The Drama Behind the Drama About Raoul Wallenberg

Photo by Jack GouldThink of it as a drama within a drama: onstage at the Fullerton College theater, 19-year-old Addison Glines is portraying Raoul Wallenberg, a World War II-era Swedish diplomat twice his age. Sometimes called the Swedish Schindler, Wallenberg was dispatched to Nazi-occupied Hungary by neutral Sweden on a mission to save as many Jews as possible. But Glines, or rather Wallenberg, is plagued: though he has saved 100,000 Jews from the death camps, he is haunted by the knowledge that for every one he saves, 10 are lost. And now, onstage, he is surrounded by the faces of people he could not reach in time. In a moment of powerful theater-as-documentary, Glines/ Wallenberg confronts oversize photos of actual Holocaust victims. Their eerie, disembodied faces seem to float in midair, serving as a stark, resonant memory of the devastation wrought by Germany upon Europe's Jews.

But the use of photos may be the least interesting intrusion of reality upon this stage. Wallenberg, who despaired of saving children, disappeared almost without rumor in 1945. And when Wallenberg opens tomorrow night, young Addison Glines won't be onstage.

Wallenberg's author is Fullerton College theater director Bob Jensen, a history buff who set out on a different task: to write a play about the husband of a Fullerton College administrator who was a Schindler's List survivor. But Jensen's mother, a Swedish-American, sent him a book of Wallenberg's letters and official dispatches from Hungary. Jensen was immediately captivated.

"What intrigued me most is the question of what causes someone to put themselves in harm's way," said Jensen. "It's one thing to have compassion; it's something else to risk your life for other people."

Jensen said he was especially attracted to Wallenberg's "methodology of saving."

"He was incredibly methodical," he said. "And that's what it took to outfox Eichmann and to outthink the Germans."

There is little in Wallenberg's biography to suggest he would outfox the Third Reich, Jensen added. He was a youngish businessman who until 1944 lived an unremarkable life and wasn't even a particularly good businessman. But he did have a pedigree: born in 1912 to a prominent family of Swedish bankers, businessmen and diplomats, he traveled extensively throughout the United States, studying architecture at the University of Michigan. In 1944, while working for a Stockholm trading company, Wallenberg came to the attention of a committee looking for someone to head the Swedish legation in Hungary.

Sweden was officially neutral in World War II, and its legation in Hungary was of paramount importance to the United States, which had finally decided to do something to help halt the massacre of European Jews. In 1944, Hungary was home to the last sizable community of European Jews. In March of that year, the Nazis unleashed Adolf Eichmann to take care of that. A few months later, Wallenberg arrived in Budapest to save the remnants of Hungary's Jewish community.

He had no guns and no political leverage, but he had courage and imagination. He created, printed and distributed a Schutzpass, a protective passport that ensured its holders Swedish protection. The passport, which had no real legal authority, was given to thousands of Jews. There are numerous stories of Wallenberg showing up on deportation trains, handing out the passes to condemned Jews. Those Jews with the Schutzpass were housed in "Swedish Houses," safe from Nazi aggression. According to biographers, his triumphant moment came in a January 1945 showdown with a high-ranking Nazi officer. With the Soviet Red Army massing on the outskirts of Budapest, the Nazis planned a last paroxysm of murder: the liquidation of the city's central ghetto, where some 70,000 Jews lived. Wallenberg discovered the plan and boldly threatened the SS general in charge—if the pogrom was carried out, Wallenberg told the man, he would personally see that the general was charged with genocide by a postwar tribunal. The pogrom was called off.

Despite being fertile dramatic territory, Wallenberg's life has been largely ignored. There's Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg, an Eastern European film that Jensen described "as very dark. It captures the despair of a man who for every one Jew he saved, there were nine others who were killed. That preyed on him and caused him not to sleep. That nightmare imagery is something I focus on in the play. It was hard for him to sleep because he kept seeing the faces of those he couldn't save."

Reading Wallenberg during the Fullerton College playwrights' festival two years ago, Addison Glines felt a pain in his hip.

Then just 17, Glines was a walking, talking wunderkind who had graduated high school early to attend Fullerton College's much-praised theater program. He described his pain for a doctor on three separate occasions. Each time, the doctor said it was probably just a pulled muscle and would go away with stretching. On the third visit, the doctor turned down Glines' request for an x-ray.

Finally, when the pain grew too intense, Glines visited an emergency room and discovered his true ailment: Ewing's sarcoma, an aggressive tumor gnawing at his right pelvic bone. He immediately embarked on a 15-month ordeal of chemotherapy and radiation. As he describes it, he was the calmest member of his family.

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