Jewish Journal


December 1, 2012

Wallenberg and Rustin: Two Extraordinary and Widely Unknown Figures



Bayard Rustin and Raoul Wallenberg

This year marks the 100th year since the birth of two extraordinary men.  The first time I heard and learned about both Raoul Wallenberg and Bayard Rustin was just this year, and I have come to understand that there are a great deal of people who are unaware of these amazing men, who truly represent the best of humanity.

Raoul Wallenberg (August 4, 1912 – July 17, 1947?)

In the spring of 1944, Adolf Eichmann had gone to Hungary to complete Hitler’s “Final Solution” before the war ended.  He was rapidly sending 10,000 to 12,000 Jews to the gas chambers every day.  That spring, the American government was trying to stop him, and so President Roosevelt sent Iver Olsen to Stockholm as an official representative of the American War Refugee Board.  Olsen was looking for a man willing to walk into the jaws of the Nazi death machine, someone who spoke both Hungarian and German, someone with an independent spirit who would not need much oversight or direction.  Raoul Wallenberg, who was a Christian Swede, architect, businessman, diplomat, and humanitarian, was highly recommended.

Raoul Wallenberg quickly established an office and “hired” 400 Jewish volunteers to run his “rescue campaign.” His mission was to save what remained of the Hungarian Jewish population.  Wallenberg invented a special Swedish passport for Jews, the Schutzpass, which granted Swedish citizenship and immunity from deportation to the death camps.  The Schutzpass alone is credited with saving 20,000 Jewish lives.  Using his American funds, Wallenberg found thirty-two buildings to rent.  Wallenberg’s “safe houses,” which were protected by Swedish diplomatic immunity, saved around 15,000 Jewish lives.


Jews rescued by  Wallenberg             Hospital est. by Wallenberg          Swedish passport                                                                 

In the last days of the occupation, German troops, along with Hungarian Nazis, assembled around the Jewish ghetto in preparation for a massacre. When he learned of the plan, Wallenberg confronted the Nazi commander, persuading him that if he allowed the attack on the ghetto to go forward, Wallenberg would see that he was hanged for crimes against humanity after the war. The frightened Nazi, who knew Hitler was about to be defeated, called off the assault. The lives of 70,000 Jews were saved.

On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg was taken into Soviet custody, after which he mysteriously disappeared.  There is a theory that Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet military counter intelligence (later know as the KGB), and taken into the Soviet Union as a “prisoner of war.”  It is a sad irony of the time that one who saved so many could not save himself.  Wallenberg led one of the most extensive and successful rescue efforts during the Holocaust.  He has since been made an honorary citizen of Canada, Hungary and Israel in recognition of his valor.  In Israel, he is honored at Yad Vashem—Jerusalem's memorial to Holocaust victims—as the most outstanding of the "Righteous Gentiles."

“For me there is no choice.  I’ve taken on this assignment and I’d never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing inside myself I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”  - Raoul Wallenberg

To see video of Wallenberg, please click {Here}.

Source: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, By Penny Schreiber.  Article found on the University of Michigan’s website for their Wallenberg medal and lecture.  Wallenberg received his degree in architecture at the university. 


Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 - August 24, 1987)

Bayard Rustin was a master strategist and tireless activist, and has been called the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement.  Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the U.S.  He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.  By the late 1950s, Rustin had emerged as a key adviser to King.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will be forever known as the day that confirmed the success of the civil rights movement and launched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into being one of the most influential civil rights leaders in time.  During the planning of the march, Rustin drilled the hundreds of off-duty police officers and firefighters who had volunteered to serve as marshals.  He made them take off their guns and coached them in the techniques of nonviolent crowd control he had brought back from a pilgrimage to India.  On the day of the march, the marchers weren’t rioting or trashing the streets.  More than 200,000 were guided by thousands of “bus captains,” each referring frequently to Rustin’s 12-page manual on where to park, what to shout, where the bathrooms were.

Rustin had gone to prison as a conscientious objector during World War II, and had been jailed more than 25 other times as a protester.  He was involved with several protest causes over his lifetime: segregation, Japanese internees, draft resisters, workers’ rights, chain-gang prisoners, the anti-nuclear movement and South African apartheid. 



King and Rustin                                   1963 March in Washington and planning meeting

Despite these achievements, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.  Other black leaders disapproved of his frank sexuality and its attendant arrest record.  In 1960, Adam Clayton Powell, the minister-congressman from Harlem, threatened to float a rumor that King was one of Rustin’s lovers if King didn’t exile him from his inner circle. King pushed him away, reluctantly, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Rustin was responsible for helping to launch.  Three years later, Rustin had been asked to come back on board with the main civil rights leaders, to help them organize the March in Washington.  They knew that nobody better then Rustin could organize such a prolific event.  

Rustin believed that the call for justice was so imperative that it was not just up to the oppressed to respond.  And he believed that no matter how grim the political times, we each had the power to create hope every day by our actions in the world. 

“God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue.  What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.” – Bayard Rustin

To see video on Rustin, please click {Here}

Source: Washington Post article Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington, was crucial to the movement.

Questions that should be looked at...
Many baffling questions have come up for me, such as:  While growing up, why wasn’t I taught about these two men in school?  Why is it that so many Jews and African Americans are unaware of Rustin and Wallenberg?  It is an unjustice that these men are so unknown.

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