Wallenberg’s birthday celebration and two Wallenberg stories

September 5, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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Israel’s ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem has met two men  one whose life was saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg…and held in his hands the original document signed by Wallenberg which saved Ervin Forrester’s life…and the other whose father was Wallenberg’s right-hand man.

More than 200 people attended a special function organised by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies at the NSW Parliament today to mark the 100th anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg’s birthday.

Two stories emerged from this gathering…one which was made public and the other which came to light after the function.

HE Yuval Rotem, Ervin Forrester, HE Sven-Olof Petersson and the Wallenberg document

Following addresses from NSW Premier NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem, Swedish Ambassador  Sven-Olof Petersson and Anna Maria Siko, Ambassador of Hungary to Australia during which the premier announced a new human rights award in the name of Raoul Wallenberg, the meeting heard a moving address by George Farkas whose late father John was Wallenberg’s right hand man.

Wallenberg’s signature

When the meeting was over 88-yr-old Ervin Forrester came forward with his wife Mary Ann to meet the speakers. In his hand he was clutching documents sealed in plastic…documents bearing the signature of Wallenberg who had saved Forrester’s life.

Ervin Forrester told J-Wire: “In 1944, I was moved with a group of Hungarian Jews from Budapest to Sopron,a small town near the Austrian. We were placed in homes in the village and used as slave labour. All the others were eventually moved to Matthausen but I escaped. I tried to buy a rail ticket back to Budapest but the Russians had bombed the tracks. The only way I could get back was to trick Germans into believing I was a member of the Hitler Youth as I was wearing an armband stating that I was a military worker. A Wehrmacht officer believed my story and drove me back to Budapest. I had to find somewhere to stay and was put up by the Red Cross. But one day, the Hungarian Nazis surrounded the building in which about 20 of us were staying and we were arrested. I was charged by a military court of desertion and sentenced to death.”

The 20-yr-old had only one chance of survival.

Forrester continued: “I told the court that I was Swedish citizen and on that basis they could not detain me. They sent all my details to Wallenberg who did not know me but who understood what was going on. Wallenberg was at the jail within an hour with the necessary papers and I was freed and spent the rest of the war under Swedish protection.”

Forrester’s brush with Wallenberg happened in December, 1944.

And today in Sydney, Israel’s Ambassador Yuval Rotem and Swedish Ambassador to Australia Sven-Olof Petersson saw for the first time a genuine example the documents issued by Wallenberg which saved so many Jewish lives.”

also addressed the meeting.

George Farkas presented an account of his father’s connection to Wallenberg…

George Farkas:

Raoul Wallenberg  came to Budapest in 1944 at the age of  32

My father John Farkas was born in Budapest and in 1944 was 26 years of age

In March 1982 the Australian ABC programme 4 Corners tracked my father down and interviewed him for a television programme it was producing entitled  “ Raoul Wallenberg  –  Missing Hero”.

On 21 February 2000, I received a telephone call from the United Nations informing me that the Secretary General of the UN , Koffi  Annan and his wife were to be in Sydney for only a few hours the following day and that Mrs Annan, who only had a half hour window of opportunity in between commitments, particularly wanted to meet me and would be very grateful if I could cancel any other arrangement and meet with her the following afternoon.

HE Sven-Olof Petersson, George Farkas and HE Yuval Rotem

How all the above events are inextricably interrelated makes a very interesting story.

My father John Farkas was a quiet, very gentle, extremely modest and very humble man who, for 37 years, never once spoke of the War or of his experiences of it, that is until 1982 and then only briefly, would never go to a movie about the war,  or watch documentaries on the Holocaust.  His experiences during the War were an obviously painful part of his past that was off-limits.

He met my mother , who had spent the war keeping one step ahead of the advancing Germans by, together with her 2 brothers and their parents, hiding and moving throughout the French countryside,  in Paris in 1948 where they married and arrived in Australia in 1949 where I was born.

His expressed reason for immigrating to Australia was that it was the furthest place away from Europe that he could find.

Premier Barry O’Farrell, George Farkas and HE Sven-Olof Petersson

For 37 years, neither my mother nor I, nor any other member of the family nor anyone else for that matter, knew anything of his wartime experiences, or as it transpired, his remarkable exploits and feats of bravery and courage until 1982.

In the early 1980’s , a worldwide movement to honour Wallenberg and to ascertain his real fate gained momentum.  Save Wallenberg Committees sprang up in many countries.

