passport photo of Raoul Wallenberg
A mixture of Oscar Schindler,
Groucho Marx, and the legend of Zorro, Wallenberg is credited with using incredible,
daring tactics to save more than 100,000 Jews and others targeted for extermination by the
Nazis in and around Budapest during World War II. His courageous life is truly inspiring,
but the finale' of the Raoul Wallenberg story continues to be shrouded in mystery and may
always remain that way.
WHO WAS RAOUL WALLENBERG?
Raoul Wallenberg was born on August 4, 1912
into one of the most famous, wealthy, and powerful families in Sweden. The Wallenberg
family had become bankers, diplomats, and politicians in Sweden for several generations.
Raoul's father, who died three months before Raoul was born, was an officer in the navy
and Raoul was raised with great love and care by a loving and attentive extended family
including his grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg, who took responsibility for his education.
The plan was for him to continue the family tradition and become a banker, but he grew to
be more interested in architecture and international trade.
At the age of 19, he traveled to the U.S.
and studied architecture at the University of Michigan, graduating as the top scholar of
his class in 1935, whereupon he returned to Sweden. The need for architects in Sweden at
that time was very limited so his grandfather sent him to Cape Town, South Africa where he
worked at a Swedish firm selling building materials. Six months later his grandfather
arranged for a new job for him at a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel).
It was in Palestine that Wallenberg first
met Jews that had escaped Hitler's Nazi persecutions and, because of his very humane and
caring attitude towards all people, their stories affected him deeply. He returned to
Sweden in 1936 and continued his interest for international business.
Raoul was a cousin to Jacob and Marcus
Wallenberg, who would become two of Sweden's most famous bank and industrial powers for
half a century. It was through Jacob's contacts that in 1941 Wallenberg was introduced to
Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew, who was the director of a Swedish based import-export
company which specialized in food and delicacies. Because of Raoul's excellent language
skills, his experience in international law, and travel experience, he was the perfect
business partner for Lauer. Within eight months Raoul Wallenberg was the joint owner and
international director of the Mid-European Trading Company.
As a part of his business affairs
Wallenberg traveled frequently in Nazi occupied France and Germany itself, learning
quickly how the German bureaucracy functioned. He also made several trips to Budapest,
where he visited Lauer's family. Hungary was still a comparatively safe place in a very
Hungary joined Germany's war against the
Soviet Union in 1941 and by 1944 an estimated 700,000 Jews still lived there. When German
forces lost the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, the Hungarian government, led by Miklos
Horthy, desperately wanted to seek a separate peace with the allies as Italy had done.
Hitler demanded measures of solidarity with Hungary and, when Horthy refused, Hitler
invaded Hungary on March 19th, 1944. Soon the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz, Birkenau
and other concentration camps began, a trip that meant almost certain death to those who
were forced to go. Between May 14th and July 8th of 1944, 148 freight trains had already
carried more than 400,000 Jews from the Hungarian countryside to Nazi death camps.
