By Sabina Clarke
Editor’s Note: The following is Part I of a two part series about renowned attorney Morris Wolff’s crusade to rescue his client Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg from a Soviet gulag. Wolff lived on Mermaid Lane in Chestnut Hill from 1975 to 1985. His daughter, Lesley, graduated from Springside School in Chestnut Hill in 1993, where she was class valedictorian, and the University of Pennsylvania. Another daughter, Michelle, attended Springside School and graduated from Harcum Jr. College in Bryn Mawr.
Former Chestnut Hill resident and international human rights attorney Morris Wolff, 74, a ’54 graduate of Germantown Friends School and an alumnus of Amherst College and Yale University Law School, returned to Philadelphia in May from his Florida home to address students at Germantown Friends, his former alma mater, exhorting them to become initiators of human rights causes and to participate in changing unjust social conditions.
During his stay, Professor Wolff talked about his ongoing 28-year quest to rescue Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, who has been credited with saving at least 100,000 Jews headed for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Recruited by our government in 1944 to save the remaining Hungarian Jews in Budapest, Wallenberg was later abandoned and left to languish in Soviet prisons ever since his capture by the Russians in 1945. (On August 5, 1981, in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, President Ronald Reagan made Wallenberg an American citizen.)
Morris Wolff’s fearless journey to free Wallenberg began in 1983 with a 4 a.m. phone call from Guy Von Dardel, the brother of Raoul Wallenberg. Von Dardel, who had been referred to Wolff by a law professor associate from Chicago, pleaded with Wolff to rescue his brother Raoul and to sue the Russians for his kidnapping and illegal detention. The moment he agreed to take the case, Wolff became the de facto voice of Wallenberg.
Based on Wallenberg’s status as an American citizen, Wolff sent a hand-delivered letter to President Reagan urging him to demand Wallenberg’s release by the Soviets, citing the U.S. Hostages Act. It was not until years later that he learned Reagan’s initial directive to act was sabotaged by the White House and U.S. State Department and specifically by Reagan’s Counsel, Fred Fielding, and his Assistant Counsel John Roberts — now Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wolff recalls, “It was not until 2005 when I was contacted by E.J. Kessler, investigative reporter for The Jewish Forward during the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice Roberts, that I saw a memo from Roberts to President Reagan urging Reagan to ‘dodge the Wallenberg issue.’
“The memo had been buried in the Reagan Library. So with this new information, I asked to be included on the panel for Roberts’confirmation hearings and question him on issues of integrity and character. I wanted him to tell the public what he knew about the Wallenberg matter and why he did not encourage President Reagan to use the law I placed in front of him to rescue Wallenberg, but I was prevented from doing so because the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, a close friend and a Roberts’ supporter, knew I would be a hostile witness.”
When he received no support from the Reagan administration, Wolff filed his historic lawsuit, “Wallenberg versus the U.S.S.R.,” in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., on February 3, 1984. He remembers his relief when the judge assigned to his case was Judge Barrington Parker Jr., “He was the grandson of a slave and one of the first African-Americans to enter Yale Law School. He was also a strong supporter of human rights who, despite severe pressure from the White House and the State Department, including a highly improper visit to his judicial chambers by the men in pin- striped suits from State, ordered the Soviets to release Wallenberg and pay damages of $39 million — one million for each year of captivity.” Parker, he recalls, called the case “unique and without precedent in the history of actions against foreign sovereigns.”
The Wallenberg verdict, handed down on Oct. 15, 1985, was front page news in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and it went national. This historic lawsuit that no one thought he could possibly win paved the way for a new generation of human rights cases.
Then, after a series of postponements filed in secret by an insubordinate attorney who infiltrated Wolff’s team of lawyers and worked to sabotage the verdict on behalf of his firm’s main client, Chase Manhattan Bank, there was a four-year delay in implementing Parker’s decision. Then, something that has never before occurred in the history of the courts was about to happen. The courts ignored Parker’s decision and quietly moved the closed case on Judge Parker’s docket to the docket of another judge of equal jurisdiction.
In essence says Wolff, “The case was taken from a judge of equal jurisdiction and destroyed. This, according to an associate of mine, the Honorable Arlin M. Adams, a dear friend and retired federal appellate judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, was ‘an extreme example of judicial misbehavior.’ In effect, the Executive Branch of our government interfered with the Judicial Branch of our government violating the separation of powers clause in the U.S. Constitution.”
To be continued