Not long ago, Sandra Brett asked a group of young adults playing kickball at the Charleston Jewish Community Center if anyone knew much about Raoul Wallenberg, given that the JCC sits on the street named in his honor.
If you go
What: A Hero for All Times: The Raoul Wallenberg Story
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Charleston Jewish Community Center, 1645 Raoul Wallenberg Blvd. in West Ashley
Contact: Email sandrab@ jewishcharleston.org or go to www.jewishcharleston.org
“Not one in the group knew who Raoul Wallenberg was,” recalled Brett, who oversees cultural arts programming at the Charleston Jewish Federation.
That could change thanks to an upcoming event to celebrate the 101st anniversary of the Holocaust hero’s birth. The center is hosting a free event, “A Hero For All Times: The Raoul Wallenberg Story.”
It will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Jewish Community Center, 1645 Raoul Wallenberg Blvd. in West Ashley.
Wallenberg, who was not Jewish, is credited with saving nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Yet, his life and disappearance at Russian hands remain bold question marks in World War II history.
“It’s a lesson we really need to have,” Brett said. “It is just a fascinating story.”
Locally, many folks know Wallenberg by the bustling road named in his honor. In 1982, Charleston City Council and Mayor Joseph Riley changed the name of Millbrook Boulevard to Raoul Wallenberg Boulevard. That came after the Reagan administration asked municipalities to honor the man.
“The name Raoul Wallenberg has been inscribed in the hearts of quite a few of us now; the street is well-named,” the late Rabbi William Rosenthall wrote in The Post and Courier in 1982 when the name change was proposed.
Yet, few today know that Wallenberg offers such a consummate tale of how one person can make a huge difference amid tragedy.
He was born in 1912 to a wealthy Swedish family. As a young Christian man in the 1930s, he studied in the U.S. and eventually was recruited by the War Refugee Board in June 1944 to travel to Hungary to help Jewish residents facing deportation and death in Nazi camps.
Among other efforts, he used War Refugee Board and Swedish funds to establish hospitals, nurseries and at least 30 safe houses for Hungarian Jews.
He also produced counterfeit Swedish passports for Jewish residents and bribed Nazi guards to let him assist wounded and sick Jewish prisoners forced onto death marches across Europe to concentration camps.
“Despite a complete lack of experience in diplomacy and clandestine operations, he led one of the most extensive and successful rescue efforts during the Holocaust. His work ... prevented the deportation of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
His rescue efforts, however, made him a wanted man.
In early 1945 during the Siege of Budapest by the Red Army, Wallenberg was detained by Soviet authorities on suspicion of espionage. He then vanished.
Why he was arrested, jailed and possibly executed remain unclear.
The Soviets said in 1957 that, a decade earlier, he had died of a possible heart attack in his prison cell. Other reports said a Swedish diplomat was executed around that time. And various Wallenberg sightings continued to circulate long afterward.
The upcoming Charleston event’s speaker will tackle some of the questions that continue to generate widespread debate.
Dr. Jonathan Adelman, a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, has written and edited 12 books. He has taught internationally, worked with the U.S. Department of State and been invited to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
He will use his expertise to address such questions as: Why did a Swedish diplomat risk his life to save Hungarian Jews? And, perhaps the ultimate question: What was his fate?
The local event is presented by the Charleston Jewish Federation’s Remember Program for Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Endowment and the Charleston JCC’s Cultural Arts Committee.
For more information, contact Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.jewishcharleston.org.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.