Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Nazi-occupied Hungary who led an extensive and successful mission to save the lives of nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Though his efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust is one of the most treasured aspects of that time, his fate and ultimate death is unknown still to this day.
Raoul Wallenberg was born August 4, 1912, three months after his father’s death and six years before his mother, Maj Wising Wallenberg, became remarried to Fredrik von Dardel in 1918. Raoul belonged to one of the most famous families in Sweden, the large Wallenberg family. It was a family that contributed to Sweden bankers, diplomats and politicians during several generations in the country. Raoul’s father, Raoul Oscar Wallenberg, was an officer in the navy, and his cousins Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg were two of Sweden’s most famous bankers and industrialists.
Raoul’s grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg, took care of Raoul’s education. The plan was for him to continue the family tradition and become a banker, but he was more interested in architecture and trade.
In 1930, Wallenberg graduated with top grades in Russian and drawing. After his army service he traveled to the United States in 1931 to study architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Wallenberg’s personal letters reveal that he enjoyed his studies and that he spent most of his free time in studying. Still, he thoroughly enjoyed his time in Ann Arbor – he wrote to his grandfather, “When I now look back upon the last school year, I find I have had a completely wonderful time.”
Wallenberg graduated with honors in only three and a half years and won a university medal that went to the student with the most impressive academic record.
In 1935, he received his bachelor degree of Science in Architecture and returned to Sweden. But the market for architects was small in Sweden, so his grandfather sent him to Cape Town, South Africa, where he practiced at a Swedish firm selling building materials. After six months, his grandfather arranged a new job for him at a Dutch bank office in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel).
It was in Palestine he first met Jews that had escaped Hitler’s Germany. Their stories of the Nazi persecutions affected him deeply. Perhaps because he had a very humane attitude to life and because he owned a drop of Jewish blood (Raoul’s grandmother’s grandfather was a Jew by the name of Benedicks whom arrived to Sweden by the end of the 18th century). Wallenberg returned to Sweden from Haifa in 1936 and resumed his old interest for business.
Through his cousin Jacobs’ good contacts in the business world, Raoul was eventually brought together with Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew, who was the director of a Swedish based import and export company specializing in food and delicacies. Thanks to Raoul’s excellent language skills and his greater freedom of movement through Europe (Jews were not allowed to travel extensively after the rise of Hitler), he was a perfect business partner for Lauer. Within eight months, Wallenberg was a joint owner and international director of the Mid-European Trading Company.
Through his trips in Nazi-occupied France and in Germany itself, Raoul quickly learned how the German bureaucracy functioned. He also made several trips to Hungary and Budapest, where he visited Lauer’s family. At that time, Hungary was still a relatively safe place in a hostile surrounding.
During the spring of 1944 the world had mostly awoken to realize what Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish problem” actually meant. In May 1944, the first authentic eye witness report of what was happening in the Auschwitz extermination camp finally reached the western world . It came from two Jews who had managed to escape the gas chambers and Nazi Germany all together.
Hitler’s plans for the extermination of European Jewry were now known. At the beginning of 1944, an estimated 700,000 Jews still lived in Hungary, a country which had joined Germany in the war against the Soviet Union in 1941.
When the Germans lost the battle of Stalingrad in 1943, Hungary wanted to follow Italy’s example and demand a separate peace. Hitler called the Hungarian head of state, Miklós Horthy, and demanded that he display continued solidarity with Germany. When Horthy refused to meet these demands, an angered Hitler ordered the German army to invade Hungary in March 1944. Soon thereafter, the deportations of Hungarian Jews to the concentration camps began. For the vast majority of these Jews, the destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland – a ride that brought with it almost certain death.
Though the Germans began by deporting Jews from the Hungarian country side, the Jewish citizens of Budapest knew that their hour of fate was also soon to come. In desperation they sought help from embassies of the neutral countries where provisional identity passes were issued for Jews with special connections to these countries.
The Swedish legation in Budapest succeeded in negotiating with the Germans that the bearers of these protective passes would be treated as Swedish citizens and exempt from wearing the yellow Star of David on their chest. It was Per Anger, a young diplomat at the legation in Budapest, who initiated the first of these Swedish protective passes. (In 1982, Per Anger was awarded the honor of “Righteous Among the Nations“ by Yad Vashem for his heroic actions to save Jews during the war.)
In a short period, the Swedish legation issued 700 passes, though this represented a mere drop in the ocean compared to the enormous number of Jews being threatened by Hitler. To deal with the great number of Jews looking for help, the legation requested immediate staff reinforcements from the foreign department in Stockholm.
In 1944, the United States established The War Refugee Board (WRB), an organization created with the mission of saving Jews from Nazi persecution. The WRB soon realized that serious attempts were being made from the Swedish side to rescue the Jewish population in Hungary. The WRB’s representative in Stockholm called a committee with prominent Swedish Jews to discuss suitable persons to lead a mission in Budapest for an extensive rescue operation. Among the participants was Raoul Wallenberg’s business partner Koloman Lauer, chosen as an expert on Hungary.
