Sometimes I just choose a neighborhood or street in New York City to walk for a few hours, looking for things I haven’t noticed before. Even when I’ve been to that neighborhood many times before, I still find something new every time. That’s the beauty of the city – it’s impossible to ever see everything, do everything. Not long ago I decided to take a walk north on First Avenue in Manhattan, starting on the Lower East Side and ending by the Queensboro Bridge. I walked 60 city blocks in all, a distance of three miles. And, as always, I discovered new things. The most interesting to me was this monument, located on a traffic island in the middle of First Avenue at East 47th Street.
As I approached, I wondered what it might be. Thankfully, the five stone pillars gave a good basic explanation. This site, technically part of the NYC Parks system, is a monument to Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Like me, you might wonder what a monument to a Swedish diplomat is doing in New York City. I had never heard of Raoul Wallenberg before, but the description on the monument, along with more information about Wallenberg on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website, educated me about Wallenberg’s importance.
I learned that Wallenberg, who was born in Sweden in 1912, attended university in the United States in the 1930s. After he returned to Sweden, the U.S. War Refugee Board recruited him to go to Budapest, Hungary, in an effort to save as many Hungarian Jews as possible. Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944, and between that time and January 1945, when Soviet troops entered the city, he and his colleagues were credited with saving approximately 100,000 Jews. He did so by issuing certificates of protection from the Swedish government.
While Wallenberg’s actions helped to save many lives, his personal story had a more tragic ending. The monument explains that he was detained by Soviet forces in January 1945, and no one knows what ultimately happened to him.
By looking closer at the ground surrounding the pillars, I learned more about the the monument’s materials. The five columns are made of black diabase, a type of stone quarried in Wallenberg’s native Sweden. Even more symbolic are the paving stones at the columns’ base; a gift from the city of Budapest, the stones come from the streets of the city’s former Jewish ghetto. I found the replica of Wallenberg’s briefcase, cast in bronze in Sweden, particularly poignant. Further research gave me the names of the monument’s designers: Swedish artists Gustav and Ulla Kraitz.
In 1981, the U.S. Congress voted to make Raoul Wallenberg an honorary U.S. citizen. Wallenberg’s monument is located near the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, and there are also other things named after him in the city, including a public school (P.S. 194) in Brooklyn, the Raoul Wallenberg Forest in the Bronx, an the Raoul Wallenberg Playground in Highbridge Park in the northern part of Manhattan.