In May of 1944 the first authentic eye
witness reports reached the western world from Jews who had managed to escape the Nazi gas
chambers. Now Hitler's "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem" became horribly
apparent. The United States established the War Refugee Board (WRB) whose purpose was to
save as many lives as possible from Nazi persecution and death. The WRB soon realized that
serious efforts were also underway in Sweden to rescue the remaining Jewish population in
Hungary. The WRB's representative in Stockholm called a meeting with prominent Swedish
Jews to consider who could lead a successful mission to Budapest. Among the participants
in that meeting was Raoul Wallenberg's partner, Koloman Lauer, chosen as an expert on
Lauer suggested that his young partner
should be asked to lead the effort, although this idea was initially opposed because, at
34 years of age, many thought Wallenberg too young and inexperienced. Lauer emphasized
that Wallenberg had made many trips to Hungary while working for their company - he was a
quick thinker, energetic, brave, and compassionate. And he had a famous name. At the end
of June, 1944 he was appointed to the Royal Swedish Delegation in Budapest. But before
Wallenberg would go he demanded full authorization to do his work without having to
consult with the Swedish ambassador first. This kind of request was totally unheard of and
the prime minister had to consult King Gustav of Sweden before finally accepting
By the time Raoul Wallenberg arrived in
Budapest in July, 1944 there were only about 230,000 Jews left. His first task was to
design a Swedish protective pass, called a Schutz-Pass, to help the Jews avoid violence
and deportation at the hands of the Germans and the pro-Nazi Hungarians. He had discovered
earlier that both the German and Hungarian authorities were impressed by flashy looking
documents and symbols. As a result, Wallenberg had the passes printed in the official
yellow and blue colors of the Swedish flag with the Three Crowns of Sweden coat of arms in
the middle, and added impressive looking stamps, seals, and signatures. Of course, this
"official" pass had no value whatsoever relating to treaties or international
law, but it provoked respect. To begin with Wallenberg had permission from his government
to print 1,500 passes, although he quickly negotiated the printing of 1,000 more. Through
promises, bribes, and empty threats to the Hungarian ministry he was soon able to raise
the quota to 4,500.
In the meantime, Wallenberg had hired
several hundred Jewish co-workers who, because of their work with the Swedish
"embassy" did not have to wear the yellow Star Of David, which singled them out
for persecution. Even before he had any permission and without regard for any quotas or
limits, Raoul and his team were printing as many passes as possible and as quickly as they
could. Wallenberg managed to print more than three times their "quota" of passes
and he used these to keep thousands of Jews free.
In August of 1944 Miklos Horthy, the
Hungarian head of state, fired his pro-German prime minister and, for the time being, the
persecution of the Jews eased somewhat. Wallenberg expected the invading Soviet troops to
defeat the Nazis soon and take over Budapest. He thought his department at the Swedish
delegation would soon be dismantled and that he could return shortly to his homeland. But
the situation was to take an unexpected turn for the worse.
On October 15th Horthy broadcast a radio
speech declaring that he wanted peace with the Soviets. No sooner had the broadcast ended
than the Nazis took command of the government and all radio broadcasts. Horthy was
immediately removed from the government and replaced by Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of
Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazis. The Arrow Cross were just as feared as the German Nazis,
if not more so, for their cruel and torturous treatment of the Jewish population.
Wallenberg stepped up his rescue efforts and in many cases managed to save Jews from the
Nazis with his intelligence, decisive action, and courage as his only weapons. He bought
30 houses in the Pest area of the city and hung Swedish flags in the doorway, declaring
the houses "Swedish territory" and filling them with Jewish people. Other
national embassies followed this courageous example and the population of these "safe
houses" numbered in the thousands.
In November of 1944, Eichmann ordered the
beginning of his brutal "death marches". He went through with his promised
deportation plan by having huge numbers of Jews leave Hungary on foot. As the winter set
in, the conditions along the 120 mile (200 km) road between Budapest and the Austrian
border were horrendous. Raoul Wallenberg was found day in and day out among the thousands
of those walking in never-ending rows of starving and tortured people. He threatened,
blackmailed, and bribed until he managed to free those with Swedish passes.
When the freight trains were again filled
with Jews to be transported to concentration camps, Wallenberg intensified his efforts
even more. As his printing presses turned out more and more "official" passes,
he even climbed into the rail cars, and ran along the roofs of the "cattle cars"
sticking bunches of protective passes down to the people inside. German soldiers were
ordered to open fire but, according to many eye witnesses accounts, the soldiers were so
impressed with his courage that they deliberately aimed too high. Wallenberg could jump
down and demand that the Jews with passes leave the train together with him.
