LONDON (Dec. 1)
The Chanukah candles in a London home this week will remind a Jewish family of its debt to Raoul Wallenberg, the legendary Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in wartime Hungary and then disappeared in the Soviet Union.
For Rabbi Leo Fischer, Chanukah is always associated with the rescue of his brother, Arthur Fischer, from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Although Arthur himself died nearly three years ago, his debt to the Swedish hero is cherished by his brother, who also played an important, if indirect, role in the Swedish rescue mission in Hungary.
It is one of many untold stories gleaned by this correspondent about the exploits of Wallenberg, whose own fate as a post-war Soviet prisoner still remains a mystery.
December, 1944, marked the blackest period of the war for the Jews in the Hungarian capital who had escaped deportation earlier in the year. With the city bombarded by the Soviet army, the bloodthirsty Arrow Cross fascists and the Nazi SS were trying to murder as many Jews as possible before meeting their own fate at the hands of the Russians.
BID TO SAFEGUARD FISCHER FAMILY
Arthur Fischer, his wife and two baby boys were among hundreds of Jews sheltering in an apartment block designated as Swedish property by Wallenberg. All had been furnished with Swedish provisional passports in a bid to safeguard them against death or deportation.
On December 10, Arthur rashly ventured outside the building and was arrested, in spite of his Swedish documents, by Arrow Cross thugs. Together with about 15 other Jews he was locked up in a factory on an island in the Danube. At that time, Jews were being murdered wholesale and Arthur and his comrades feared for the worst.
The following day was the first night of Chanukah. As darkness fell, one of the Jews found a candle in the factory. The prisoner kindled it, recited the traditional blessings, and quietly intoned the Chanukah anthem, Ma Oz Tsur, recalling the miraculous deliverances of old.
Arthur later described what happened:
“The following day, we suddenly heard people arguing outside the factory. The door opened and in came Raoul Wallenberg. He recognized me as a Swedish pass-holder and took all of us back to the Swedish houses.”
WALLENBERG INTERCEPTS TRAIN
Wallenberg had already saved Fischer once before. Together with two cousins, who also held Swedish papers, Arthur had been put on a train for the Polish death camps. Wallenberg had intercepted it before it reached the border, and secured the release of several people, including the Fischers.
As if that was not enough, Wallenberg came to the family’s aid a third time, on January 6, 1945, shortly before the eastern sector of Budapest fell to the Russians. On that day the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices were driving Jews from the Swedish houses to the general ghetto, where conditions were much more perilous.
Wallenberg turned up too late to stop the transfer of Arthur Fischer’s family and elderly parents, and one of the two Fischer infants was to die in the general ghetto. However, Wallenberg managed to prevent the evacuation of other members of the family who remained in the Swedish houses until the liberation.
Arthur’s brother, Leo, who has preserved this account of their family’s debt to Wallenberg, also played an important part in making it possible. As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Leo Fischer had obtained Swedish citizenship just before the war thus ensuring that his family, living in Hungary, were among the first to receive Swedish papers when the Nazis took power there in March 1944.
THE ODYSSEY OF THE FISCHERS
Although their father was originally from Hungary, the two Fischer brothers were born in Fuerth, Germany, and went to the same Jewish school as Henry Kissinger, the future American Secretary of State.
In 1933, while Arthur and the other Fischers left for Hungary, Leo went to Sweden where he served as a rabbi in a small town on the Baltic in 1934, He joined his parents in Budapest, from where he planned to proceed to Palestine. For various reasons, this plan fell through and Leo returned a year later to Sweden, becoming a Swedish citizen in 1938.
By 1944, Rabbi Fischer had settled down and married in Malmo, on Sweden’s coast. In March of that year, when Adolf Eichmann began dispatching Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, Fischer appealed to the Swedish authorities to protect his relatives.
In July, when Wallenberg expanded the Swedish rescue mission, Leo Fischer began “adopting” scores of other Hungarian Jews with whom he had no family connection but whose plight he understood all too well.
After the war, Arthur and other members of the family joined Leo in Sweden and recounted their wartime experiences to him. In 1949, Arthur Fischer, his wife and their surviving son moved to the new state of Israel. He himself died in 1981, in Germany.
His brother Leo now lives in Golders Green, London where he recounted this story of a modern Chanukah miracle and his family’s debt to Wallenberg, the hero who never came back.