Breaking the Silence

By Jennifer Tutak
Clearwater, Florida


The numbers are atrocious, Seven tons of human hair, 348,000 men's suits, and 836,225 women's coats, all found at the Auschwitz concentration camp, the deathbed for 10,000 people daily. But the most deplorable statistic, twelve million innocent people murdered, six million of whom were Jews. Twelve million hearts, minds, and smiles eradicated. Twelve million voices silenced.

But there are hopeful numbers, too: the number of lives saved by people like King Christian X, Raoul Wallenberg, Angelo Roncali, and Giorgio Perlasca. Strong believers in the value of all life, these special individuals spoke out against the Holocaust by using their unique talents, influence, and words to inspire hope and save victims of Nazi persecution.

Across Europe, millions of desperate people were being unjustly dragged from their lives, deprived of necessities, tortured, and slaughtered mercilessly. Yet a large part of the world remained silent. How could they? How could they allow this barbaric massacre to continue?

Millions of Europeans looked the other way simply because of fear and the instinct of self-preservation (Silver 160). The war and occupation had put them and their families in imminent danger. The Nazis also created a climate where it was legitimate to kill Jews (Silver 61). They started slowly, taking away the Jew's rights and property before directly seizing and killing them. In countries where the Jewish people were considered outsiders and economic competitors, it was especially easy to persecute the Jews.

But there were some with feelings of empathy and compassion rooted deep in their spirits who never wavered in the denunciation of the Nazis' inhuman acts. When the rest of the world would not help, these people stepped in and broke the silence.

Among these saviors was King Christian X of Denmark. He strongly cared about the equality of his Jewish subjects. Christian wrote a letter to Werner Best, Hitler's plenipotentiary in Denmark, stating, "I desire to stress to you--not only because of human concern for the citizens of my country, but also because of fear of further consequences in future relations between Germany and Denmark--that special measures in regard to a group of people who have enjoyed full rights of citizenship for more than 100 years would have the most severe consequences" (Silver 44).

By 1944, over eight million Germans relied on Denmark for food supplies. Thus, Germany needed their goodwill. When the king's letter hinted the Danes would no longer cooperate if the Jews were persecuted, Best chose to comply.

Later on Best planned to grab all the Jews of Denmark in a grand sweep. However, in a great victory to the Danes, Best only captured 472 of 7,700 Danish Jews. The entire country had banded together to smuggle their Jewish citizens to the safety of Sweden.

Another individual who boldly spoke out against the Holocaust was the Swede Raoul Wallenberg. He helped and inspired Jews in his mission to "save a nation," as well as instigated rescue campaigns by others.

Wallenberg was brought up with an "...enlightened, cosmopolitan outlook" (Bierman 20). He travelled abroad, meeting all kinds of people. Wallenberg, who proficiently spoke English, German, Russian, and French, learned the knack of dealing with the Nazi bureaucracy while working with the Central European Trading Company (Bierman 26). The experience of meeting some young Jews in Palestine who had fled Hitler's Germany made a lasting impression. Later the heinous actions of the Nazis appalled him.

Wallenberg got the opportunity to help when the War Refugee Board asked him to organize and run a humanitarian department for the Swedish legislature in Budapest to protect Hungary's Jews. Treated like a diplomat, he could issue Swedish passports in order to get as many Jews as possible visas to Sweden. Wallenberg agreed after establishing a nine-point memorandum which included use of any methods to carry out his mission, money, the power to speak directly to anyone (not through ambassadors), and the authorization to give asylum in the legislation's buildings to people with Swedish protective passes (Bierman 33).

When he arrived July 9, 1944, 230,000 Jews were trapped in Budapest with 400,000 having been already deported. Wallenberg went right to work designing an impressive-looking Swedish passport. In yellow and blue, it had the Swedish government's royal triple crown, stamps, seals, and signatures. Though it had no validity, it inspired respect, saying to Germans and Hungarians, "...the holder was not an abandoned outcast but under the protection of the leading neutral power of Europe" (Bierman 51).

The flashy passports also boosted the morale of the Jews, who could feel human again. Wallenberg originally had permission to issue 1,500 of these passports but eventually negotiated for 4,500. He then distributed more than three times that, "encouraging" officials to be blind. When his office ran out, they printed a simpler certificate bearing Wallenberg's signature.

