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Borough remembers WWII’s Wallenberg

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks presents a plaque to Peter Rebenwursel, the chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission.
TimesLedger Newspapers

Many members of Queens’ Jewish community, several elected officials and international diplomats gathered at Young Israel of Hillcrest Sunday to commemorate the centennial birthday of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish architect who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II.

Many speakers at the tribute noted that some of those at the temple, at 169-07 Jewel Ave., might not have been there that day if it were not for Wallenberg. They said his contribution to the Jewish community goes much farther than just those individual people he rescued.

“Wallenberg saved by now probably a million people,” said Peter Rebenwurzel, chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Commission.

Rebenwurzel’s father-in-law was one of those saved by Wallenberg in World War II, and he went on to have many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Rebenwurzel said those descendants, which number more than 150, would never have been born if not for the Swedish humanitarian and diplomat.

“And this is just one little family saved by Wallenberg,” he said. “Can you imagine how many people are in this world that would not be here without him? Therefore, I and many, many Jews of Hungarian descent have to thank Raoul Wallenberg every day for his courage and his heroism.”

Speakers at the tribute, which also served to recognize Wallenberg’s posthumous reception of the Congressional Gold Medal this year, included Deputy Borough President Barry Grodenchik, Hungarian Consul General Karoly Dan and honorary Swedish Consul General David Dangoor.

Many other Queens elected officials, including City Councilmen Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) and Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), were also in the audience.

Wallenberg was born Aug. 4, 1912, to a wealthy Swedish family and went to Budapest in 1944 to distribute Swedish protective passes to Jews to rescue them from the Holocaust, often employing extraordinary means to carry out his mission.

Rabbi Richard Weiss, of Young Israel of Hillcrest, told the story of how Wallenberg rescued a number of Jews on board a deportation train headed for Auschwitz, ignoring orders from the Germans to get down from the train and dodging bullets fired at him.

Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet troops at the end of the war for unknown reasons and taken to a prison camp in Moscow. The Soviet Union said he died of a heart attack in 1947, but some people say they saw him alive in a Russian prison many years after that date.

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica), who was instrumental in pushing for legislation bestowing the medal on Wallenberg, said the world would be a better place if more people stood up to tyranny.

“[Wallenberg] wanted to do what was right. He wanted to make a difference,” Meeks said.

Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at kfrantz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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