The Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States was calling the evening a tribute in absentia to the Swedish diplomat who saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from Adolf Eichmann, then disappeared into Russian prisons 40 years ago this year. Wallenberg would now be 72. But the question that circulated tonight was whether the black-tie dinner for 1,100 at the Sheraton Centre was an honor -- or a memorial.
"It's both," said author Elie Wiesel. "I hope that he is alive. I fear that he is not. This is a double activity to keep the campaign for his freedom alive and to remember what he did."
"It's a curious irony that it's taken this long to have this well up," said Isaac Stern, the violinist. "But this is a time of needing a hero, someone who stands up for what is right. And a time to remind others that when someone stands up, he should not stand alone."
The evening's proceeds will help fund a permanent Wallenberg collection and exhibit at the New York Public Library, provide scholarships and continue the search.
The Soviet government has maintained that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in 1947. But letters from Soviet prisoners have insisted that Wallenberg, who in six tireless months rescued half the Jewish population of Budapest, was alive and in good health as late as the 1970s.
"None of us knows what really happened to him," said Agnes Adachi, who worked with Wallenberg in Budapest. "He was very quick-thinking and resourceful. My associates said, 'Don't worry about Raoul; he always turns up.' But he didn't."
Wallenberg's family -- represented tonight by his sister Nina Lagergren, who had flown in from Sweden for a round of ceremonies and television appearances -- believes that he survives. "A great deal is happening all the time on many levels to find out where Raoul is," she said without elaborating.
Her visit included an emotional screening the night before of "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story," the mini-series NBC will air next month with Richard Chamberlain in the title role. "Marvelous," she said.
Melanie Mayron, the actress who plays Wallenberg's secretary, also saw the film for the first time Tuesday. "Everyone was sobbing," she reported. "Me, too, even though I knew every minute of it. It was so powerful. If he's alive, I hope it will help get him out."
But Henry Kissinger, fielding questions about the impact of the change in Soviet leadership, was less optimistic. "It's pretty much the same group and according to all the published sources it was Gromyko who signed the documents alleging that Wallenberg was dead. It would be difficult for them to reverse. But one can hope."
Friday, Mayor Edward I. Koch will declare seven blocks of sidewalk across from the United Nations the Raoul Wallenberg Walk. "It's incredible that New York hasn't paid any tribute to this man in 40 years," declared Alan Greenberg, chairman of Bear, Stearns & Co. and the event's cochairman. "That's being rectified tonight. He's one of the great heroes of the 20th century."
But some of the participants paid a more personal tribute. Businessman Thomas Sved and his wife Hazel had flown in from Toronto. Sved was 5 years old when the Nazis mined and sealed off the Budapest ghetto. "History says that the Germans had all the intentions of blowing up the ghetto," Sved said.
"But Wallenberg -- who spoke perfect German, by the way -- met with the German general and told him that if he were to blow up the ghetto, he, Wallenberg, would see him hanged after the war. My mother and sister and I lived in the ghetto at the time. It's a safe assumption that Wallenberg saved my life."