Sydney was no exception, where a Committee was established, and just like I understand occurred in Auckland, a small Reserve named in Wallenberg’s honour . There was much publicity about Wallenberg in the press.

Even with all the publicity about Wallenberg, my father said nothing.

In April 1982, one Friday night at the Shabbat table at my uncles where the family always gathered, my mother proudly exclaimed :

“We had big excitement at home this week. 4 Corners interviewed         Dad”

Still my father said nothing.

I enquired about what and how it was that they approached him.

Still my father said nothing.

It was left to my mother to provide the answers, information which she knew absolutely nothing about until the approach by the ABC –  and gradually there unfolded a quite remarkable story –  a story hitherto untold and I regret to say, still in large part untold with the death of my father in 1987, other than small windows into a remarkable past

In doing the documentary on Wallenberg,  4 Corners approached a person in Sydney who had ostensibly been rescued by Wallenberg.  That person said to them :

“  Why are you speaking to me.  Why don’t you interview the      person who actually saved my life.  He is living here in Sydney”.

He then pointed them to my father.

Even in the 4 Corners programme, my father confined himself to describing Wallenberg’s courage because of his modesty and because he took the view that it was a documentary on Wallenberg.

It was only in a lengthier radio programme some weeks after, in an interview touching directly on himself, that the story came to light.

The fact was that my father was, in reality, Wallenberg’s right hand man for much of the 6 months that Wallenberg operated in Budapest and what is even of greater significance from an historical perspective, is that he was the last person in the free world to ever see and speak to Wallenberg immediately before the Soviets took him.  In fact, the last words that Wallenberg ever uttered in freedom were to my father and they proved to be regrettably prophetic words indeed and I shall return to that in a moment.

My father had originally been placed in a forced labour camp where he pretended to have Epilepsy and after feigning an epileptic fit, was taken to a hospital, from whence he escaped.

He then joined the Hungarian Resistance and approached Wallenberg and asked to join him on his mission.  He used a false name on false ID papers and indeed the photograph of him you see is the very photograph that appeared on his false ID papers in 1944. He deliberately did not reveal that he was Jewish to Wallenberg as he was afraid that Wallenberg would then refuse his approach on the grounds of it being too dangerous for my father to be actively involved.

My father went virtually everywhere with Wallenberg , accompanying him to the railway platforms and under the gaze of the German armed soldiers, thrusting Swedish papers into hands desperately reaching out of the still open doors of the wagons and hauling the recipients out and claiming immunity and protection and taking them away, in spite of threats to their own safety.

He described Wallenberg as being available day and night on call to assist Jews.

When the death marches of 120km on foot occurred, Wallenberg set up checkpoints along the route.  When a convoy of bedraggled people arrived, Wallenberg and my father would jump into his car with other aides and haul people out of the convoy.  My father in describing Wallenberg’s actions stated that  “ it took enormous nerve and courage”.

When I look at how I had always known my father, it was hard to conceive that this reserved, shy and retiring man was also capable of such courageous deeds

The word  “ Courage “  has been considered by many.

Perhaps the best description of it that befits Wallenberg is that of Leigh Hunt who said :

“When moral courage feels that it is in the right, there is no          personal daring of which it is incapable”. 

Perhaps an appropriate description of it that befits my father are the words of Jean Paul Richter who said :

Women and men of retiring timidity are cowardly only in dangers     which affect themselves, but the first to rescue when others are           endangered”.

My father described Wallenberg as a handsome, very softly spoken man but a man who would argue with German officers on station platforms and who sometimes became so angry and forceful that he would either jump on a table or thump his fist on a table demanding the release of Jews into his custody.  He successfully intimidated the Germans who seemed to hold him in awe.

His real nemesis however was Adolf Eichman who had been sent to Budapest to implement the Final Solution.

A personal contest developed between Wallenberg and Eichman, who is reported to have specifically have said that he wanted Wallenberg killed.

At a very genteel dinner party at which both were guests , Eichman issued an icy threat to Wallenberg.

He said  “ You have a Swedish passport but you can’t be sure that will protect you.  Even a neutral diplomat can meet with an accident”. 

A few days later , a large German truck rode into Wallenberg’s car which was totally destroyed but Wallenberg was not in the car.

As to my father being the last person in the free world to see or speak to Wallenberg, in January 1945 the Soviets summoned Wallenberg to their headquarters.

