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`Ghetto' statue returns hero to the Jews

AFTER 50 years, Matyas Vince can finally honour the memory of the man who saved his parents' life.

A statue commemorating Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews in wartime Budapest, was unveiled in St Istvan Park on Sunday. The park is in the heart of the city's bourgeois Jewish quarter, site of the wartime "international ghetto".

The last time a statue for Wallenberg stood in the riverside park - a few minutes' walk from the bridge where Hungarian Nazis lined up Jews before shooting them into the Danube - was in April 1949. But the night before its planned inauguration, Hungary's Communist leadership - fearful of renewed attention to the fate of a man then in Soviet custody - had the statue removed.

Mr Vince, 53, a journalist, is a member of the Wallenberg Statue Committee, which has organised the inauguration. His father and mother were two of the many thousands of Hungarian Jews who were protected from the Nazis and their Hungarian allies with papers issued by Wallenberg.

"Wallenberg was a hero, and still is a hero. His memory should be commemorated where he helped thousands of Jews to survive. My parents had `safe passes' issued by the Swedish embassy and lived in the international ghetto in a house under Swedish diplomatic protection."

Diplomats of neutral countries, such as Sweden, Switzerland and Spain, stationed in wartime Budapest, are credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. Wallenberg and his colleagues issued diplomatic safe passes, and placed dozens of apartment buildings under their embassies' protection. These provided some protection against raids by the Hungarian Nazis, the "Arrow Cross".

Even now, many Budapest Jews remember Wallenberg as a hero who defied both the SS and the Arrow Cross. "Wallenberg helped initiate the process of saving the Jews in Budapest.

He came too late for those in the countryside, because they had already been deported to Auschwitz," said Erno Lazarovitz, a spokesman for the Jewish Community, and a former inmate of Mauthausen concentration camp. "Wallenberg was in every place were the Jews were in danger. He would go to the Josephtown station, from where they deported the Jews, and take people out of the lines in front of the Arrow Cross using his safe passes. He is a symbol of the fight against Nazism and fascism."

Mystery surrounds the fate of the previous statue. It disappeared until 1953, the year of Stalin's death. The disappearance is emblematic of the tangled web of relationships binding the Jews with the Holocaust and Communism. The Communist leader in 1949, Matyas Rakosi, was Jewish. But years of exile in Moscow appears to have eradicated any vestiges of Jewish identity.

When the original did surface, it was in front of a factory in the eastern city of Debrecen. This town, near the Ukrainian border, was Wallenberg's last stated destination before he disappeared, after being arrested by Soviet troops in the last weeks of the war.