I am always on the lookout for stories that I have not yet heard and names of people I am not yet familiar with. When I saw the cover of this book, I tried to jog my memory with regards to the name of the author. I finally realized that I did not know of Raoul Wallenberg (1912 -1947?) but I knew instantly that I had to read this book. Admittedly, I am always interested in the personal correspondence of figures from the distant past to see how information was shared in the years before E-mails, SMS and social media. The cover of the book directly describes what is contained within which is a collection of the letters between Raoul, his grandfather Gustaf Wallenberg (1863-1937) and Raoul’s mother Maj von Dardel (1891-1979) whose replies to her son are not included. The bulk of the letters are between grandfather and grandson and what is truly remarkable about them, is the amount of knowledge that is shared between the two. Raoul embarks on a long journey and I found myself glued to the book. But aside from that, there are other things in the book that make it an enjoyable read.
Gustaf is the undoubtedly the domineering force in the family structure. He is Raoul’s guiding light in the absence of Gustaf’s son and Raoul’s father Raoul Oscar Wallenberg (1888-1912) who died of cancer before his son’s birth. Raoul finds himself blessed to have a very supportive family and his grandfather both encourages and finances his studies abroad. America is the destination of choice for young Raoul. Gustaf himself had visited America and explains to Raoul why he feels so strongly about studying in the United States:
“It is because of what both my father and I found in America that makes me so eager for you to get your direction in life there. No one has ever understood as well as I have, because I saw it in my youth, how decisive his time there was for my father…. I use the expression direction in life and not “education” on purpose. ”
The first stop for Raoul is Ann Arbor, Michigan where he enrolls in college to earn an advanced degree. But, it is only the first stop and the young Swede would take advantage of being a young bachelor to travel across the United States meeting people from all walks of life while Gustaf continues to send words of encouragement and enlightenment. I do want to comment on Gustaf’s views on women which might cause consternation in some readers. I think today we would call him misogynistic but in that era, he would most likely have not received any reprimand. His comments to Raoul about romance are both interesting and quite blunt. And while he truly wanted the best for his grandson, I believe that some readers may take some offense to the words he writes. However, Gustaf is incredibly brilliant and refined in regards to world affairs. The knowledge contained in his letters can be of value to both men and women. Further, Gustaf’s command of words gives his letters a more potent affect and I found myself amazed at his sentence structure and grammar which is nothing short of clear and concise.
Raoul comes across as a competent writer himself and relays to his grandfather, plenty of anecdotes from his travels abroad. The journey goes from America, Central America, Africa and back to Europe. Along the way, the young student learns valuable lessons about life and as I read his letters I could see his level of maturity increase with each destination. The insight with which Raoul writes provides food for thought regarding America and other countries seen through the eyes of the traveling student. And throughout his travels, Raoul remains firmly in awe of Gustaf, whom he looks up to with unconditional admiration. Their relationship reminded me of the bond between my myself and my great-grandfather William, who was similar in nature to Gustaf and equally as frank in his choice of words. Putting aside his bluntness, we all loved and respected him deeply because we knew that he loved us in return and never hesitated to show it.
After graduating, Raoul made his way back to Europe and through a series of events, was introduced to Kàlmàn Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who was the director of the Central European Trading Company, Inc, a business that specialized in exports. This encounter changed his life permanently and as a result of it, Wallenberg accepted a post with the War Refugee Board through the invitation of Iver Olsen, a representative with the board. His new destination was Hungary which had become the target of the Germany army and a hotbed of anti-Semitism.
The implementation of the “Final Solution” by Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) Third Reich, sent chills across Europe and removed any doubt that there existed a “safe haven” for Jews. During his time in Budapest, Wallenberg committed himself to saving as many Jews as possible. In the final part of the book, we are allowed to see his dispatches regarding efforts to deport Hungarian Jews and his willingness to confront both German officials and the Arrow Cross Party, led by despot Ferenc Szálasi (1897-1946). He was relentless in his efforts and through them, it is estimated that he saved the lives of at least 100,000 Jewish people. When a friend asked about his determination to save everyone he remarked: ““I’d never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing that I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.” The exact number of Jews that he saved may never be known but what is certain, is that Wallenberg did prevent thousands from being deported before he was detained by the Soviet Army. And this is what we learn in the book about his final moments in Budapest:
“[The Soviet Army’s siege of Budapest began on December 8, 1944, the day this letter was written. Soviet authorities took RW into their ‘protective custody” and sent him to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on January 17, 1945. He was never heard from again. The Soviets denied any knowledge of his whereabouts until 1957, when Andrei Gromyko, then foreign minister, announced that RW had died of a heart attack in 1947, in Lubyanka. There is ample but inconclusive evidence that this was not the case, and efforts to determine his fate continue.]”
The truth regarding Wallenberg’s fate remains a mystery as explained in this article in the Israeli journal Haaretz. The date of his death most likely remains a carefully guarded Russian secret. Officially, it is believed that he disappeared into the Soviet gulag system in January, 1945 and was never heard from again. His disappearance adds even more confusion to his story as he was a liberator and should have been seen as such by the invading Red Army. The reasons for his detainment and subsequent imprisonment are not exactly clear. And this adds a tragic ending to a remarkable story that should be part of any discussion about World War II and the Holocaust.
“Across the United States and throughout the world there are Raoul Wallenberg committees and individuals who work tirelessly to educate the public about this compassionate and nonviolent hero, and to assist in solving the mystery of his fate. By introducing the man behind the cause, Letters and Dispatches will help us all remember.” – Rachel Oestreicher Haspel, President of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States
ASIN : B006OALKJK