As 1944 was drawing to a close, Wallenberg
found a powerful, high ranking member of the police force and an Arrow Cross member, Pa'l
Szalay, that he could bribe for special favors and secret information. In the second week
of January, Raoul found out that Eichmann planned a total massacre of the largest Jewish
ghetto in Budapest. The only one who could stop it was the man given the responsibility to
carry the massacre out, the commander of the German troops in Hungary, General August
Schmidthuber. Through Szalay, Wallenberg sent Schmidthuber a note promising that he, Raoul
Wallenberg, would make sure the general was held personally responsible for the massacre
and that he would be hanged as a war criminal when the war was over. The general knew that
the war would be over soon and that the Germans were losing. The massacre was stopped at
the last minute thanks to the courage and daring action of Wallenberg. (*Authors note:
After the war, Szalay was the only Arrow Cross member not executed. He was set free in
recognition of his cooperation with Wallenberg.)
Two days later the Red Army of the Soviet
Union arrived and found 97,000 Jews alive in Budapest's two Jewish ghettos. A total of
120,000 Hungarian Jews survived the Nazi extermination effort. According to Per Anger, the
secretary-general of the Swedish delegation in Budapest, Wallenberg must be credited with
saving at least 100,000 Jews.
WHAT HAPPENED TO RAOUL
The last known photo of Raoul Wallenberg
On January 13, 1945 advancing Soviet troops
saw a man standing and waiting for them in front of a house with a large Swedish flag
above the door. In fluent Russian Raoul Wallenberg explained to a surprised Russian
sergeant that he was Swedish chargé d'affaires for those whom the Russians had just
liberated. Wallenberg requested, and was given permission, to visit the Soviet military
headquarters in the city of Debrecen east of Budapest.
On his way out of the capital on January
17th - with Russian escort - Wallenberg and his driver stopped at the "Swedish
houses" to say good bye to his friends. To one of his colleagues, Dr. Ernö Petö,
Raoul said that he wasn't sure if he was going to be the Russians guest or their prisoner.
Wallenberg thought he'd be back within eight days - but he has been missing since then.
The Russians may well have believed that
Wallenberg had another reason for his rescue efforts. They probably suspected him to be an
American spy, too. Most certainly they were also very skeptical of Raoul Wallenberg's
extensive contact with the Germans.
Wallenberg and his driver, Vilmos
Langfelder, never returned from Debrecen. According to reliable testimonies they were
arrested and sent to Moscow. They were arrested by NKVD, an organization that later
changed its name to KGB. Wallenberg and Langfelder were placed in separate cells in the
Lubjanka prison, according to eye witnesses.
There remains no hard evidence of Raoul
Wallenberg's death. The Russians state that he died in a Russian prison July 17th, 1947. A
number of testimonies indicate though that he was seen alive and even spoken with as late
as 1974. Some believe that he still could be alive today. During the 1980's interest in
Raoul Wallenberg grew around the world.
1981 he became an honorary citizen. of the
United States of America, 1985 in Canada, and 1986 in Israel.
In Sweden and other countries, mainly the
USA, Raoul Wallenberg associations. work to find answers to what happened to
Wallenberg. In 1989 his family went to Moscow to receive the "suddenly located"
passport and personal possessions of Raoul. They saw the official paperwork for his 1946
arrest and were given an official apology, along with the same official story that he had
died at age 35 in a Soviet prison. Despite a large number of secret documents opened after
the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Raoul Wallenberg's fate remains a mystery.
CONCLUSION and AUTHOR'S
The actions of Raoul Wallenberg inspired
those around him to find the best in themselves and he didn't hesitate to call others to
do the right thing. While we may never face the same kind of situations that Raoul
Wallenberg did, (and who knows...we might!) we, too, are given opportunities to stand up
for those around us who are persecuted, feel powerless, and are in need of our help. It
could be a co-worker, a classmate, or a neighbor. They could be of any age, color,
nationality, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Please note that Wallenberg didn't
go to these heroic lengths to help the Jews because he was also Jewish. He wasn't. He
helped them because they were his fellow human beings.
When the opportunity comes to help protect
a fellow human being from violence and persecution, I hope and pray that this writer will
be half as courageous as Raoul Wallenberg.
Mark Reiman is the
Editor-In-Chief of Incredible People. You can contact him at mark@IncrediblePeople.com