Eighteen years ago this April, it felt surrealistic to me, as I sat among the overflowing crowd of dignitaries assembled at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. We had come to pay heartfelt, as well as philatelic, tribute to the missing hero of the Shoah, Raoul Wallenberg, the quintessential Christian Holocaust rescuer, to whom 100,000 Hungarian Jews have owed their lives.
Mr. Wallenberg, a Swede, who graduated number 1 in his class from 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 remnant of Hungarian Jewry. (Meanwhile, the Russians have never provided an incontrovertible explanation of the hero’s ultimate fate after his illegal arrest by the Soviets in January 1945.)
Fifty-three years later, after my four-year struggle to honor Mr. Wallenberg and his legacy philatelically, here 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 this first day of issuance ceremony of the Raoul Wallenberg U.S. commemorative postage stamp.
One of the speakers who touched me, by her presence alone, was Mr. Wallenberg’s personal assistant in Budapest, Agnes Adachi, a Jew who herself had been saved by the hero.
In Mrs. Adachi’s own poignant letter of support, she described how she “saw him (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 slept two hours a night so he could be everywhere, anytime.”
Another especially meaningful letter I enlisted came from Dr. Vera Goodkin of Lawrenceville, NJ who was saved by Mr. Wallenberg when she was 14 years old (and was my inspiration for the stamp). In discussing her “miracle-maker,” Dr. Goodkin, emphasizes that Mr. Wallenberg saved not only her life, but gave her back her dignity. I have encouraged that such a message be associated with the stamp, as teachers use it as a Holocaust education tool.
Meanwhile, Wallenberg’s half-sister Nina Lagergren (thrilled with the stamp) told me that the greatest way to honor her half-brother is to teach children to grow up to follow his noble example of tolerance and compassionate activism; the stamp continues to offer discussions leading to that goal.
Getting the stamp approved was an uphill journey for me (the odds are less than 1 in a 1,0000) though I was able to enlist national, interfaith and bipartisan support. Among the long list of supporters were Elie Weisel, Coretta Scott King, and Robert M. Morgenthau (son of former Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau), as well as that of 100 members of Congress, with Sen. Joseph Lieberman at the forefront. The late Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, was a staunch supporter of the stamp. Lantos — who like his wife, Annette, had been saved by Raoul Wallenberg, as a teenager — facilitated the hero becoming an honorary U.S. citizen in 1981.
In 1993, when I enlisted the stamp-support of the now late Leonard Nimoy, I was elated how easy it was to gain his immediate support. Trying to get a letter from the illustrious Steven Spielberg — which may still be hanging at the U.S. Postal Service headquarters in Washington — was much more of a challenge and took me another two and a half years after Nimoy’s! Spielberg, the extraordinary producer-director and founder of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, was inundated with requests from every Tom Dick, Harry, and an Ilene (from PA.)
Ultimately a photocopy of the coveted letter from Spielberg arrived at my home. After that, for whatever cumulative reasons, my stamp campaign quickly progressed.
Thankfully, since the issuance of the Wallenberg stamp, the rescuer’s name has become more familiar and visible 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, happily, the name Raoul Wallenberg was belatedly included in the biography section of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
I find it relevant that author and Holocaust survivor Martin Gray has said that, “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 legacy.
Ilene Munetz Pachman is a freelance writer and the primary national advocate of the Raoul Wallenberg U.S. commemorative postage stamp.