With his unlimited funding from the W.R.B. and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Company, Wallenberg set up hospitals, soup kitchens, and bought food, medicine, and clothing. He slept no more than four hours a night and still continuously showed tremendous zeal, energy, and administrative skills. But his bravest and most amazing deeds were intervening with the Jews' death marches to give aid and rescue some of the victims.

With only his personal courage and charismatic personality to back him up, Wallenberg would confront the Nazis in charge, declare that some of the people had passports or other identification and were "his" people, and demand their release. Be it with his confidence, coercion, bribery, or blackmail, he rescued a total of about 2,000 Jews with his trick. He would whisper to the Jews he had to leave behind his apologies, "I am trying to take the youngest ones first...I want to save a nation" (Marton 111).

But in addition to all his acts of rescue and relief, Wallenberg wrote...and wrote. He sent endless letters back to Stockholm through a diplomatic courier with information of his progress, the situations in Hungary, and his needs. But his most valuable writing went to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry.

Wallenberg considered paperwork both powerful and important (Bierman 96). Every time he had evidence of an unauthorized entry of a protected Swedish safehouse or a violation of a protective pass, he bombarded the foreign ministry with protest notes. With infringements happening all the time, Wallenberg was sending up to two daily, and not without results. The exhausted ministry officials, in an effort to stop the paper assault, begged the police, gendarmerie, and Arrow Cross--Hungary's Nazi party--to leave the Swedish-protected Jews alone (Bierman 96).

In another instance 5,000 youth in fifteen children's homes were going to be moved, forcibly, to the Jews' General Ghetto where it would be virtually impossible to care for them. Wallenberg drafted a protest letter to Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the Arrow Cross, to remind him, "Every civilized nation respects children, and all the world would be painfully surprised should traditionally Christian and gallant Hungary decide to institute steps against the little ones" (Bierman 106). The letter struck Szalasi in the heart, and he postponed the transfer, which never did occur.

Later it was decreed the 35,000 Jews of Hungary's International Ghetto were to be marched to the General Ghetto where 75,000 Jews were already crammed together. Wallenberg knew the Jews would starve on the march and that the conditions would be inhuman. He sent off a note and eventually made a bargain to supply the Arrow Cross with much needed food if the International Ghetto Jews remained where they were. Because of the power of Wallenberg's words and actions, the Russians found 120,000 Jews alive in Budapest when they arrived.

The power of his words and actions also inspired others to speak out. Angelo Roncali, the future Pope John XXIII, took Wallenberg's lead and wrote up fake baptismal certificates in 1944 for Jews (Chaikin 27). These and other such official documents meant life or death during the war (Chaikin 125). Another, Giorgio Perlasca, helped protect the Jews as Wallenberg did. He wrote 3,000 protective Spanish passes for the Jews living in eight Spanish safehouses in Budapest. When the Spanish embassy pulled out of Budapest in 1944, Perlasca stayed and continued writing passes. If the Nazis attempted to take his Jews, he defended them.

Therefore, while many fell silent, other samaritans strove to save the victims of the Nazis with determined minds and pens in hand.

The Jews tell a story that every generation receives thirty-six noble souls called Lamed Vav-niks, and for their sakes, God lets the world exist. They believe that in times of trouble, a Lamed Vav-nik will suddenly appear to help them. For many Jews, Raoul Wallenberg is a Lamed Vav-nik.

They are right, he is one, as are all those who tried to fight the Nazi persecutions. They are Lamed Vav-niks for saving their brothers and sisters and...for breaking the silence.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Bierman, John. Righteous Gentile. New york: The Viking Press, 1981.

Chaikin, Miriam. A Nightmare in History. New York: Clarion Books, 1987.

 

Kallen, Stuart A. Bearing Witness. Minneapolis: Abdo Consulting Group, Inc., 1994.

 

Kluger, Ruth and Peggy Mann. The Secret Ship. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1973.

 

Marton, Kati. Wallenberg: Missing Hero. New York: Random House, Inc., 1982.

 

Rossel, Seymur. The Holocaust. Toronto: Franklin Watts, 1981.

 

Silver, Eric. The Book of the Just. New York: Grove Press, 1992.

 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of 
Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.


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