A RIGHTEOUS MAN
An excerpt from my book The Envoy about Raoul Wallenberg’s rescue of thousands of Jews in Budapest in late 1944
…The winter night was bitterly cold. Soon, Alice and Erwin and the others found themselves at the entrance to the Maria Teresa barracks. They were herded down narrow wooden stairs to a basement. A teenaged, red-haired Arrow Cross soldier was sleeping on the floor, a submachine gun on his chest. The youth woke up.
“Take them to the Danube,” he murmured to other Arrow Cross youths, and then fell back to sleep.
Alice and Erwin and the others were soon out on the street, marching again with hands above their heads, toward the local Arrow Cross headquarters, at 41 Ferenz Ring. On its first floor, they were pushed against a wall and their coats taken away. “We stood in our shirtsleeves,” recalled Erwin. “We knew that eventually we would have to shed the rest of our clothing, all but the underwear. Soon, but not yet. Questions were being asked by one of the Arrow Cross soldiers, who was seated behind a small table. A search for more valuables, and more abuse.”
Erwin was now close to collapsing from exhaustion. He stared at Alice. She, too, looked like she was “a hundred years old.” Fatigue had left deep lines on her face; her thin, pointed nose was now prominent. “A narrow, barely blue blood vessel arched up under her pale skin on the side of her neck, and where her jawbone protruded, a fine but visibly rapid, fluttering pulse betrayed her frightful expectation at parting so abruptly from her young life.”
Alice turned to face Erwin.
He would never be able to forget what she said next.
Erwin held her close.
Then they were on the move again.
The Arrow Cross told them they were going to shoot them all and dump their bodies in the Danube.
Meanwhile, back on the fourth floor of Ulloi Street, Victor Aitay, who operated the telephone switchboard, called a secret number and managed to get a message to someone working on Wallenberg’s staff at Section C.
In the breast pocket of Erwin Koranyi’s jacket was half a cigarette. But the jacket had been taken away. It was all he could think about as he faced the Arrow Cross executioners.
Mortars landed in nearby streets.
Erwin wanted it all to end.
What if I jump into the Danube before the Arrow Cross opens fire? Would I stand a chance? Maybe it’s better to get it over with…
Erwin was “impatient” to die.
Alice then saw a large American car pull up nearby. A man in a darkblue suit, wearing a fedora, stepped out of the car. He was holding up a megaphone.
Alice stared at Wallenberg. He was unarmed, shouting that he wanted his Jews back. They did not belong to the Arrow Cross. They were his. “It was extraordinary because everybody could kill him,” Alice recalled. “Why not kill him? Killing was everywhere.”
It was around 2 a.m. as Alice and the others watched, barely able to believe what they were seeing.
“These are Swedish citizens! Release them immediately and return their belongings to them!”
To Alice, it seemed as if God had answered her prayers. “For an instant,” she recalled, “I thought: ‘God has come to save us.’ To our astonishment, the executioners obeyed Wallenberg. He seemed very tall indeed—and strong. He radiated power and dignity. There was truly a kind of divine aura about him on that night.”
Erwin saw several policemen, who were clearly working for Wallenberg. “The policemen were talking to the Arrow Cross commander. What was happening? One of the high-ranking police officers was Pal Szalai, with whom Wallenberg used to deal.” The police were armed. They began to take guns from the Arrow Cross youths. Among the policemen was a man in a leather coat, Karoly Szabo, whom Erwin recognized. Then some of the policemen told Alice and Erwin and the others to form a line and walk back to the Ulloi Street building….
Erwin Koranyi’s sister, Marta, spotted Erwin and Alice among the returning Jews. She cried as she kissed her brother and Alice.
All the returnees were given some bread.
Someone struck a match and the stump of a cigarette was lit. Erwin took it, filled his lungs with nicotine, and exhaled.
It was hard to believe, but he was still alive.