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Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, Missing Hero of the Holocaust

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The biography of a Swedish diplomat during World War II, who risked his life daily as he provided Swedish passports & papers to thousands of Jewish refugees in Budapest.
Half a century after he disappeared into the Soviet prison system, the fate of Raoul Wallenberg--who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust--remains a mystery. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, KGB files were opened, but the Wallenberg file had been destroyed, thereby eliminating any evidence to support the Kremlin's claim that Wallenberg died in prison in 1947. Bierman concludes that we may never know the truth. Photos.

232 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1981

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About the author

John Bierman

12 books1 follower
John David Bierman, journalist and author.

John Bierman was one of the last of a generation of buccaneering reporters and writers who pursued successful careers across the media. Newspaper reporter, editor, radio correspondent, television "fireman", documentary maker and, finally, acclaimed historian, Bierman excelled at each, in a working life that reached back to the days of plate cameras and reporters in trilbies.

His big stories as a BBC TV reporter included a 13-minute, mainly ad-libbed, report from Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 (which won a Cannes TV Festival award), the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. His final incarnation as a historian was pursued in the Mediterranean calm of a Cypriot farmhouse - he liked to describe himself as a "palm-tree man". The military historian Sir John Keegan wrote of Alamein: War Without Hate (2002), which Bierman co-authored with fellow journalist Colin Smith: "Few historians write as fluently as they do; few journalists achieve their standards of accuracy and inclusiveness."

Bierman was born within the sound of Bow Bells in London. His father, an antiques dealer, beat a hasty exit, and his mother, who ran a dress shop, paid attention to her son only when in funds. Largely raised by his grandparents, and evacuated from London during the second world war, he had, therefore, a peripatetic childhood that ideally prepared him for life as a globetrotting reporter. His love of the English language was acquired young. Despite attending 16 schools, he had a sound basic education, and could recite long passages of poetry.

In 1960, Bierman was headhunted by the Aga Khan to found and edit The Nation, in Nairobi. Those four years were among his happiest professionally. A colleague recalls: "John was a great editor - driving, dynamic, young, assured, foul-mouthed, contemptuous of settlers, frightened of nobody, a marvellous design man and an elegant writer." He next moved to the Caribbean as a managing editor.

He returned to England in the mid-1960s just as the BBC was recruiting experienced print journalists to stiffen its staff of largely university graduates - "all rather posh men", according to Mike Sullivan, another of the hard-bitten tribe who joined when Bierman did.

Bierman's breakthrough book was Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg (1981), which brought to international attention the then largely neglected story of the Swedish diplomat who rescued Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. Bierman's words are inscribed on Wallenberg's statue in central London: "The 20th century spawned two of history's vilest tyrannies. Raoul Wallenberg outwitted the first but was swallowed up by the second. His triumph over Nazi genocide reminds us that the courageous and committed individual can prevail against even the cruellest state machine. The fate of the six million Jews he was unable to rescue reminds us of the evil to which racist ideas can drive whole nations. Finally, his imprisonment reminds us not only of Soviet brutality but also of the ignorance and indifference which led the free world to abandon him. We must never forget these lessons."

One of Bierman's books - The Heart's Grown Brutal, a thriller set in Northern Ireland - was written under the pseudonym David_Brewster; he was still on the BBC staff and not supposed to moonlight. In all, he published eight books (two written with Smith), continuing to work after a kidney (donated by his son Jonathan) transplant in 2002. Despite a later heart bypass, arthritis and damaged nerves in his neck which made writing torture, he stayed at his keyboard. He told an interviewer: "Working, in the sense of writing books, I shall do until I drop because it is my life."

(source: The Guardian)

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5 stars
26 (29%)
4 stars
40 (45%)
3 stars
18 (20%)
2 stars
2 (2%)
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1 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Cold War Conversations Podcast.
415 reviews258 followers
June 1, 2014
An incredible man who went personally up against Eichmann himself armed with nothing but charm, guile and a complete lack of fear.

I'd heard of Wallenberg, but didn't really know much about him.

This book certainly filled the gaps in my knowledge. While serving as Sweden's special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944, Wallenberg issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory.

His lack of fear may have been the cause of his demise as shortly after the Soviets captured Budapest he disappeared into NKVD hands, never to be seen again.

Beirman reckons he saved more than 100,000 Jews in Budapest, and the book tells some amazing stories of his personal bravery and exploits.

Profile Image for Lori.
13 reviews1 follower
February 28, 2008
The three star rating is in no way an affront to the story of Wallenberg whose story is truly both a blessing and a tragedy. I just had trouble with the writing style. This book just did not seem to hold my interest as so many other true life holocaust accounts have.
Profile Image for David Hardy.
6 reviews
February 16, 2010
Everyone who cares about his fellow human beings in any way at all should read this. A truly amazing read, made all the more so by the fact that it is a true story.
Profile Image for Patricia.
529 reviews1 follower
September 20, 2018
I was impressed and moved by this story. I was not looking forward to this biography but I have been reading the unread biographies on my shelves in alphabetical order and this slight volume was one of the few 'w's. Yes I'm nearly finished the alphabet. It was written in 1981 and I wonder if anything new has been uncovered about Wallenberg's fate since this was written.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section covers a sketchy early life and the work done by the Swedish Wallenberg in the last months of World War Two in Budapest. He worked bravely and maybe with foolhardiness to save as many Hungarian Jews from Nazi German hands as he could by issuing them with Swedish passports. But it seems that the danger came not from Germany but from Hungary's Russian liberators. Wallenberg was last seen for certain when he set out to meet the Russian invading army to discuss help with food and medical supplies for the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto.

The second section covers speculation about the fate of Wallenberg, efforts to get information from Soviet Authorities and whether in 1981 he was still alive. This section is thorough and deals with all sorts of likely and unlikely sightings of Wallenberg in Soviet prisons. There are many things that defy explanation. And no hypothesis answers all the odd details. Why would the Soviets imprison an obvious humanitarian from a neutral country? Why did the Swedish Govt discourage efforts to find him? Why did Kissinger (much later) lie about making an effort to seek out his whereabouts? Why did members of his extended family refuse to negotiate despite having commercial and diplomatic links with Russia? And why were the thousands of Jews saved by Wallenberg luke warm about recognising him?

The writer doesn't ever consider that Wallenberg may have been spying for Sweden or USA or both. Or that Sweden or the USA may have used his presence for some covert espionage purpose without his knowledge. Either of these possibilities seem likely to me but they don't explain everything.

It seems unsatisfactory that after the humanitarian work done by Wallenberg in the dying months of the war we are left with a mystery that has lingered for over half a century about his fate.
1,211 reviews18 followers
November 28, 2009
It's probable that Wallenberg died in the gulags. There were reports of him for some time, but there's no credible evidence after the late 50s.

There really needs to be a general exposition of the part embassies played in Hungary during the last days of the War. Wallenberg wasn't acting alone--Sugihara comes to mind, for example.

Until such an exposition is published, readers will have to fit together pieces. This is one such story.
Profile Image for Linda Cooper.
12 reviews
December 30, 2015
Incredible man who saved the life of so many Jews during the last days of WWII. A complete unknown to most of the world. This book needs to be required reading in all high school Literature or History classes.
174 reviews3 followers
February 17, 2010
Amazing life. Reminded me of the insanity of the Soviets and their actions when they 'freed' people from the tyranny of the Nazis.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
2 reviews3 followers
April 13, 2013
Author prejudiced against Russians and waaaaay too in love with Wallenberg but offers a decent historical account if you see through the Wallenbergphilia
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Displaying 1 - 12 of 12 reviews

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