September 17th marks the 62nd anniversary of the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish nobleman who saved tens of thousands of Nazi concentration camp inmates and was ironically murdered by Israeli extremists three years later. Today, Bernadotte's countryman, Raoul Wallenberg, is honored the world over for his courage in saving a tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from extermination. Perversely, Bernadotte's similar feats have nearly vanished into historical oblivion.
In the spring of 1945, the final months of the European War, Bernadotte traveled to Berlin to meet with Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the German army. Dodging Allied bombing runs, Bernadotte negotiated the release of about 30,000 prisoners from several concentration camps, mostly women from the Ravensbrouck camp. He arranged for their transport to Sweden in a mission called the "White Buses," adorned with red crosses; despite these markings, a number of these Holocaust survivors were killed and wounded by Allied bombs. When the former inmates, many suffering acutely from disease and malnutrition as well as psychological trauma, arrived at their destination, Bernadotte supervised the effort to nurse them back to strength so that they could begin to repair their shattered lives.
Today Wallenberg is rightfully remembered for his extraordinary heroism, and mourned for his mysterious imprisonment and death in Soviet custody following the war. The address of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington is 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, and similar institutions offer a wealth of information about the Swede who risked his life to save strangers. But it is rare to find discussion of Bernadotte in Holocaust museums or websites or historical books that chronicle that nightmarish era. Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, celebrates the efforts of many thousands of "Righteous Among the Nations,"of which Wallenberg surely is the most famous, but Bernadotte does not make the list at all.
How and why have Bernadotte's deeds been so deeply buried in the past? Three years after his dramatic rescue mission, and shortly after Israel was created, Bernadotte was appointed by the UN to mediate the Israeli/Arab conflict. Several months into his tenure, on September 17, 1948, the earnest UN Mediator was assassinated on the streets of Jerusalem by Israelis belonging to the underground organization Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang. While the assassination was publicly condemned by the Ben-Gurion government, the assassins received at most a collective slap on the wrist. One of the Stern Gang's leaders, who signed off on the execution, was Yitzhak Shamir, who became Israel's Prime Minister in the 1980's. The gunman, Yehoshua Cohen, became a personal friend and bodyguard of David Ben-Gurion.
Today, Holocaust remembrance institutions are reluctant to celebrate Bernadotte's WWII heroism, which would inevitably recall this embarrassing chapter of Israeli history. Consequently, he has been unceremoniously tossed into a historical trash can. Those who are familiar with his name are more likely to have heard of his assassination than his role in saving tens of thousands from the brink of death. In the days following the murder, there were numerous articles appearing in the New York Times, some on the front page, recounting Bernadotte's exemplary life and reporting on universal condemnation of his murder from all corners of the globe. Perusing these 1948 articles, one cannot imagine how Bernadotte's story could have become so thoroughly obscured.
Sixty-two years isn't a very sexy anniversary, but it's long past due to rescue the rescuer from undeserved oblivion. The Holocaust should be remembered as a warning of the depths to which humankind can sink, but also to celebrate the courageous few who set a moral example for us all to admire and perhaps to follow. Raoul Wallenberg surely deserves his considerable posthumous fame, and Bernadotte should be restored to his rightful place in history alongside his countryman.