This essay will examine the life and times of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Hungary during World War II. During the short six months he spent in Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg displayed qualities one rarely encounters outside of fiction novels. Courage, ingenuity, unselfishness - the words all seem to fall short because we seldom associate them with actual people. Raoul's story is the stuff of epic poems and films, but not life. Under ordinary circumstances, it struck me, he may not have called attention to himself. He appears to be the type of person one would pass on the street and continue walking.
Raoul Wallenberg, whom I will refer to simply as Raoul, belonged to a large and affluent family in Sweden. His family had contributed to Sweden via banking, diplomats and politicians during several generations. Raoul was born 4 August 1912, three months after his father's death. In 1930, Raoul graduated with top grades in Russian and drawing. After his mandatory army service in Sweden, he travelled to America to study architecture. Raoul graduated in 1935 with honours and won the University of Michigan medal for outstanding academic achievement.
After Raoul's graduation he returned to Sweden and then travelled to South Africa where he worked for a Swedish firm in Cape Town. Six months later Raoul changed employment and worked for a Dutch bank in Palestine. In 1936, Raoul returned to Sweden. Through Raoul's cousin, Jacob Wallenberg, he was introduced to Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew and director of a Swedish based import and export company. Raoul was a perfect business partner for Koloman because of his language skills, family name and freedom of movement in Europe. In under eight months Raoul was joint owner and director of the trading company.
Raoul made numerous trips into Nazi occupied France and Germany. It was through this work that Raoul developed a excellent knowledge of German bureaucracy.
During the spring of 1944 word was beginning to filter out of Europe as to the Nazis' 'Final Solution' and Hitler's plans for the extermination of the 'undesirables' of Europe. In 1941, Hungary joined Germany in the war against Russia. At the beginning of 1944, there were an estimated 700,000 Jews living in Hungary.
When Germany lost the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, Hungary sought a separate peace deal with Russia, but Adolf Hitler demanded continued solidarity with Germany. When Hungary refused to meet the German demands, Hitler invaded Hungary on 19 March 1944.
Soon after the invasion it is believed the deportations of Jews and 'undesirables' began. Firstly, the Germans began to deport Jews from the Hungarian countryside. In desperation, the Jewish citizens from Budapest sought help from embassies of neutral countries, including Sweden, and special passes were issued for Jewish people with 'special connections' to those countries.
Thanks to a young Swedish diplomat in Budapest, Per Anger, the Swedish legation <1> succeeded in negotiating with the Germans that the bearers of these protective passes were to be treated as Swedish citizens and exempt from wearing the yellow star on their chests. Per Anger had, also, initiated the first of these Swedish protective passes. In a relatively short time the Swedish legation in Budapest had issued over 700 passes. The legation requested immediate staff reinforcements to meet the demand from the foreign department in Stockholm.
In 1944, America had established the War Refugee Board (WRB), an organisation with the sole purpose of liberating Jews from the Nazi persecution. The WRB heard of Sweden's attempts to rescue Jews in Budapest. The WRB's representative in Stockholm called together a committee of prominent Swedish Jews to discuss suitable persons to lead the mission in Budapest. Among the participants was Raoul's business partner Koloman Lauer, who was chosen as an expert on Hungary.
After initial deliberation, Lauer suggested that his business partner Raoul would be a perfect choice. Lauer emphasised that Raoul had made many trips to Hungary, was a quick thinker and energetic.
At the end of June 1944 Raoul was appointed the first secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest and his directive was to organise the rescue of Hungarian Jews.
When Raoul arrived in Budapest in July 1944 the Nazis, under the leadership of Adolf Eichmann, had already sent more than 400,000 Jews to the Nazi death camps. So, by the time that Raoul had arrived in Budapest there were only 230,000 Jews left in Hungary out of an estimated 700,000.
At this time, the Swedish King, Gustav V, appealed to the Hungarian Government to intervene and stop the deportations. The head of state in Hungary, Miklos Horthy, managed to delay only one train, but the deportations soon resumed. At this time, Carl Ivar Danielsson, the head of the Swedish legation in Budapest, Raoul and the head of the Red Cross in Hungary, Valdemar Langlet, rented buildings for the Red Cross and put up signs such as 'The Swedish Library' and 'The Swedish Research Institute'. The buildings were then used to hide many Jews in Budapest and bought the diplomats time to think of more creative ways to liberate the Hungarian Jews.
Raoul utilised unconventional methods, using everything from bribery to extortion, with success. Firstly, Raoul designed a Swedish protective pass which would impress the Germans and Hungarians. His past experience with these authorities had taught him their weakness for elaborate symbols. Raoul, therefore, had passes printed with the yellow and blue coat-of-arms of the Three Crowns of Sweden in the middle of the pass. Raoul then added a large stamp and the appropriate signatures. Although the protective passes had no value, they provoked respect because of their elaborate design. Raoul was originally only authorised by the Hungarian foreign ministry to issue 1,500 passes, but after negotiation he was able to raise the quota to 4,500 protective passes. In reality, Raoul issued more than three times that number.
