What makes two people with identical backgrounds turn in completely opposite directions? I have just finished a fascinating book called The Horror of Love by Lisa Hilton about the relationship between Nancy Mitford and her French lover, Gaston Palewski. I thought I knew all I ever needed to know about the Mitford sisters (and perhaps I did) but reading it made me struggle with this question once again? Of course with the Mitfords – Unity and Diana, the Hitler worshippers and Jessica, the communist – the problem is writ larger than in most families. Nancy vehemently opposed both extremes and devoted herself to writing (Love in a Cold Climate) not politics (Palewski was one of General de Gaulle’s closest advisers).
Next month( August 4, 2012) is the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat and saviour of more than 100,000 Jews in Nazi occupied Hungary. Wallenberg, who trained as an architect, never knew his father who died three months before his birth, but was brought up by a loving stepfather and mother who devoted their post war lives to searching for the truth about Wallenberg’s final years. The circumstances of his death are still uncertain as he was arrested in January, 1945 by Russian troops and never heard of again. In 1979 his parents both committed suicide in despair at their failure to find their son.
These days, with ever fewer eye witnesses to the real horrors of the twentieth century, this is an important and powerful moment to look back. What makes a hero, or an ordinary man behave in heroic ways? Professor Frank Vajda, a neurologist, vividly remembers being rescued by Wallenberg when, as a nine year old boy in Budapest, little Frank was denounced by the Nazi authorities for the simple yet symbolic act of removing the yellow star the Nazis forced him to wear. He had been hiding in a protected house with his mother following the murder of his father. He was marched to a military barracks and lined up in front of a machine gun. At that critical moment, Wallenberg arrived, negotiated with the authorities and led him away to safety. Frank became a Professor of Clinical Neuropharmacology at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and, now 78, has devoted much of his adult life to making sure that the world knows of Wallenberg’s tireless and unselfish efforts to save Jews through a variety of actions including issuing passports, establishing protective housing, organising soup kitchens and personally rescuing Jews from sealed deportation trains among other heroic deeds. When he learned of Adolph Eichmann’s ‘final solution’, the young Wallenberg had a note delivered to General Schmidthuber, the Commander of the German Army in Hungary, explaining that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war was over, thereby saving the lives of 70,000 Jews. How to explain this extraordinary heroism?
The Swedish government is using the centennial to honour Wallenberg’s memory by organising a number of international commemorative events throughout the year. “His actions show that one person’s courage and ability can make a difference. His actions are a model for us, not least at a time when more people need to stand up against persecution, xenophobia and anti-Semitism,” according to an official statement. At a recent Wallenberg conference in Athens, Wallenberg’s actions were described by the Swedish ambassador to Greece as “a constant reminder of staying human even when faced with inhumanity.” The deputy mayor of Athens then announced that a public space or street in the city was to be named after Raoul Wallenberg.
War unquestionably brings out the best and the worst in people. This summer is also the 70th anniversary of the Vel D’hiv mass arrest of almost 13,000 Parisian Jews, including 4,000 children many of whom were subsequently killed. How many ordinary Frenchmen, even if not actively collaborating, compromised themselves in those years of German occupation? Others, farmers or shopkeepers, provided food and shelter at great risk to themselves.
My father, born a few days apart from Wallenberg, would also be celebrating his hundredth birthday this year and he, along with several of his friends, joined up before conscription was introduced believing it was the right thing to do even though it played havoc with studies and careers. These were, after all, young men. He became Major Eric Rubinstein MBE , was part of the 79th Armoured Division in the Royal Tank Brigade that crossed the channel to France on D plus one and spent the remainder of the war fighting its way through Europe, from Caen to Nijmegen and Copenhagen. Among many battles and terrifying moments, he was, in the closing stages of the war, deputed to speak on behalf of William Douglas-Home, the playwright brother of the (later) Prime Minister, who had been court-martialled for refusing to obey an order which Douglas- Home believed to be immoral. Later still, waiting to be demobbed, he was befriended by a handsome and charming downed South African Pilot, a former Cambridge Rugby Blue trying to get back to England. Or so the man told my father. They shared a few drinks while exchanging their life stories and, after a few days together searching for Brussels lace underwear for my mother’s trousseau, said goodbye. Several months later the police came knocking at my father’s door, having tracked him down from the visiting card he had given to his new friend, the stranded South African airman. The man was Neville Heath, a borstal boy and compulsive liar who had once served in the South African Air Force but was a man with many aliases eventually hanged in 1946 for the gruesome and sadistic murder of at least two women.
Heath’s waxwork image can be seen today at Madame Tussaud’s. Raoul Wallenberg has no grave but many monuments around the world and lives on in the gratitude of many of those whose lives he saved and their descendants.