Top critical review
Well-written but not delving
Reviewed in the United States on February 17, 2015
This is a book that succeeds in ambition, but fails in depth; while it is plainly and succinctly written, I feel it would have increased in rating if the style were more personal; here, there are a lot of anecdotes, of which a lot are smarmy, yet interesting; it's a bit "Schindler's List" which goes to serve memory and what the Holocaust was about, on a human level, but this is really not for historians, neither for people looking for an in-depth version of the Raoul Wallenberg story.
The story kicks off in a good way, where Raoul's relatives are concerned (bar his mother):
<blockquote>The Wallenberg who is best known and most admired in this family of remarkable characters is one who was never fully accepted into their ranks. Raoul Wallenberg did not have the total support of his powerful relatives in his early professional struggles. More tragically, the Wallenbergs failed to play a vital, positive role in the life of their cousin, the Soviet captive. They have done precious little to win his freedom.
When, in 1947, President Harry Truman offered Marcus Wallenberg his personal help in extricating Raoul from Soviet custody, the elder Wallenberg thanked the American but declined the offer. “Raoul,” he told Truman, “is probably dead by now.”</blockquote>
Raoul Wallenberg was on his own, clearly. A man from a very wealthy family in Sweden, he kissed his riches and former life goodbye in order to try and help people whose fate he learned more and more about. And, as such, he cajoled, lied, begged, forced his way, stole and borrowed as much as possible to get somewhere.
But his life is not without critique. For example, even though he saved many thousands of lives through his great, unselfish actions, he saved the young and at times discarded people due to feeling unable to help them. Hence, yes, he was a human being. Hagiographies suck.
The pace between how Wallenberged lived and worked and how Adolf Eichmann was, worked well:
<blockquote>Eichmann invited the Jewish Council of Budapest to his headquarters. He faced eight frightened old men—bankers, lawyers and industrialists who had been stripped overnight of whatever position they had still retained in Hungarian society. They were now beggars. Eichmann made an attempt at humor. “You know who I am, don’t you? I am the one known as the bloodhound!” He roared with laughter, but it was not picked up by anyone else in the ornate lobby of the Majestic. He tried another approach. With his narrow, angular face, which was itself a broken promise, he leaned toward his “guests” and in low, confidential tones reassured them that all new measures would be temporary: “When the war is over, you can go back to your normal lives. Help me, and you can avoid a lot of trouble.” He told the old men what they wanted to hear: “I am a reasonable man. Trust me, and keep your people calm.” It was all very genial, very lulling. They were to print their own newspaper, but it had to be drafted first in German, for the SS censors. Actually the paper, like the Jewish Council he had just summoned, was to be a vital link between the death squad and its quarry.</blockquote>
He had humor:
<blockquote>Humor, the mainstay of Budapest life, second only to paprika as the national staple, thrived. The riddle that was making the rounds was: “What is the difference between Hitler and Chamberlain? Answer: Chamberlain takes his weekend in the country. Hitler takes his country in the weekend.” And so he did. One early spring Sunday, when the chestnut and plane trees on Margit Island were starting to show off their first greenery, the Reich’s army marched in and the music died.</blockquote>
Tales from the lives of people in Hungary are strewn throughout the book, to show how people's lives changed from bad to worse.
<blockquote>How explicitly the Jews observed the new instructions presented them each day is described in the diary of a thirteen-year-old girl. Eva Heyman had an adolescent’s passion for recording her own reactions to the days’ events. She and her family of middle-class Jews lived in Nagyvarad, near the Hungarian-Rumanian border. March 31 Today an order was issued that from now on Jews had to wear a yellow star-shaped patch… . When Grandma heard this she started acting up again and we called the doctor. He gave her an injection and she is asleep now. Agi [Eva’s mother] again wanted to telephone the doctor but couldn’t. Then Grandpa told her that the telephones had been taken away from the Jews… . They also take the shops away from the Jews. I don’t know who will feed the children if the grownups aren’t allowed to work… . April 20 ... Today they took all our appliances away from us: the sewing machine, the radio, the telephone, the vacuum cleaner, the electric fryer and my camera… . Agi said we should be happy they’re taking things and not people. But very soon the gendarmes ran out of “things” to take away. Then they took people. The thirteen-year-old continued to fill in her diary from the ghetto. May 10 Every time I think: this is the end, things couldn’t possibly get worse, and then I find out that it’s always possible for everything to get worse and even much, much worse. Until now, we had food, and now there won’t be anything to eat. At least we were able to walk around inside the ghetto, and now we won’t even be able to leave our house. May 14 ... We can’t look out the window because even for that we can be killed. ... May 18 ... I couldn’t sleep so I overheard the adults talking … They said that the people aren’t only beaten but also get electric shocks … The gendarmes don’t believe that the Jews don’t have anything left of their valuables. For example, we deposited Grandma’s jewelry for safekeeping with Juszti, that’s true. Agi said people are brought to the hospital bleeding at the mouth and ears and some of them also with teeth missing and the soles of their feet swollen so they can’t stand. ... In the ghetto pharmacy there is enough poison and Grandpa gives poison to the older people who ask for it. Grandpa also said it would be better if he took cyanide and also gave some to Grandma. ... The gendarmes finally came for Eva Heyman and her family on June 2, 1944. At Auschwitz she was allowed to live for four months before she was sent to the gas chamber on October 17. Her diary was kept by the family’s Christian housekeeper.</blockquote>
I shan't "spoil the ending", but as a Swede - which I am, born and braised - I know that both the Swedish government and the Wallenberg family hasn't exactly tried to pry information from Soviet fingers, to know what happened to Raoul; we know the Soviets claim he died in 1947, which buckets of people contradict. Mostly, these persons are former prisoners who have met and/or communicated with Raoul Wallenberg. There are indications that he lived well in the late 1960s, which means he lived for at least 20 years after the war ended.
All in all: interesting and well-written, but could have gone far deeper.