A tale of two Swedens: Wallenberg’s and Reepalu’s

Not everything in Washington is partisan deadlock. Two days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to award the Congressional Gold Medal — whose previous recipients range from George Washington to Simon Wiesenthal to the Dalai Lama — to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The US Senate is soon expected to make Wallenberg’s award official.

Born into an iconic Swedish family, Raoul Wallenberg volunteered to go to German-occupied Budapest in 1944, to take on an impossible task: saving the remnants of European Jewry from the Nazi genocidal beast. Operating under cover of a Swedish diplomat and acting at the behest of the US War Refugee Board, Wallenberg succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Confronting Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, facing down a top German general, setting up safe-houses, and intervening at train depots destined to Auschwitz with phony Swedish “Schutzpasses,” the University of Michigan graduate may have saved as many as 100,000 Jews from the gas chambers. In January 1945, when the Soviets captured Budapest, the NKVD swooped Wallenberg away and he eventually disappeared into the bowels of Stalin’s Gulag, never to emerge.

His exact fate is still a mystery. But he will forever be revered by the Jewish people as the most effective and one of the most daring and selfless Righteous Gentiles.

Jews consider Wallenberg’s name a blessing, and many young Swedes are inspired by his peerless courage and compassion. But while Wallenberg’s global heroism is universally celebrated, Sweden’s WWII “neutrality” was ambiguous to say the least. On the one hand, it provided refuge to thousands of Danish Jews; on the other, it supplied Nazi Germany with iron ore and ball bearings while allowing the Wehrmacht to use the Swedish Railway system to transport soldiers.

Wallenberg’s legacy is in stark contrast to the disgraceful situation in Sweden’s third largest city of Malmö, whose mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, has politically scapegoated the Jews and failed to protect the city’s small Jewish community.

Reepalu, a social democratic, has made groundless charges that the extreme-right Swedish Democratic Party has infiltrated Malmö’s Jewish community to spread hate of Muslims, who now make up 20% of the population. Despite documented statistics that hate crimes against Jews doubled in his city during 2010 alone, Reepalu serially denies the problem. After a group of Swedish Muslims in Malmö shouted “Sieg Heil” and “Hitler, Hitler” and threw rocks at a small group of Jews peacefully demonstrating in support of Israel, Reepalu said that Sweden’s Jews were largely culpable for any violence inflicted on them because they didn’t “distance” themselves from Israel during the Gaza war. Reepalu’s reasoning recalls Nazi Germany’s convicting its Jews of collective guilt after 1938’s Kristallnacht.

In 2009 at Reepalu’s urging, the Malmö City Council voted 5 to 4 hold the scheduled Davis Cup Match between Israel and Sweden behind closed doors in response to a campaign by the “Stop the Match” coalition, which prevailed on the Council’s Socialist-Left majority to quarantine Israelis and Jews behind a police cordon sanitaire. The spectacle of Israeli athletes forced to perform under what amounts to apartheid conditions and Jewish fans barred from attending events to root for them recalled nothing so much as the 1936 Berlin Olympics — except that Hitler’s athletic PR machine was more subtle in discriminating against Jews.

We at the Simon Wiesenthal Center slapped a travel advisory on Malmö last year, and my colleague, Dr. Shimon Samuels, and I have traveled there to meet Reepalu and his police chief face-to-face in a vain effort to win the beleaguered local Chabad Rabbi and Jewish citizens equal protection under the law. One can only imagine how the Jews of Malmö felt this Passover after the murders in Toulouse of a rabbi and his small children. One can only hope that all decent Swedes, including leaders of his own political party, will denounce Reepalu’s dereliction of duty and inflammatory rhetoric.

On Yom Kippur 1945, just months after the end of WWII, the rabbi of Malmö was informed that a Red Cross ship had docked and that scores of Holocaust survivors were aboard. Services on the holiest day were immediately suspended, and the congregants, led by their spiritual leader, hurried to greet their co-religionists. Then, together with the frail death camp survivors, they silently marched through downtown back to the synagogue, to complete communal prayers and hear the hopeful wail of the ram’s horn. It is indeed a tragedy that the children and grandchildren of Hitler’s victims are being discriminated again, this time by a democratically-elected bully.

Perhaps it is only fitting, then, that a US State Department official, Hannah Rosenthal, who is making a pilgrimage to Sweden to participate in centenary celebrations of Wallenberg’s birth, is also scheduling a meeting with Malmo’s mayor. We can only hope and pray that the light of Raoul Wallenberg will eclipse the bad moon of racism rising in Sweden and across too much of Europe.

About the Author
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Associate Dean and Global Director of its Ed Snider Social Action Institute