In August 1944, the Hungarian head of state Miklos Horthy sacked his pro-German Prime Minister Sztojay and installed General Lakatos in his place. With this turn of events, the situation for the Jews in Hungary improved considerably. Through Raoul's diplomatic pressuring and mediation Adolf Eichmann was no longer allowed to continue his deportation of Hungarian Jews.
It seemed as though Raoul and his department had succeeded. On October 1944, however, just as the end appeared in sight and the Hungarian head of state was appealing to the advancing Russians for peace, the German troops took command of Hungary. The leader of the Hungarian Nazi movement the 'Arrow Cross', Ferenc Szalasi, was installed as leader. Once again, Adolf Eichmann returned to Hungary and continued the terror against the Jews.
The newly installed Hungarian Nazis were quick to inform everyone that the protective passes were no longer valid under their rule. However, Raoul managed to charm the Baroness Kemeny who was the wife of the new Hungarian foreign minister, Baron Kemeny. With the Baroness's cooperation, Raoul was able to make the passes valid once again.
Although all appeared lost, Raoul continued to fight and managed to continue to save many Jews from the clutches of the Nazis. Now Raoul took over 300 Budapest houses which he called 'Swedish Houses' and in which the Jews could seek refuge. A Swedish flag was hung in the front of the door and Raoul declared the houses Swedish territory. The population of the 'Swedish Houses' was approximately 15,000. Other neutral legations in Budapest soon followed suit opening 'protective houses' and also issuing protective passes for Jewish refugees.
It was now near the end of the war and due to the desperate situation, Raoul issued a simplified version of his protective pass. Although, it contained only one copied page with Raoul's signature alone, in the ensuing chaos this seemed to work.
At the same time, Eichmann had started his 'death marches' ordering a large number of Hungarian Jews be deported by foot. The first of the marches started in November of 1944. The conditions along the 200 kilometre road from Budapest and the Austrian border were treacherous. The marching Jews, according to eye witnesses, could be counted in their thousands. Once again, Raoul was at hand handing out protective passes, food and medicine.
When the Jews were transported in trains, Raoul intensified his efforts. According to eyewitnesses, Raoul would climb train wagons, run along the roofs and hand out bunches of protective passes down to the people inside. Raoul would then jump down and demand that the Jews with passes be allowed to leave with him.
In the second week of January 1945, Raoul learnt that Eichmann planned a total massacre in the largest ghetto in Budapest. The only one who could stop Eichmann was general Schmidthuber, commander of the German troops in Hungary. In a bold move, Raoul sent a note to the general stating that Raoul would make sure that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war. Due to this action the massacre was stopped at the last minute.
Two days later, the Russians finally arrived in Budapest and found 97,000 Jews in Budapest's two ghettos. In total 120,000 Jews survived the Nazi extermination in Hungary. According to Raoul's associate Per Anger, Raoul must be honoured with saving over 100,000 Jews through his efforts.
On 13 January 1945, Raoul requested and was given permission to visit the Russian army headquarters in the city of Debrecen, east of Budapest. On 17 January, with a Russian escort, Raoul left Budapest and has been missing ever since. Whether Raoul is alive or not is uncertain. Raoul and his driver were reputedly arrested by the NKVD <2> and sent to Moscow. According to the Russians, Raoul died in captivity on 17 July 1947, however, a number of witnesses claim the Raoul was alive after this time and may still be alive today. In spite of a large number of secret documents being opened after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Raoul's fate remains a mystery.
So, why did Raoul wish to contact the Russians in Debrecen and why did the Russians arrest him? Firstly, Raoul wished to explain his detailed financial support plans for the surviving Jews he had established throughout his time in Budapest. Secondly, the Russians were suspicious of Raoul's rescue efforts and, according to witnesses, arrested him under the mistaken belief that he was either an American spy or German collaborator.
Raoul was not the only diplomat in Budapest to be arrested. The secretary and clerk of the Swiss legation was also arrested by the Russians and sent to Moscow for questioning. However, the Swiss Government succeeded in getting the detained pair returned to Switzerland. Unlike the Swiss detainees, Raoul and his driver were never returned to Sweden, although repeated efforts were made and mainly by Raoul's family members.
Finally, as to the research on this subject, I was only able to find three relevant texts and some information off the Internet. Due to the limited information on this subject, which all basically repeated themselves, I have not footnoted each reference. So, I simply read all the texts and amalgamated their information for this essay. Thus, all texts should be considered as my primary source of information and given their due credit.
'Legations' was the name given to Embassies at the time of World War II.
<2> The NKVD were the predecessors of the KBG.
John (1981), Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg,
Missing Hero of the Holocaust, Allen Lane Books, London.
Marton, Kati (1995), Wallenberg: Missing Hero, Arcade Publishing, New York.
Skoglund, Elizabeth. R. (1997), A Quiet Courage: Per Anger, Wallenberg's Co-Liberator of Hungarian Jews, Baker Books, USA.