My father repeatedly tried to prevail upon him not to go , telling him that his life could be in danger as their intentions were not known.

However , Wallenberg , being the proud diplomat that he was , insisted on going on the basis that he was a Swedish diplomat and the Russians as the occupying forces had summoned him.

As Wallenberg was about to get into the car , my father made a last fruitless attempt to stop him.

It was then that Wallenberg uttered those , in hindsight , dreadfully prophetic words , as the last words he ever uttered to anyone in the free world.  He said :

“ I don’t know whether I’ll be received as a friend or an enemy”.

And with those words , he disappeared never to be seen outside the Soviet Union again.

When my father was asked, in the interview, whether he thought Wallenberg had any foreboding of what was in store for him, he said that from the look in Wallenberg’s eyes when he said those fateful words, he thinks that Wallenberg had a pretty good idea of which of the two alternatives was the more likely.

History is a witness to how he was received and treated.

Notwithstanding the Soviet’s contention that Wallenberg died in a Russian prison in July 1947 , there were sightings of him in Soviet prisons in 1951, 1952, 1957 and 1959  ;   in a Soviet hospital unwell in 1961 ;   in Lubianka prison in 1963  ( the very prison where had allegedly died in 1947 ) ;  in  1975  a Swede was seen in a Soviet hospital who had been in prison for 30 years ;  and there are eyewitness reports to his being alive in Soviet prisons in the 1980’s.

I tried to convince my father to join the Wallenberg Committee.  I suggested that a newspaper interview be arranged or that he even write a book.  I pointed out to him that the world was then clamouring to hear about Wallenberg.  Other men might have capitalised on fame and possibly fortune.

He refused.  He didn’t want to be conspicuous.  He didn’t want the limelight.  He didn’t want any attention.  He didn’t regard what he did as anything extraordinary but as simply a reaction to extraordinary times that many others in his position would have also done.

He died in 1987 , with the major part of his story untold, forever lost to historians, biographers , libraries and museums.

There are two interesting Post-scripts to this story.

The first was a few years ago when I met a man who had been Wallenberg’s bicycle courier in 1944 and who saw him regularly.  I asked him whether he knew my father.  He said he didn’t know what my father looked like but what he had noticed was that there was always another man with Wallenberg wherever Wallenberg was.

I showed him the 1944 photograph of my father and he immediately, without even a moment’s hesitation or even blinking, said:

“  That’s him.  That’s the man who was always with Wallenberg”.

And this was over 60 years after he had last seen him.

The second Post –script to this story occurred on 21 February 2000.

I was in my Chambers when my receptionist informed me that the United Nations was on the phone.  My instinctive reaction was that they were no doubt trying to sell me tickets to a Ball or some function.  You know the old story  “ Tell them I have given already”

I indicated I was unable to speak to them.

After my switchboard closed at 6pm, at approximately 6:30pm my private unlisted line  ( known only to a few ) rang.  It was the United Nations office in Sydney.  Persistent buggers I thought.

You can imagine my surprise to be told that Koffi Annan, the UN Secretary General and his wife ,  Nane  Lagergren  were to be in Sydney for only a few hours the following day, in between arriving from Canberra and returning home that evening and that having heard of my father’s connection with Wallenberg, she was very anxious to meet me but only had a half an hour at 3.45pm.

Of course I agreed, thinking her interest was because she was Swedish.

It was only when she and I , in that meeting, were working out how old Wallenberg would be were he still alive , that she said something which made me realise that she was in fact Wallenberg’s niece and that was the reason she wanted to meet me , to hear as much as possible as I knew from my father about her uncle, particularly his last words.

You can also imagine my surprise when half way through that meeting, in walked Koffi Annan, in between meetings of his own and said to me

“  I  just wanted to shake your hand”.

That was indeed a memorable moment in my life , because the reality was that he was not shaking my hand –  he was shaking the hand of John Farkas’ son.

Someone once said of  “ History”  that :

“  History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn’t there”.

In today’s increasingly anti-semitic world where a revisionist view of history is becoming increasingly fashionable, it is ever more important to record the testimony of people who were  there and bore witness to what really  happened.  It is imperative that we never forget and honour incredible heroes like Raoul Wallenberg, who represent everything that is decent, humane and honourable and who , at the price of their own life, stood up against evil when it really counted.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am particularly proud of my father’s association with Raoul Wallenberg and I have always been and am particularly at this moment , proud to say that I am John Farkas’ son.




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