The American Jewish Congress is trying to get Tunlaw Road, the Northwest street that plays host to a compound where Soviet diplomats and their families live, renamed in honor of vanished Swedish Red Cross envoy Raoul Wallenberg, who some contend still languishes in a Russian prison 37 years after World War II.
Some of the Glover Park neighborhood's residents are unhappy about the proposed name change.
Wallenberg's disappearance remains an international mystery. At the request of the U.S. War Refugee Board, the neutral Swedish government sent Wallenberg to Budapest in the war's closing days in 1944 to organize the exodus of thousands of Jews remaining in Nazi-occupied Hungary. He helped nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews escape Hitler's death camps by issuing Swedish passports and setting up "safe houses" that flew the Swedish flag. But shortly after the Russians overran Budapest in January 1945, Wallenberg was taken into custody by a Russian major and he has not been heard from since.
The missing diplomat later was reported seen in Russian prisons and, sporadically, reports emerge from the Soviet Union that he is still alive. The Soviet government insists that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in 1947 and now refuses to talk about him. But to many, Raoul Wallenberg is a legendary hero.
Last year, President Reagan signed a bill making Wallenberg an honorary American citizen, an honor bestowed on just one other person: Winston Churchill.
The push to change Tunlaw Road to Wallenberg Way is being led by the Washington chapter of AJC, which is also spearheading a national "Free Wallenberg" campaign. "We would like the renaming to serve as a reminder of who Wallenberg was," said Bert Weintraub, an AJC member.
Marc Pearl, executive director of the AJC, said the choice of Tunlaw is significant because the Soviets are there. Changing the name to Wallenberg Way "will serve as a reminder to the Russians that Americans have not forgotten the man," he said, adding that no other streets were being considered as alternatives. (Last January, AJC and the Luther Place Memorial Church dedicated the Raoul Wallenberg House, a refuge for the homeless on N Street NW.)
The controversial name-change proposal has aroused the emotions of many residents in Glover Park, a quiet neighborhood west of Wisconsin Avenue that prides itself for its community spirit. Residents are fighting attempts by others in the city, especially Realtors, to refer to Glover Park as "Upper Georgetown." The neighborhood is a combination of middle-class, longtime homeowners and younger apartment-dwelling professionals.
The name Tunlaw, walnut spelled backwards, is itself historically significant. It was a Civil War code name for the Union Army route out of Washington, which ran through a large walnut grove. Now, the growing, Soviet-owned housing complex backs up on that road, just north of Calvert Street NW. Eventually, the Soviet embassy, now located on 16th Street NW, will also move to the compound, which uses a Wisconsin Avenue address.
Some of those residents voted against renaming Tunlaw Road at a recent meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B. "There was overwhelming support for some other way to acknowledge Wallenberg," said Phyllis Meyers, an ANC 3B commissioner. She said the major argument against the proposal was the inconvenience it would cause the residents--especially homeowners--along Tunlaw who would have to change their addresses on formal documents.
Meyers said there was also a feeling that the name change seemed spiteful or vindictive towards the Soviets, and was not indicative of the diplomacy for which Wallenberg was known. Several of the neighbors at the ANC meeting agreed to form a committee to find a more suitable way to pay tribute to Wallenberg, she said.
Similar sentiments were expressed last week at the Glover Park Citizens' Association monthly meeting. Many thought the name change would be inconvenient, said Rufus Lusk III, president of the association. According to Lusk, some residents felt the idea "was not really so much honoring Wallenberg, as it was using him to discredit the Russians."
David Passage, a Tunlaw Road homeowner who works for the State Department, registered his objections to the proposed name change at both meetings. He said that he felt the AJC was "using Wallenberg as a transparent and gratuitous opportunity" to taunt the Soviets and that he does not condone such "tit for tattery." Passage also said he and some of his neighbors were concerned that AJC had pursued the name change with the city government without consulting the neighborhood.
AJC officials say they did contact D.C. Council member Jerry Moore's office about drafting legislation to change Tunlaw Road to Wallenberg Way. Moore is chairman of the city's Committee on Transportation and Environment, which has jurisdiction over such name changes. Both Pearl and Weintraub insist that their organization was not trying to "railroad" the measure through.
Last week, Gary Altman, staff counsel to Moore, said the committee would not consider changing the name of any street without checking with the affected community first. Altman said he had begun working on a draft bill, but heard that there was some controversy in the neighborhood. "I will not recommend to him Moore a proposal that the citizens do not want," he said.
As a result of last week's meetings, Ward 3 council member Polly Shackleton received numerous calls from disgruntled Glover Park citizens. Shackleton said she passed on this information to Moore's office and "as a result, Jerry Moore is not going to introduce a bill." She said that she would like to see Wallenberg honored, but saw no reason to have a confrontation with the Soviets to do so.
The State Department has heard about the proposed name change, but chief protocol officer Richard Gookin said, "We are not in contact with the suporters of this idea. . . . It is a matter for the District of Columbia government to consider."