Published  08/05/2013

Letter from Stockholm, September 2001

Letter from Stockholm

September 2001

Raoul Wallenberg belonged to one of Sweden’s most famous families – a family of diplomats, bankers and politicians.

He was born in 1912. After military service he studied architecture in America (1931) and became a capable linguist. The prospects in Sweden for an architect were limited and so he went to work in a bank in Israel. There he met Jews who had escaped Hitler’s Germany. Wallenberg was proud to possess some Jewish blood (going back to the 18th century) and felt strongly towards their plight. On his return to Europe he established a business with Hungarian Jew, Koloman Lauer. Wallenberg became joint owner and International Director of the mid-European Trading Company. His excellent language skills and travel in Europe (Germany and Hungary) exposed him to the workings of German bureaucracy. By 1944 the world became aware of Hitler’s plans for the Jews. At that stage there were still some 700,000 Jews living in Hungary. When Hitler invaded Hungary in March 1944, the deportation of the Jews began. Their destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau in South Poland, and their fate was certain death.

Jewish residents in Budapest applied to the neutral countries for protective passes so that they could be treated as Swedish citizens. The rescue operation was in effect tiny compared to the numbers involved. Wallenberg’s business partner, Lauer, was chosen by Sweden to take part in the rescue operation. He, in turn, nominated Wallenberg in spite of his lack of experience and young age. Wallenberg was approved, and in turn made demands that he should have the right to send diplomatic couriers beyond the usual channels. His memo was considered so unusual that it was sent to the Prime Minister and the King for approval. By the time Wallenberg reached Budapest in July 1944, only 230,000 Jews were left.

Raoul Wallenberg did not use traditional diplomacy, and shocked many with his unconventional methods including bribery and extortion. His success won him unreserved support. His primary task was to design a Swedish Protective Pass to help Jews to escape Germany and Hungary. Although legally the passes had no legitimacy, they were very handsome (printed in yellow and blue with the coat of arms of the three crowns of Sweden). He was given permission to print 1,500; in no time he had produced 4,500.

As the war continued to rage and Hungary suffered new threats, Raoul Wallenberg continued to save Jews. He was both decisive and brave. He built 30 ‘Swedish Houses’ where the population rose to 15,000. He dispensed protective passes, food and medicine. Even German troops who were ordered to open fire on him were so impressed by his courage that they deliberately aimed too high, enabling him to escape. In January 1945 he stopped a total massacre in the largest ghetto. It is estimated that Wallenberg must be honoured with saving at least 100,000 Jews.

The advancing Soviet troops in January 1945 were met by Wallenberg, speaking fluent Russian, and asking to visit the Soviet headquarters in Debrecen. Wallenberg confided to a colleague that he wasn’t sure whether he would be a prisoner or a guest. He has been missing since then. The Kremlin had claimed that he died in a Russian prison on 17 July 1947. A number of testimonies however, suggest that he was alive and could still be alive. In spite of Swedish attempts to ascertain Wallenberg’s fate, a report was not made until 1965, and then there was a period of little action until the early 1980s when interest in Wallenberg grew around the world; he became an honorary citizen of the USA in 1981, of Canada in 1985 and of Israel in 1986. There has been no categorical proof of what happened to Wallenberg in spite of new investigations last year by Swedish and American authorities and in January this year, a joint Russian-Swedish panel produced a report that reached no firm conclusion. Stockholm’s memorial opened at the beginning of this month and although it may not live up to expectations in artistic terms, it allows this solemn and puzzling story to be retold.

Elsewhere in Stockholm this month there is the usual mix of cultural experiences. The exhibition of ‘Illusion – Japanese photography’ at the Kulturhuset provides a challenging range of images that make up a remarkable insight into Japanese culture. At the Volvo Showroom, Kungsträdgården (2–30 September 2001) ‘The Barramundi exhibition: Ken Done’, shows the Australian artist in his role of Ambassador for a way of life that is admired the world over. In contrast to the Japanese photography exhibition, Done unashamedly pursues painting that exudes beauty and joy. Like the French colourists that he admires, Done’s art is a celebration of life. His view that in a world dominated by global technology, painting should not attempt to compete with photography or film or computer assisted images. Painting cannot, in Done’s view, compete with the immediacy and drama that technological media now achieves. It is ironic perhaps, that Done’s greatest success and popularity is achieved not in Australia, as much as in Japan where his images of Sydney Harbour are seen as tantamount to images of paradise. Where young Japanese women photographers can be seen to create images of a diaristic nature that convey the eternal claustrophobia of living in tiny apartments in over-populated cities, Ken Done in Sydney has for years sold many of his best paintings to Japanese collectors and a great percentage of his art objects (Done Art and Design) to young Japanese women. Done regularly exhibits in Japan with remarkable success. If one wants to experience not the range of international cultures that regularly come and go in the museums and galleries in Stockholm, but something that captures the spirit of the city and of Sweden, then the best place is the Vasa Museum. The museum is built around the great warship, commissioned by King Gustav II in 1627, which sank dramatically on its maiden voyage in 1628. The magnificent boat was too large and top heavy and sank only a few hundred metres after it set sail. Most of the crew drowned. The boat was only discovered again in 1956 and was eventually, in 1959, brought to the surface. The rescue and recreation of this great vessel is the finest achievement in terms of modern archaeology and presentation in curatorial terms. The actual feat in physical and scientific terms is staggering; the final result, down to the recreation of the interior of the boat and the restoration of the remnants: tools, boots, clothing, and cooking pots, is first class. Perhaps the most impressive aspect is the overall standard of presentation of the story – the painted wall maps and historical backdrops for this period piece are beautifully executed by artists. The most recent development in this remarkable on-going project is the painting of the sculptures that adorned the whole outside of the great ship to frighten the enemy; the colours are fantastic and resemble something between Punch and Judy and James Ensor’s expressionistic paintings of masks. The Vasa story and the presentation of the great vessel are so superbly recreated that they have become part of the mythology of Stockholm and Swedish culture.

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