Holocaust survivor remembers rescuer who saved thousands

Courtney Potts

Gabriel Hartstein was just 6 years old when the German army invaded his home country of Hungary in 1944.

In the months that followed, thousands of Hungarian Jews were shipped to German concentration camps around Europe, and Hartstein likely would have been among them if not for the actions of a Swedish citizen named Raoul Wallenberg.

“Nearly 100,000 Jews were deported and sent to the camps during the second World War from Budapest,” Hartstein said. “I was one of the survivors.”

The role of individuals such as Wallenberg in mitigating the atrocities of World War II was the main topic Monday as Hartstein, now 73 and a resident of Burlington, Vt., presented the annual Helen and Leon Sperling Holocaust Lecture at the Jewish Community Center in Utica.

The long-running lecture series is named for local Holocaust survivor Helen Sperling and her late husband, and the series was started as a way to remember all those affected by the Holocaust.

It’s important to remember the tragedies of the Holocaust, but it’s also important to remember those who “rescued others at risk to their own lives,” Hartstein said.

Wallenberg traveled to Hungary from Sweden, which was a neutral country during World War II, and made a deal with the government that allowed Jews with relatives in Sweden to stay in their homes in Budapest rather than being shipped out of the country.

Given permission to issue protection papers to 5,000 such individuals, Wallenberg “saw a good deal and just started printing more and more,” Hartstein said.

In the end, Wallenberg issued such papers to more than 20,000 people, regardless of how well they fit the criteria.

Hartstein’s family received protection papers after his older cousin, Susan, met Wallenberg at a brick factory, which was a “temporary stopover” before she was to be sent to a concentration camp.

“My cousin, one night at this brick factory, heard a commotion, and somebody came into this part where the Jews were collected, and he asked the people whether anybody had relatives in Sweden,” Hartstein said.

Hartstein’s cousin then pulled out “an arbitrary piece of paper” from her pocket and presented it to Wallenberg as if it was an official document. Wallenberg played along, securing her freedom that night and later helping her obtain protection papers for the rest of her family, Hartstein said.

That same cousin later encouraged Hartstein to attend college after they both reached the United States, and it was her death 15 years ago that inspired him to begin talking about his experiences during the war, he said.

Wallengberg was inexplicably taken prisoner by the Russian army on January 17, 1945 – just two days after Hungary was liberated from the Germans, Hartstein said. Wallenberg was never seen again and is believed to have died in a Siberian gulag sometime in the 1970s, Hartstein said.