Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Happy Mother (2)

Last week, I ended by promising to tell you where Joan and I went Monday night a week ago and why it seemed fortuitous, almost to the point of being eerily so, that we happened to go there precisely while I was in the middle of Rabbi Yissakhar Shlomo Teichthal’s Eim Habanim Semeicha, which book I wrote about in detail last week. I don’t want to repeat myself here, only to note again that I read the book in Pesach Schindler’s very able translation, that it was published by KTAV Publishing in Hoboken, and that it is readily available on-line and in Jewish bookstores under the unwieldy (and unfortunately off-putting) title, Restoration of Zion as a Response During the Holocaust. And also that it is a work not only of real (as opposed to computer-generated) erudition, but also one of intellectual integrity so impressive—and so humbling—that it would be an extraordinary work even if it hadn’t been written in 1943 in Budapest by a man who had every reason to wonder if he was survive long enough to finish his work on it. (Just to recap, Rabbi Teichthal did live long enough to finish the book, but he did not survive the war. He died in a German cattle car as the last surviving prisoners at Auschwitz were evacuated to keep them from being captured by the Red Army and telling their liberators, and through them thus also the rest of the world, the brutal truth about the Nazi war against the Jews.)

So where did Joan and I go on the Monday night of Chol Hamoed Sukkot? Well, the story begins a few weeks earlier when I unexpectedly and slightly inexplicably received an invitation to attend a concert version of Wallenberg, a new musical about Raoul Wallenberg, that was to be performed that Monday evening at the Consulate General of Hungary on West Fifty-Second Street in Manhattan. Why the invitation came to me, I had no idea. (I actually still don’t, although I think I can guess.) But it sounded interesting. And Joan, who directs the dramatics program at the Solomon Schechter High School in Glen Cove, is always ready to see new productions...and especially ones with strong Jewish themes. So she was interested in going. And I was too. (I set some of the opening chapters of my third novel, The Sword of Goliath, in the Czech Consulate on Madison Avenue, but I just made up most of the details. Here was a chance actually to visit such a place...and as an invited guest to boot!) We accepted the invitation and received an e-mail back almost immediately confirming that we would be expected and that our names would appear on the guest list.

Raoul Wallenberg has always been a kind of icon for me. Many readers will know that he was the single person who saved more Jews from the Germans during the war both than any other individual and also than any organization or government. (Indeed, the only way to deny him that status would be to count the Allies’ armies as an organization and claim that they saved all the remaining Jews in occupied Europe by defeating the Nazis. But if we consider only people acting while the war was raging, then Wallenberg’s status is unassailable.) There’s something innately ghoulish about considering numbers such as these as though they were the results of some sort of macabre contest, but there’s also something to be learnt from such a comparison. Oskar Schindler, for example, was responsible for saving about 1,200 Jewish lives during the war. The regretfully less famous Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania, facilitated the escape of about 6,000 Jews. You’ll find an extremely moving selection of stories regarding individuals from all over Europe who risked everything to save individual Jews and Jewish families at But Wallenberg was personally responsible for saving over 100,000 Jewish lives in Hungary during the war. And the way he saved them—risking not only his status as a diplomat representing a “neutral” country, but also his life—is the stuff not only of legend, but also of this musical Joan and I went to see in the Hungarian Consulate.

The stories themselves are almost unbelievable: stories about Wallenberg handing out official-looking but actually legally meaningless “protective passports” identifying simple Hungarian Jews (most of whom had probably never even met a Swede before) as citizens of Sweden, Wallenberg actually climbing on top of trains packed with Jews being deported to their deaths and handing such phony “passports” to as many people as he could through the doors of the trains before they were sealed, Wallenberg running a series of thirty-two “safe houses” he personally (and acting solely on his own authority) designated as Swedish territory in which about 10,000 people were sheltered, Wallenberg hiring divers to fish Jews out of the Danube after the Nazis’ Hungarian allies realized they could save bullets by not shooting each Jew they wished to murder individually, but by tying them together in groups of three and then only shooting the middle one into the river and letting the other two die by drowning when they hit the water. And then there was the decisive role Wallenberg played in convincing the Nazis not to bomb the Budapest ghetto, a decision that all by itself saved the lives of 70,000.

