August 6th marks the feast of the Transfiguration, and August 4th the centenary of the birth of a remarkable man, Raoul Wallenberg. We are acknowledging both these things in our worship today. I choose to bring these together, because surely the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus is not simply there to inspire awe and wonder in us, and leave it at that. That story is not in scripture “simply” as yet another sign to us that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the anointed One of God. No, surely the story is there to remind us that as we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, be it ever so slowly but surely, we are enabled to help transform the world about us.
Our calling as Christians is not simply to worship Christ, but to be led by him in all our work in the world. Justice and equality are always crucial to the Christian life, and there are times when these things become overwhelmingly important, above all others, as you will see from the life of Raoul Wallenberg. Perhaps some of you already know more than I do about him, and have formed as much admiration for him as I have.
Wallenberg was born in Stockholm, on Aug. 4th, 1912. He was from a wealthy and important family in Sweden, and he became a businessman, forming important contacts with many people in Hungary. In June ’44 he was recruited by the War Refugee Board to go to Hungary as a diplomat with the Swedish Legation. His task was to assist and save as many Hungarian Jews as possible, and he led some of the most extensive and successful rescue efforts of all the war. He worked with the War Refugee Board and the World Jewish Congress to prevent the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. `
Raoul Wallenberg was clearly a maverick, according to stories that I have read. He did not use traditional diplomacy. He was, after all, fighting with all his might for the Jews against the might of Nazi Germany. He shocked the diplomats of the Swedish legation with his unconventional methods. He used bribes and threats of extortion with success, and under the circumstances he got the unreserved support of his colleagues. He worked tirelessly to distribute certificates of protection issued by the Swedish Legation. He had a quota of 4,500 such passes, but through promises and empty threats he issued three times as many. I read that at one point Wallenberg’s department “employed” 340 people, and that another 700 people lived in the building housing the Swedish legation. It’s almost unimaginable.
He used War Refugee Board and Swedish Govt. funds to establish 30 Safe Houses, plus hospitals, nurseries and soup kitchens. Wallenberg placed Swedish flags outside these and declared them Swedish territory. The legal standing of any of this, including the safe passes, is questionable, but Wallenberg was determined to use any means that would work. It must be said that other countries which were neutral during the war followed his example and did similar work.
I read that during the deportation of Jews by train, Wallenberg climbed on top of wagons and stuck bunches of protective passes down to the people inside. At times German soldiers were ordered to open fire on him, but it seems they were so impressed by his courage that they deliberately aimed too high. He would jump down off the carriages and demand that the Jews with passes leave the train with him. We are left totally in awe of his courage and tenacity.
By Oct. ’44 Soviet troops had cut of the rail links to the east, and Jews being deported were forced to march. Wallenberg repeatedly and often personally intervened, even with bribes and threats, to secure the release of those with certificates of protection and those with forged papers from the columns of marching people. He also handed out food and medicine.
In Jan.’44 Adolf Eichmann ordered a massacre of all the Jews left in Budapest. Wallenberg got wind of this, and via an associate, sent a letter to the General who would be responsible for carrying this out. In this letter, he said that after the war he would ensure that the general was held personally responsible for the massacre and would be hanged as a war criminal. The massacre was stopped at the last minute.
When Soviet troops liberated Budapest in Feb. ’45, more than 100,000 Jews remained out of an original population of around 500,000. That this many were saved was largely due to the efforts of Wallenberg, the Swiss Consul-General, and diplomats from other neutral countries. Sadly, Wallenberg’s fate after the war is unclear. It appears he was taken prisoner by the Soviets, who may have suspected him of being an American spy. The Soviet government reports that he died in prison on July 17, 1945. However, a number of testimonies indicate that he was alive after that time and could even have been alive into and through the 1980’s. The information I have included here is from the Jewish Virtual Library and the Holocaust Encyclopaedia, both of which websites quite rightly request recognition for the use of their material.
Clearly, Raoul Wallenberg’s work transformed the circumstances in which he found himself during the war. With courage, passion and determination he and others fought the might of the Nazi war machine and the ghastly, inhumane doctrines underlying it. The sources I used do not mention whether or not he was a Christian. But it has to be said that he lived out Christian principles with very little regard for his own safety or eventual fate.
He lived an inspirational life, proving that even in the most terrible of circumstances, it is possible for people to force recognition for human rights and dignity. He lived for the transformation of the evil times in which he worked. His life is a powerful reminder to us that Christ’s transfiguration does not simply show us his deity alongside his humanity. It points us in the direction of how we, with the leading of God’s Spirit, can take part in the transformation of our world so that it becomes what God has always intended it should be. Amen.