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Keeping Memories Alive : Fairfax Intersection Named for Swedish Envoy Who Saved Thousands

September 25, 1986|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

John Brooks never met Raoul Wallenberg, but he owes his life to the Swedish envoy who was arrested and vanished behind the Iron Curtain after the Red Army invaded Budapest near the end of World War II.

Wallenberg, who would be 74 if he is still alive, was honored this week when the city unveiled a sign declaring the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue to be Raoul Wallenberg Square.

It was at Monday's ceremony that Brooks came forward with an offer to raise funds to place a memorial at the site. He predicted that several hundred other Los Angeles residents whom Wallenberg also saved would contribute.

"There could be perhaps a little bust, or something like that, if we can collect that much money, or definitely a wall plaque explaining just who he was," Brooks said. "So many lives were saved that we just cannot forget that even in the worst conditions human beings were doing something."

It was with safe-conduct passes issued by Wallenberg that Brooks, his wife and about 20,000 others survived in Nazi-controlled Budapest at a time when the Hungarian puppet regime was deporting much of the country's Jewish population to death camps in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

They stayed in safe houses, all organized by Wallenberg, protected by the flags of neutral Sweden, Switzerland or Portugal.

Wallenberg, a Lutheran, is also credited with saving the lives of about 70,000 people when he persuaded a German officer to disregard orders to blow up the Budapest ghetto.

"Probably very few people know about this," said Brooks, who keeps a personal archive of books and magazine articles about his hero. "They will see the sign that the city put up and they will not know what it is about. It would be nice to explain it, how such a few people stood up at that time against the Nazis."

The scion of a wealthy Stockholm family, Wallenberg was sent to Hungary by the Swedish Foreign Ministry at the instigation of Swedish Jewish organizations in July, 1944, by which time about half a million Hungarian Jews had been killed.

There is no definite word of Wallenberg's fate after his arrest on Jan. 17, 1945, when he responded to an order to report to Soviet army headquarters.

The Soviets said some years later that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack in his prison cell on July 17, 1947, but some people believe he is alive, based on reports of sightings in prison camps and mental hospitals as recently as 1965.

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who won City Council approval for the naming of Wallenberg Square earlier this month, said, "I don't think anything could be more appropriate than the dedication of a piece of the municipal real estate of Los Angeles to the memory of a man who didn't let personal convenience get in the way of his integrity."

He said Brooks' proposal was "a hell of a good idea. Since they (private citizens) are prepared to raise the funds, we'll be prepared to raise the space."

Yaroslavsky gave some credit for the idea of creating a Wallenberg Square to Irv Rubin, head of the Jewish Defense League, a maverick organization whose past demonstrations against anti-Semitism have led to notoriety because of occasional scuffles.

"It's better than nothing," said Rubin, who had originally suggested that the entire length of Fairfax Avenue, from Baldwin Hills in the south to the Hollywood Hills in the north, be renamed after Wallenberg.

Still, Rubin said, "I'm very, very grateful to Councilman Yaroslavsky." He added that he plans to urge Supervisor Ed Edelman to rename nearby Pan Pacific Park in Wallenberg's honor.

Yaroslavsky mounted a city cherry-picker truck to turn the screws installing the sign, which was one of several events held to mark the renovation of the Fairfax Avenue shopping district. Many of the shops there have been repainted and brightened with new signs and awnings, funded largely with city-administered federal money.

"This is living proof of how a commercial sector can be turned right-side up with a little bit of effort," Yaroslavsky said, recalling that he predicted a decline in the area's fortunes at a community meeting several years ago.

The councilman was unable to resist adding that he would rather have seen the private sector pay for the renovation. Still, he said, "they put out a lot of effort."

After the Wallenberg ceremony, a crowd of about 50 merchants, community workers and others walked up the avenue to a new parking lot at the southwest corner of Fairfax High School, where officials cut a blue ribbon to officially open the 39 metered spaces and two spaces for the handicapped.

Donald R. Howery, general manager of the city's Transportation Department, said the $250,000 project, which was paid for by parking meter fees, would yield about $10,000 a year. The proceeds will be split with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Although the lot will not be self-supporting, it is expected to pay off in reduced congestion, Howery said.

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