The local woman who led the campaign to honor the Christian Holocaust rescuer recalls what transpired 18 years ago.
Eighteen years ago this April, it felt surrealistic as I sat among the overflowing crowd of dignitaries assembled at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. We had come to pay heartfelt — along with philatelic — tribute to the missing hero of the Shoah: Raoul Wallenberg, the quintessential Christian Holocaust rescuer, to whom 100,000 Hungarian Jews owed their lives.
Wallenberg, a Swede who graduated first in his class at the University of Michigan School of Architecture, went on to become a diplomat in Budapest in 1944. There — through his ingenuity, altruistic courage and tenacity — he saved much of the last remnants of Hungarian Jewry.
The Russians have never provided a satisfactory explanation of the hero’s ultimate fate after his arrest by the Soviets in January 1945. Soviet officials claimed he died in 1947 but activists long disputed that claim.
In 1997, after my four-year struggle as the primary public advocate to honor Wallenberg and his legacy, there I was at the museum, seated among the ambassadors of Sweden, Hungary and Israel, along with members of Congress. Together we shared rhapsodic joy at the ceremony issuing the Raoul Wallenberg U.S. commemorative postage stamp.
One of the speakers who touched me by her presence was Wallenberg’s personal assistant in Budapest, Agnes Adachi, a Jew who had been saved personally by the hero.
In Adachi’s own poignant letter of support, she described how she saw Wallenberg “pick up frightened children in his orphanage as the city was bombed” and “sang and told them stories so the kids forgot the bombing.” He also “slept two hours a night so he could be everywhere, anytime.”
Another especially meaningful letter I enlisted came from Dr. Vera Goodkin of Lawrenceville, N.J., who was saved by Wallenberg when she was 14 years old. She was also the one who inspired my quest after hearing her speak at my synagogue, Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro. Her letter repeated what she said then: that Wallenberg was her “miracle-maker” in that he not only saved her life but gave her back her dignity, because he felt the Jews were “worthy” of saving.
Meanwhile, Wallenberg’s half-sister Nina Lagergren told me that the greatest way to honor her half-brother was to teach children to follow his noble example of tolerance and compassionate activism; the stamp and Wallenberg’s story continue to be used in educational settings leading to that goal.
Getting the stamp approved was an uphill journey, though I was able to enlist national support from Jews and non-Jews as well as from 100 members of Congress from both parties. The late Rep. (D-Calif.) Tom Lantos — the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress — was thrilled with the stamp issuance, marveling after the fact that “Your chances of getting a U.S. commemorative stamp are less than 1 in 1,000.” Lantos — who, like his wife, Annette, had been saved by Wallenberg as a teenager — facilitated the hero becoming an honorary U.S. citizen in 1981.
In 1993, when I enlisted the support of the late Leonard Nimoy, I was elated and also surprised how easy it was to gain his immediate support. I was even more surprised when other celebrated persons declined to help. Perhaps Leon Uris, the acclaimed author of Exodus, or Thomas Keneally, author of the remarkable Schindler’s List, for example, both thought I was wasting my time so why should they waste theirs in supporting my effort?
But the odds against getting stamp approval did not deter passionate supporters like Elie Wiesel, Coretta Scott King, or Robert M. Morgenthau, the son of the former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, or early supporters like Vidal Sassoon and Teresa Heinz, then the widow of the late Sen. H John Heinz III who is now married to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Trying to get a letter from the illustrious Steven Spielberg — which once hung at the U.S. Postal Service headquarters in Washington — was much more of a challenge and took two and a half years to secure. After a photocopy of the resulting coveted letter arrived at my then-Richboro home, I found that my stamp campaign quickly progressed.
Since the Wallenberg stamp was issued, the rescuer’s name has become more familiar in mainstream America. Students Googling it will find many resources online, in addition to teachers using the stamp as part of their curriculum on the Shoah. Also, the name Raoul Wallenberg was belatedly included in the biography section of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
The author and Holocaust survivor Martin Gray has said: “The secret of life is the power of hope.” Eighteen years ago, as I listened to each fervent speaker at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum ceremony, I knew something to be eternally true: the perpetuation of hope is intrinsic in the Wallenberg stamp!
Ilene Munetz Pachman is a freelance writer, author of children’s books, former synagogue preschool teacher and Head Start special education teacher.