesis. His manner and tone are (sometimes breathlessly) reportorial rather than reflective or hagiographic. He demonstrates that one man, with real pluck and much luck, did (and may again?) make a difference where well-intentioned bystanders wring their hands and cluck their sympathy. David Ben Gurion in 1944 continued to decry the allies' "empty expressions of sympathy which ring like a mockery … in the torture houses of Nazi Europe" (240). Today, many Syrians, North Koreans, and Somalis, among others, would appreciate this plaint. What is our own responsibility?