Sunday, April 04, 2010
The Angel of Faith
by Ari Bussel
“…The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Abraham Lincoln On the West side of Los Angeles statues of men are spread at various intersections. One on San Vicente, another on Burton Way, yet another near the Natural History Page Museum. The men stare at traffic, yet we hardly ever reciprocate. How often does one stop to read the caption, let alone inquire about the person? I guess there is one exception to this history sewn into the fabric of Los Angeles: On Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills stands a shining female torso facing those walking southward toward Wilshire Boulevard. Her nakedness attracts tourists’ comments of the wildest kinds.
In Fairfax Boulevard, once the center of Jewish Los Angeles, only a few remnants of this heritage remain, including Cantor’s Deli, Diamond and Eilat Bakeries, Sami Makolet (a neighborhood grocery store like in Israel), several thrift shops and a Chabad House. Slowly, during recent years, the icons of Jewish presence have been replaced, predominantly with trendy fashion stores I never understood. These stores serve as a magnet for young people, standing in line at 7AM to buy t-shirts they likely cannot afford.
Fairfax used to be a congested center of Russian and Israeli communities. It was a symbol of Jewish LA. Jewish Family Services, the National Council of Jewish Women and SOVA remain in the neighborhood, but the true character of the neighborhood has changed. The predominantly Jewish areas are now La Brea (ultra-Orthodox) and Pico (modern-Orthodox). Israelis can be found everywhere, particularly in the San Fernando Valley. Now only the older Russians remain around Fairfax. They were never “too” Jewish, and the generation that gave the neighborhood its character is replaced with a young generation who was born and raised here, whose distance from Judaism has grown even further.
It is the corner of Fairfax and Beverly Boulevards on which I want to focus today. Diagonally across from the CBS studios is Bargain Fair, the early version of Bed Bath and Beyond that still thrives today. At the North East corner stands a building, shaded by a Ficus tree. Once a Great Western Bank, it is today the home of one of the many Chase branches that sprouted as a result of the financial meltdown of 2008-2009.
In front of the building is a statue of a man with two wings larger than himself. They enable him to fly, yet protect him like the wings of a butterfly or those of an angel visiting earth to spread Good unto others.
Since 1988 the statue has stood there, watching passerby’s vehicles and pedestrians (the elderly and the homeless). I may have glanced at it, not even noticing, proceeding on my route. It is one of many statues that make up the landscape to which we pay no attention.
Today I stopped to read the plaque:
This “Angel of Rescue” went to Budapest in the summer of 1944 as a Swedish diplomat with a mission to save the remainder of the Jews of Hungary from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
He issued thousands of protective passes, set up “safe houses” and brought back the persecuted from the deportation trains and death marches.
In the final hours of the siege of the city, he prevented the Nazis from blowing up the ghetto where 70,000 Jews still lived.
The Soviet Army misunderstood his work and took him prisoner. He was never released.
He saved our faith in humanity.
So reads the plaque: “He saved our faith in humanity.”
Apparently the venerable Mr. Wallenberg exuded an aura of authority. He did not hesitate to pull people from right under the Nazis’ most guarded transfer system. Against all odds he succeeded, possibly only because he had the drive of conviction and the courage to act. Was he terrified? We will never know. I would have been.
In 1945 he was arrested by the Soviets and disappeared into their Gulag (the labor camps system). According to a 1957 Gromyko Memorandum by the Soviets, Mr. Wallenberg died on July 17, 1947, yet they presented neither his body nor other reliable documentation. There have been numerous eyewitness accounts that he has been in prisons or labor camps in the years that followed and possibly decades later.
Mr. Wallenberg received a posthumous honorary US citizenship, and there is a working group of researchers here in the USA still looking into his whereabouts. The case – still alive today – was apparently discussed in general terms during Russian President Medvedev’s visit to Stockholm on November 18, 2009, and might have been raised as recent as March 11, 2010, during the return visit to Moscow by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
In breaking news, the Working Group reports this month in a letter to the Wallenberg family:
We are writing to you to share the information enclosed below. As you know, over the last few years, we have continued an often slow but productive exchange with the archives of the Federal Security Services of the Russian Federation (FSB). The latest round of discussions in November 2009, have yielded a resounding surprise. In a formal reply to several questions regarding Russian prison interrogation registers from 1947, FSB archivists stated that ”with great likelihood” Raoul Wallenberg became ”Prisoner No. 7? in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison some time that year. The archivists added that ”Prisoner No. 7? had been interrogated on July 23, 1947, which – if confirmed – would mean that the Soviet era claims of Wallenberg’s death on July 17, 1947 are no longer valid. Never before have Russian officials stated the possibility of Raoul Wallenberg’s survival past this date so explicitly.
