One of the unfathomable facts about the Holocaust is the fact that when Europe’s Jews were murdered, so many ordinary people not only stood aside and did nothing but actively took part. One response to this fact has been to deny their ordinariness; to claim that these people possessed a deep anti-Semitic hatred that makes their actions explicable, if still reprehensible. The other is to accept that ordinary people will, in certain circumstances, walk themselves down the path towards abominable acts without every quite acknowledging to themselves where they were heading. That’s one of the lessons of Christopher Browining’s Ordinary Men. It’s one of the undercurrents in the movie Conspiracy.
But what about the other side of the coin? Did the many people who saved Jews in wartime Europe act because they had great moral qualities, or were they also ordinary people whose actions were shaped by their own ordinariness? Raoul Wallenberg’s youthful letters, published in translation in 1995, offer at least one answer.
Wallenberg, who disappeared into a Soviet prison camp after saving tens of thousands of Jews in wartime Budapest, has become one of the symbols of what are called the “Righteous Among the Nations.” But his early life was one of mundane privilege. After high school in Sweden, Wallenberg studied architecture at the University of Michigan and carried on a frequent, filial correspondence with his grandfather, Gustaf.
Wallenberg’s letters reveal an articulate young man with a taste for adventure, at least by upper-class Swedish standards. He works the summer as a gofer for the Swedish pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair. He hitchhikes to California. He drives down to Mexico City.
What they don’t reveal is a man with the kind of social conscience we might expect from the Wallenberg of 1944 – the one who worked tirelessly, night and day. Young Wallenberg doesn’t comment on race relations in the United States. He sees nothing in South Africa, where he works as a salesman in 1935. Even in Haifa, where he works for the Hollandsche Bank Uni, the affairs of “the Arabs and the Jews” are local colour rather than moral imperatives. (Grandfather Gustaf is quite clear that these are local affairs that one finds in any underdeveloped country – China, Japan, Siberia, or the Balkans. Raoul is a little more empathetic.)
Where do we find the Raoul Wallenberg of 1944, if not in his youthful letters? I think we find them in the capacity of an ordinary person to see extraordinary events and not to stand aside. Wallenberg’s mission to Budapest was an extraordinary act impelled by very ordinary feelings of sympathy and duty: an ordinary man who makes the ultimate sacrifice in the face of conditions that simply can not be ignored.