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Raoul Wallenberg Forest

Raoul Wallenberg Forest

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This parkland is named in honor of Raoul Gustav Wallenberg (1912-?), a Swedish diplomat who is credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from likely extermination by the Nazis during World War II. Wallenberg grew up in one of Sweden’s wealthiest and most prominent families. As a student in Sweden and France, Wallenberg learned Swedish, English, German, French, and Russian -- language skills which later aided him in his humanitarian mission.

In June 1944, the War Refugee Board appointed Raoul Wallenberg first secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest. Wallenberg arrived in Budapest the following month and immediately set to work. He designed counterfeit Swedish passports and distributed them on trains to Jews bound for concentration camps. He purchased as many houses, villas, and buildings as possible and adorned them with the blue and yellow colors of Sweden’s flag, thereby making them neutral diplomatic property and a safe havens for Jews. Wallenberg also organized and set up warehouses stocked with food to distribute rations to the needy, and to bribe Nazi officers. The Germans slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Hungarians during the war, but Wallenberg almost single-handedly saved as many as 100,000 Jews from likely death through his cunning and bravery.

On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg left Budapest to meet with Soviet military officials in eastern Hungary. This was the last time Wallenberg was ever seen in public. The Russian government claimed to have no knowledge of his whereabouts until 1957, when documents were released stating that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack in a Russian prison in 1947. To this day, Wallenberg’s fate remains unknown. Reports persist from released Russian prisoners who claim to have seen Wallenberg alive as recently as 1990, but recent investigations by Russian and Swedish panels support the notion that he died in 1947. Still, the circumstances of his death remain unclear, and it is widely believed that he was executed by the KGB.

Until the mid-1800s, when railways started bringing passengers to the area, the most common way to get to this region was by boat. Intricate stone walls from the 18th century, a sealed up stone well, and human artifacts have all been discovered on the property, which was inhabited by Native Americans for generations. James Douglas, a renowned mining engineer, settled here in the 1890s, and is the namesake of one of the park’s bounding avenues. Another famous resident was U Thant (1909-1974), Burmese statesman and former Secretary General of the United Nations.

The Douglas-U Thant site, bounded by Palisade and Douglas Avenues, between West 235th and 236th Streets, was purchased from a real estate developer by the city for $4.85 million on August 14, 1990. On November 28 of that year, Mayor David N. Dinkins signed a bill sponsored by Council Member June Eisland naming the property Raoul Wallenberg Park. After visiting the park’s dense shrubbery and thickly wooded areas in 1996, Commissioner Stern renamed the property Raoul Wallenberg Forest.

This site contains many trees with trunks more than 30 inches in diameter. These include two “Great Trees”, a white oak with a trunk 45 inches in diameter, and a European beech with a trunk 52 inches in diameter. Raoul Wallenberg Forest is also home to several densely vegetated areas of blackberries, wineberries, grapes, roses, Black locust and Sumac trees, and various wildflowers. Dozens of species of birds, including downy woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, and white-throated sparrows, are also indigenous to the park.

In 1999, the Urban Park Rangers’ Parks Conservation Corps worked alongside a forestry crew to re-open the staircase that had been overgrown with vegetation for years. Erosion control, trail maintenance, and native species plantings were also included in this project to improve Raoul Wallenberg Forest, a living tribute to a man who gave his life for the safety and survival of tens of thousands of others.

In addition to this forest, Wallenberg and his work to save lives are memorialized in a monument at 47th Street and First Avenue, and at Raoul Wallenberg Playground at 170th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, both in Manhattan.

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