Raoul Wallenberg who was born in 1912 would have been 98 in a few months. He might have been murdered by the Soviets a few days short of his 35th birthday, or he may have survived and lived longer – weeks, months, years or even decades. We are unlikely to know.
What is known is that the young Raoul, only thirty two year old at the time he was sent to Budapest as a Swedish diplomat (July,1944), did an extraordinary thing – he was a human being who risked his life to help countless others. Six months of a person’s life, a lasting imprint on humanity’s remembrance book. May any of us be blessed to have left such a mark.
Wallenberg was recognized by Yad Va’Shem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1966. In 1985 another foreign diplomat was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations: Consul General Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who risked his and his family’s lives by issuing thousands of transfer visas (contrary to the Japanese government’s wishes, for which he had paid a price to his last day). They each showed that kindness did not disappear from the world, expecting—and indeed getting—nothing in return for their deeds.
As the survivors wrote on the statue of Raoul-as-an-angel, he restored our faith in humanity. If only his home country would have done the same.
For his 97th birthday, just a few months ago, the leading Swedish daily newspaper had an investigative piece to report to the Swedish nation and the world: Israelis are harvesting organs of Palestinians (males whom they kill). Purportedly, some of the very descendants of those who were sent to Auschwitz and other extermination camps, those whose lives were destined to the crematoriums for being sub-humans, filth that needed to be eradicated, were now engaged in similar atrocities. Yet, it is not Israel that lost her humanity – the Jewish people have emerged from the Holocaust and still carry the flame of humanity today, alone in the world. Rather, it is Sweden who has not changed its character since World War II, single individuals notwithstanding.
How can a nation, from which a Raoul Wallenberg had arisen, forget, six and a half decades after his heroic actions, what took place? How can Sweden defend, in the name of freedom of speech or press, the vile accusations setting forth the basis for the next Holocaust? Why bother at all to continue highlighting the deeds of one person, Raoul Wallenberg, when the main message that resonates from Sweden to its own next generation is that of innate hatred toward the Jews and their infestation of the Middle East, that any action against the Jews is permissible even after the Holocaust?
Have we learned nothing?
Today, as I walked past the Raoul Wallenberg statue, I circled it again and again. The sun was at an angle, and I provided my own interpretation. He was here as a reminder to me, not of the Swedes or most other members of the United Nations, another organization that sprouted from the ashes of the Holocaust. Rife with honorable intentions and goals, the UN now serves in the arsenal of the Muslim countries in their quest to eradicate Israel and the Jews.
Raoul Wallenberg is a personal reminder: If we are ever in a position of power (relative or absolute), we must always use that power and position to do good. Power is given or bestowed on us not for our own pleasure or abuse, but so we can use it wisely and channel it to benefit others.
At times we will pave a new course for history. Other times we will set in motion events that otherwise would not have occurred. Enable something against all odds, contrary to the prevailing attitudes of the time, only because we will know, deep in our hearts, the cause is just, and our way correct. Always put yourself in another person’s position, then you can easily judge the rightness of your acts.
Raoul Wallenberg did exactly that. Using his position, over a very short, yet most intense, period of time, managed to perform miracles. These man-made miracles happened because one man was driven, knew what needed to be done and carried courageously forward.
We need another Raoul Wallenberg now, when it is popular to make false claims Israel is evil, that her soldiers murder young male Arabs in order to extract their organs. Someone needs to stand up and protect Israel, and by so doing protect all humanity and its sanity. It is unpopular, even dangerous at times, and at present will not gain anything but personal fear and apprehension. But credit will accrue toward entrance to Heaven.
When promoting good, caring about others, advocating all that Israel and the Jews stand for, these “angels of will” will accrue points for goodness so noticeably absent nowadays. They will arise, singly against all odds and follow in the footsteps of rare individuals like a Raoul Wallenberg. Perhaps you can apply his actions to the present day and influence the lives of many or even one. Some future writer might encounter your statue on a street corner decades in the future and possibly it may change the course of his life as well.
“Do not be afraid” is the Wallenberg’s message to me. Stand and fight, despite all odds. Angels from above will protect and guide you. One may even wear a nametag bearing the initials RW.
In the series “Postcards from Israel,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers throughout the world to join them as they present reports from Israel as seen by two sets of eyes: Bussel’s on the ground, Zager’s counter-point from home. Israel and the United States are inter-related - the two countries we hold dearest to our hearts - and so is this “point - counter-point” presentation that has, since 2008, become part of our lives.
© Postcards from Home, April, 2010