The deportation of the Jews of Hungary to their deaths at a rate of 12,000 per day in the spring and summer of 1944, when the Germans already knew perfectly well that the war was lost, is one of the single most ghastly stories of the Holocaust. And although there are countless stories to tell of those days, Raoul Wallenberg’s is one of such exceptional courage and moral strength that he has been a true hero for me since the day I first began to hear about him. But a musical? That sounded like a stretch. A big stretch. Maybe more like a chasm than a stretch. True, I have seen musicals about war and the misery war inevitably entails that have struck me both as compelling and very moving. (Les Misérables, for example, is about rebellion and death...but somehow the storyline of Les Mis put it far enough in the past and sufficiently unrelated to me personally for it not to seem absurd for the characters to break out into song.) But the thought of Wallenberg singing about his life and his work—I simply couldn’t imagine what that was going to be like. But, having reserved our seats, we decided to follow through and actually to go.

It turned out to be an amazing experience. We only saw a concert version, so there were no costumes or any real staging. And the show we saw was an abridgement of the full-length show in which the parts we did see were linked together by a narrator who does not actually appear in the real musical. But, at least for me personally, it was an overwhelming experience even in its scaled-down version. With a book by Laurence Holzman & Felicia Needleman and music by Benjamin Rosenbluth (who has both a degree from Julliard in composition and his MD from the Harvard Medical School), Wallenberg is an exceptional piece of work. Even the parts that I would have found impossible to imagine—Eichmann is in the musical too, as he would almost have to be—were effective, even mesmerizing. For me, the music was the highpoint. The composer was at the piano—he is also an incredibly gifted pianist—and I felt he captured the spirit of the story and the people in it almost perfectly. I was, to say the least, impressed.

After the performance, it became clear that the real point of the evening was to raise the funds necessary to bring the show to Broadway. You can read all about the show and learn about investment possibilities on their official website at, where you can also hear some musical selections from the show. The show has the support of all sorts of interested outsiders, including the Consul General of Sweden and the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. (Their website, at is also very worthwhile and interesting to visit.) But, of course, the only kind of support that’s going to matter in the long-run is the kind that will pay the gigantic costs connected with opening a show on Broadway. I hope they make it. I lack the expertise to say what its chances are or to guess at its chances of success if it does eventually open. But the story itself is so compelling to me and its subject such a paragon of moral greatness that it would be a true shame for this opportunity to bring his story to the attention of the wider public not to succeed. If any readers are inclined to be interested in helping the cause, the people to contact are at Three Crown Theatricals at (646) 592-1708 or via e-mail at

What eventually happened to Wallenberg is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Shoah. He was probably arrested by the Soviets in 1945 and brought to Russia. The Soviet government announced that he died in prison in 1947—although it was never made clear why he was in prison or what charges had been brought against him—but others claimed to have seen him alive long after that. The last reliable claim dates to 1981, the year that President Reagan made him an honorary citizen of the United States. If Wallenberg were alive, he’d be 97 years old. Almost definitely, he is long gone. Probably, he was eventually executed by the Soviets in the context of some amalgam of anti-Americanism—his mission to Budapest was entirely funded by Americans—and anti-Semitism. (You can find a detailed discussion of his fate by Baruch Tenembaum at But regardless of what his eventual fate was, Raoul Wallenberg remains one of the great heroes of the war, a man who could easily have skipped the whole thing...yet who felt personally called upon to save the lives of scores of thousands merely because he realized that he could. To participate in the effort to memorialize his legacy, therefore, is an ethical obligation of the highest and most noble order that rests on the shoulders of all of us who live our lives in the shadow of the Shoah and who feel compelled to honor the memory of those who stood up to the Nazis and, in so doing, set an example of moral courage most of us can only hope to emulate.

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