Hero outsmarted the Nazis

He saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews but could not save himself

Sunday, October 01, 2006


The first thing you need to know about the man who saved 100,000 souls is this: He was a liar and a cheat.

Lying was not simply his passion; it was his vocation, his charm.


He was good at it.

Good enough to fool the forces that would seek, 62 years ago, to rule the world.

His name was Raoul Wallenberg and he outsmarted the Nazis.

"The only thing he could do was lying and cheating and that's how we saved people," says one woman who helped him save 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the death camps.

Bribery, threats of blackmail and bluffs. Those were his tools of trade.

A Swedish diplomat from a wealthy family, he used his influence and money to issue 30,000 false passports -- called "schutz- passes" -- to Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II.

He bullied his way into train stations where Jews were being loaded onto unheated cattle cars, then called out common names, lying, persuading the Nazis these were Swedish citizens.

He was not like others. They could not be like him.

In the end, after the war, he was arrested by the Soviet Red Army as they entered Budapest. The Russians say he died in 1947, in prison, as a suspected U.S. spy, but even today there are those who believe he is still alive, still captive.

"The story of what he did is inspiring. His disappearance is intriguing. It's one of the biggest mysteries of the past century," says Ari Kaplan, a Lawrence High School graduate who devoted much of the past decade to hunting down Wallenberg's fate.

The man they called "the angel of Budapest" was made an honorary U.S. citizen in October 1981.

This week, 25 years later, the angel's memory stays.

Nearly 5,000 miles from Budapest, where he rescued Jews from lattice cars on railroad tracks heading to slaughter, a plaza by the Trenton train station is named for Wallenberg. Hundreds will gather Tuesday at Rider University in Lawrence in tribute to the man who saved their grandparents, parents or friends but could not save himself.

In the end, he was not a simple man or straightforward. He had secrets, and knew how to keep them well.

Even now.

Where is Raoul Wallenberg?

A powerful legacy

Vera Goodkin does not have the answer.

She does not know why Raoul Wallenberg saved her when she was a little girl in Budapest.

She does not know why he gave up a millionaire's life to outwit the Nazis.

But she is grateful he did.

"I knew this was the man who saved my life. He was the kind Mr. Wallenberg," she says.

Goodkin, a professor emeritus at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, was 12 years old when emissaries of Wallenberg spirited her out of a Nazi-occupied holding prison in Budapest.

"I wouldn't have survived without him," she says. "I would have been gone the moment I hit a death camp. I was not fit for the hard labor they wanted."

But Goodkin -- the woman who owes her life to Wallenberg -- owes him her memories too.

"You still dream of it," she says. "Dream as if you were a child. Dream as in context."

In her dreams, she is still a little girl. Still in prison, still afraid. The memories of her life are the things of nightmares.

This is what she survived:

"We were in the dungeons," she says of one prison. "A true medieval fortress complete with moat. It was dark and damp. I looked around -- stone walls, stone floor, stone ceiling. There were polka- dots on the wall and I saw them move. They were well-nourished bedbugs."

At another prison, she stood in a courtyard all night long with other Jews, crowded like sardines, until the sun came up and the Nazis took the men away. "From that moment on we lost touch with my father," she says.

Wallenberg's men were her only way out. They convinced the prison commander "I guess they bamboozled him a bit," Goodkin says -- to release the children.

"My mother gently pushed me into the arms of one of these men and passed out," she says.

From then on, Goodkin was convinced she was an orphan.

"You age very quickly when life is that miserable," she says.

In Budapest she lived at a protected house set up by Wallenberg.

"The first time I saw him, he truly looked like the angel of Buda pest. He was so kind with the children. Playful. Handsome. Young. We just adored him," she says.

"I didn't know what his place in history was going to be."

Or in her life.

Wallenberg saved Goodkin one more time: Near the war's end, he reunited her with her parents, who both survived the Nazis.

"All the time I thought my parents were gone," Goodkin says. "I hung on to them like sticky rice be cause I thought they were going to disappear again."

She was more fortunate than most, Goodkin says; Wallenberg's fate cannot leave her.

"It never does."

Shared risks

Agnes Adachi could not leave Raoul Wallenberg.

"For 62 years I am doing what he told me," she says. "I was his first helper."

Adachi is 88 and lives in Queens, New York. She surrounds herself with pictures of Wallenberg -- "Raaaaah-ooooh-uhl," she calls him in her Hungarian accent.

Aggie, he called her, back when she helped him save the Jews.

Adachi once, boldly, followed Wallenberg's lead in a risky move to save Hungarian Jews marked for murder.

Adolf Eichmann decided an efficient way to kill Jews was to take them to the shore of the icy Danube River, rope three together and shoot the middle one, so they all fell in.

"Who of you can swim?" Wallenberg asked his aides when he heard of the plot.

"I was the best swimmer around," Adachi says.

She volunteered.

Adachi, Wallenberg and another man jumped into the icy water when they heard the gunshots and pulled as many people out of the river as they could.

They saved about 80 people. Adachi was hospitalized for pneumonia.

Such was her devotion to the man she called her brother.

"How can I not do what he wants me to do?" she asks, even today. "It was the feeling for many of us -- if he can do it, we can do it."

"People call me a hero but I don't feel like one," she says later. "We have to help people and he al ways helped people. He helped everyone every time."

Late at night, alone, Adachi looks to the pictures of Wallenberg that fill her home.

"I am crazy," she laughs. "I'm always talking to them."

"He's alive," she says later, the hope perhaps mingled with a faith in humanity that burned since the moment she met him.

"He's alive now."

Too much time

Marvin Makinen believes Wallenberg cannot be alive.

"I think it's not reasonable to expect that anymore," he says.

Makinen is a professor at the University of Chicago who's been investigating Wallenberg's fate for 25 years.

He believes the Soviets lied about Wallenberg's death in 1947, that he survived years of prison isolation and eventually died in a psychiatric hospital, perhaps living into his 80s.

Makinen knows life in a Soviet prison firsthand from his own eight years as a prisoner.

Makinen was a student in Berlin in 1961 when he began spying for U.S. Army Intelligence. He was ar rested by the Soviets and sen tenced to Vladimir prison, the same prison where Wallenberg is believed to have been held.

Life in a Soviet prison is harsh, Makinen says. He was kept in an isolation cell; food was minimal and not very nourishing.

"They did not physically abuse me," he says, but he came out of prison weighing 105 pounds.

"Prison is considered a harsher sentence than labor camp," he says.

Years later, in investigating the Wallenberg case, Makinen returned to the same prison at Vladimir. He interviewed witnesses who said they had seen Wallenberg at the prison after 1947.

Along with data base guru Ari Kaplan, Makinen linked their testimony to prisoner identification cards and came up with five prisoners for whom they could not establish identities.

Makinen and Kaplan believe Wallenberg is one of those five.

"It's difficult to grasp the injustice of it," says Kaplan, who made a dozen trips to Russia investigating Wallenberg's fate. "He saved 100,000 people and was put in solitary confinement for 25 years. A lot of Nazis in the same prison were released on good behavior after a few years."

But the question remains: Why could Wallenberg save so many people and be unable to save him self?

For Kaplan, the question is turned around.

"Why aren't there more people like him?"

The Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Committee of New Jersey, the Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Holocaust Center at Rider University and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education are sponsoring a Wallenberg tribute 7 p.m. Tuesday at Rider University. Speakers include Vera Goodkin and Marvin Makinen.

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