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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2017 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


 

June 16, 2017  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Lawyer persists in seeking truth on Wallenberg’s fate

By THAIS LEON-MILLER Jewish Press


Passport photograph of Raoul Wallenberg. Sweden, June 1944. Passport photograph of Raoul Wallenberg. Sweden, June 1944. Morris Wolff stood in front of an interfaith audience at the Bryan Glazer Family JCC in Tampa on May 17 and shared the story of his legal fight to bring Swedish diplomat and righteous gentile Raoul Wallenberg home from a Russian prison. As the candle that was lit to represent Wallenberg flickered, Wolff spoke about the life of the man who gave up so much for strangers and his own fight to try to save Wallenberg.

Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who was responsible for saving an estimated 100,000 Jews from the Holocaust while he worked in Budapest, Hungry. The U.S. recruited Wallenberg as its intermediary since the State Department couldn’t openly carry out operations in the country. When Russian troops came to liberate Hungary from the Nazi occupation, they arrested Wallenberg and hid him away in a Russian prison.

Wolff, 80, an attorney, whose book, Whatever Happened to Raoul Wallenberg? was published in 2011, described Wallenberg’s carefree life before that fateful time.


Father Len Plazewski of Christ the King Catholic Church speaks with Morris Wolff during his book signing at the Glazer Family JCC. Father Len Plazewski of Christ the King Catholic Church speaks with Morris Wolff during his book signing at the Glazer Family JCC. He was a young man in good health. He played polo, traveled, worked at a bank and at one point dated Ingrid Berman. Before Wallenberg graduated from the University of Michigan in 1936, he hitchhiked across the country. He left a comfortable life and agreed to work with the U.S. because he was compelled to help Jews escape persecution, simply because it was the right thing to do. And he suffered for it.

“It was a misbehavior of three governments,” said Wolff. “ T h e Swedish government that failed to rescue him, the Russian government that kidnapped him, and the American government which left him to swing in the wind.”

Wolff said he had always felt he had a responsibility to do something great in his life. When he heard from Wallenberg’s half-brother, Guy von Dardel, who asked him to take Wallenberg’s case pro bono, it didn’t take long for him to accept.

Wolff represented Wallenberg in a landmark case against Russia, winning a judgment in 1985 requiring the Russian government to pay $39 million in damages and to release Wallenberg to U.S. custody.

Russia never paid the sum or released Wallenberg. The case was transferred to another judge who sat on it and refused to do anything, said Wolff. Russian government officials continued to give conflicting reports as to whether they held Wallenberg at all. Officials had also given three separate years that Wallenberg had died: 1947, 1957 and 1967. None were true.

According to Wolff, Russia invited Wallenberg’s family to collect his personal belongings in 1985, the same year Wolff won Wallenberg’s case. Against Wolff’s advice, the family traveled to Moscow. When they arrived, Russian governmental officials and his family toasted each other with champagne, and the family was given a pair of blue trousers and a white shirt.

As Wolff feared, Russian officials capitalized on the visit and used footage of the event as propaganda.

The even larger issue was that Wallenberg was seen alive as late as 1998. Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow David Evans found Wallenberg on the second floor of a hospital in Kazan, Russia, said Wolff. “He was not ill. He was not mentally ill. He was in human storage.”

Even with all of this information, eventually the case faded. Wolff shared his theories as to why that was with the audience: the U.S. government had an agenda with Russia and was not willing to pursue saving Wallenberg.

Wolff’s assistant, Phil Collins, found a memo written to President Ronald Reagan by Reagan’s then Assistant Counsel John Roberts, suggesting the president avoid pushing the issue with Russia. For Wolff, this meant there were some backroom dealings going on with the U.S. and Russia at the time.

For years, Wolff said, he has been trying to get more information from the now U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts to no avail. He had even asked to be on the panel for Robert’s confirmation hearing in 2005, but was denied.

Wolff encouraged people to contact Justice Roberts and ask him why he would discourage the sitting president to avoid saving Wallenberg, and to ask what happened to the case against Russia. After the verdict was given, said Wolff, it lay dormant for years before being transferred to a different judge who squashed the case altogether.

He also believes that part of the problem is an old one: anti-Semitism.

“There are people in America who didn’t really care about Jewish people,” said Wolff in response to an audience member’s question about Robert’s motives.

Wolff’s grandmother and father were Jews who lived in Germany. He credits his grandmother’s limp and the bullying she received because of it as the catalyst that pushed the family to leave Germany before the onset of the German occupation. Wolff said it was an early example of his being in the right place at the right time, as he felt he was when he was asked to represent Wallenberg.

Wolff grew up in Pennsylvania and practiced international and trial law there after receiving his degree from Yale Law School. Wolff wrote sections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act while he worked under then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Morris was also a professor of international law and ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Bethune- Cookman University and served for two years as the chief assistant district attorney of the city of Philadelphia. He has received many awards for humanitarian work with the Wallenberg case. An avid swimmer and tennis player, he and his wife live in The Villages, located between Ocala and Orlando.

The program sponsored by the Jewish Book Festival and the Tampa Ameet Chapter of Hadassah, was billed as an interfaith celebration of Wolff’s work in keeping the Wallenberg story alive.

Father Len Plazewski of Christ the King Catholic Church, who introduced Wolff, explained his own personal connection to the Jewish community and his interest in Wallenberg.

“My grandfather grew up in a small town in Poland,” said Father Plazewski. “Sept. 7, 1939, the town was occupied by the Nazis. The local synagogue was burned down, and in less than three years, all of the Jewish people were gone.”

Among the Jewish population that disappeared were two of Plazewski’s great uncles; they were discovered to have perished in concentration camps.

“Humans saving other humans is why we came,” said audience members Bibi and Richard Ohlsson.

Bibi, Norwegian, and her Swedish husband work to highlight people who have done service in the name of strangers. Their nonprofit company, Better Futures, focuses on bringing those stories of regular people doing extraordinary things for strangers to light, hoping it encourages other to follow suit.

“I just wanted to tell him ‘thank you,’” said Elizabeth Rosa, a Jewish woman originally from Venezuela.

She brought her Christian husband, Bi, and her sister to meet the man who had fought for Wallenberg. “It’s amazing the long years that he put in and still continues to put in for Raoul Wallenberg,” said Rosa.

Wolff hopes that keeping the story in the public eye will eventually yield some answers. He is trying to accomplish this by giving talks around the country.

He may be able to find a larger audience soon; he has signed the story rights over to filmmaker Avi Lerner, the man who produced “The Expendables” movie series, Rambo IV and The Mechanic.


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