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Desecration of Holocaust Hero's Statue Exposes Dangerous Struggle Over Memory and Values

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I will never forget that cold winter day. January 17, 1981. A 'whose who' of Jews, led by Simon Wiesenthal, Eli Wiesel, and Nobel laureates along with anonymous survivors of the Holocaust, came to Stockholm, Sweden to say a belated thank you to an unheralded hero, Raoul Wallenberg, and to press the Soviets for the truth about the ultimate fate of the Holocaust's greatest Christian hero. "It is more important to find out the fate of this great man than to catch another Nazi War criminal", Mr. Wiesenthal, the revered Nazi Hunter, declared 36 years to the day when the Soviet NKVD had kidnapped the Swede in the midst of his heroic mission to save thousands of Jews from the Nazi genocidal push to murder Hungary's remaining Jews. Last seen in Stalin's infamous Lubyanka prison in 1947, Wallenberg never emerged from the Soviet gulag and his final fate is still uncertain.

(Defaced Raoul Wallenberg Monument, Budapest May 2012)

Wallenberg exhibited incredible heroism on the dangerous streets of Budapest, facing down at various times Hungarian fascist thugs, German generals and a face-to-face confrontation with the architect of the Holocaust, Adolph Eichmann. Armed with Jewish money funneled through the U.S. War Refugee Board, and using the cover of a Swedish diplomat, he dispensed official looking Schutzpasses to desperate Jews -- some already packed into cattle cars destined for Auschwitz. And Wallenberg was remarkably successful. On a continent that had seen 2 out of every 3 European Jews perish at the hands of Nazi Germany and local enablers, he is credited with helping to save as many as 100,000 Jews from certain death.

But beyond the numbers, Wallenberg achieved much more. His commitment to humanity confirmed to Jews that some people still cared. His daring escapades gave the all-too neutral Swedes a countryman they could be proud of. His U.S.-sponsored mission of mercy made him an American folk hero, leading President Ronald Reagan to declare him an honorary American citizen.

And there have been films, books and monuments, perhaps no more poignant than one erected in Budapest, a dignified tribute in the very city that witnesses one man's triumph over evil.

So how to account for this week's horrific attack, 100 years after Wallenberg's birth, where that statute was desecrated, defaced by blood-oozing pig's feet?

It's because there are people today in Hungary, not only neo-Nazis, but also members of Parliament who openly revere the legacy of the World War II fascist Iron Guard. There are leaders in the mainstream of Hungarian society who are unmoved by Wallenberg's heroics, indeed, are untroubled by the legacy of the wartime collaborators with Hitler who mass murdered Jewish citizens, tossing many of their Jewish neighbors into the waters of the Danube.

Don't assume that all Hungarian political leaders would universally condemn the Wallenberg desecration. Hear the words of Márton Gyöngyösi, Hungarian MP and leader in the far-right Jobbik party. During a recent interview with the London Jewish Chronicle, he asked whether Jews "have the right to talk about what happened during the Second World War," given Israel's "Nazi system." When he was asked about the 400,000 Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz, Gyöngyösi exploded: "Me, should I say sorry for this when 70 years later, I am still reminded on the hour, every hour about it? Let's get over it, for Christ's sake," adding, "It has become a fantastic business to jiggle around with the numbers" of dead Jews. As for Holocaust survivors seeking restitution for their families' stolen property, he retorted, "This money-searching is playing with fire in Hungary."

We should not be shocked, therefore, that a Nazi war criminal, Dr. Sandor Kepiro -- facing trial after his return to Budapest from Buenos Aires for the massacre of 1,200 Jews, Serbs and Gypsies -- actually sued the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff for libel with the support of Hungary's growing fascist movement.

Today, across Europe, parallel to the mushrooming economic crises, looms another crisis -- a battle over memory and values. As new voters are courted by political parties, who will younger generations in Hungary, Greece, France and Scandinavia come to revere? The few heroic Raoul Wallenbergs who stood up to evil or Hitler's willing collaborators who so enthusiastically served it? The answer to that question will help write Europe's next chapter.

This post has been extended since its original publication.