The committee’s first choice was Folke Bernadotte, chairman of the Swedish Red Cross and a relative of the Swedish king. After Bernadotte was disapproved by the Hungarian government, Koloman Lauer suggested that his business partner Raoul Wallenberg be asked to lead the mission, emphasizing Wallenberg’s familiarity with Hungary from the many trips he had made there while working for their joint company. Raoul was considered too young and inexperienced, but Lauer was persistent in his belief that Wallenberg was the right man – a quick thinker, energetic, brave and compassionate. And he had a famous name.
Soon the committee approved Wallenberg and, by the end of June 1944, he was appointed first secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest with the mission to start a rescue operation for the Jews.
Raoul was very excited to go to Hungary, but first he wrote a memo to the Swedish foreign department. He was determined not to get caught in the protocol and paperwork bureaucracy of diplomacy. He demanded full authorization to deal with whom he wanted without having to contact the ambassador first. He also wanted to have the right to send diplomatic couriers beyond the usual channels. The memo was so unusual that it was sent all the way to Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson, who consulted the king before he announced that the demands had been approved.
By the time Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944, the Germans, under the leadership of SS officer Adolf Eichmann, had already deported more than 400,000 Jewish men, women and children from Hungary. They had been deported on 148 freight trains between May 14 and July 8.
Only about 230,000 Jews, out of a population that once numbered close to three-quarters of a million, were now left.
That same July, Eichmann was preparing a plan that in one day would exterminate the entire Jewish population in Budapest, the only Hungarian region remaining with large pockets of Jews intact. In a report to Berlin, though, he wrote that “the technical details will take a few days.”
If this plan had been but into action, Wallenberg’s mission would have been completely meaningless as the “Jewish issue” would have been “permanently solved” for the Jews of Budapest.
Horthy, the head of state, meanwhile received a letter from the Swedish King, Gustav V, with an appeal to halt all the deportations. Horthy sent a note back to the Swedish king saying he would do “everything in his power to ensure that the principals of humanity and justice would be respected.” Soon after, the deportations in Hungary were canceled and one train with 1,600 Jews was stopped at the border and sent back to Budapest.
Oddly enough, the German authorities approved the cancellation of the deportations. The explanation may have been that Heinrich Himmler thought he could negotiate a separate peace with the western allies and thought he’d stand a better chance if the pressure on the Jews was decreased. Eichmann could do nothing but wait and sit on his plan.
During this time, minister Carl Ivar Danielsson was head of the Swedish legation. His closest aide was secretary Per Anger. Wallenberg now headed the department responsible for helping the Jews. Before Wallenberg even started, the head of the Red Cross in Hungary, Valdemar Langlet, was already helping the Swedish legation by renting buildings for the Red Cross and putting signs like “The Swedish Library” or “The Swedish Research Institute” on their doors. The buildings were then used as hiding places for Jews.
Wallenberg did not use traditional diplomacy. He more or less shocked the diplomats at the Swedish legation with his unconventional methods. Everything from bribes to extortion threats were used with success. But when the rest of the staff of the legation saw how Wallenberg’s tactics got results, he quickly got their unreserved support.
Wallenberg’s first task was to design a Swedish protective pass to help the Jews against the Germans and their Hungarian allies. In previous experience, Wallenberg had noted that both the German and Hungarian authorities were weak for flashy symbols and he therefore had the passes printed in yellow and blue with the coat of arms of the Three Crowns of Sweden in the middle and the appropriate stamps and signatures throughout. Of course, Wallenberg’s protective passes had no actual value whatsoever according to international laws, but they provoked respect.
At the start, Wallenberg was only given permission to issue 1,500 of his passes. Quickly, though, he managed to negotiate another 1,000, and through promises and empty threats to the Hungarian foreign ministry he eventually managed to raise the quota to 4,500 protective passes.
In reality, Wallenberg managed to issue more than three times as many protective passes as he was officially allowed. For instance, he controlled a staff of several hundred co-workers - all Jews - and due to their work with Wallenberg, they didn’t have to wear the degrading yellow star.
In August 1944, the Hungarian head of state Horthy fired his pro-German Prime Minister Sztójay and let General Lakatos succeed him. The situation for the Jews improved considerably. Through diplomatic pressure, mediated and emphasized by Wallenberg, the responsibility to “solve the Jewish issue in Hungary” was taken away from Eichmann.
Following this decisive “victory,” Wallenberg believed that his department at the legation could be dismantled and that he himself could return to Sweden. He expected the invading troops of the Soviet Union to soon take over Budapest from the Nazis.
On October 15, the Horthy declared that he wanted peace with the Soviets. But his radio speech had barely been broadcast when the German troops took command. Horthy was immediately overthrown and replaced by the leader of the Hungarian Nazis, Ferenc Szálasi. Szálasi was the leader of the Arrow Cross organization, who was just as feared as the German Nazis for their cruel treatment of the Jewish population. Eichmann returned to Hungary and received a free hand to continue the terror against the Jews.
Wallenberg kept on fighting in spite of the ruling powers of evil and appeared often as an unwelcome witness to the atrocities. In many cases he managed to save Jews from the clutches of the Nazis with firm action and courage as his only weapon.
It was at this point that Wallenberg started to build “Swedish houses” – some 30 houses in the Pest part of the city where Jews could seek refuge. A Swedish flag hung in front of each door and Wallenberg declared the houses Swedish territory. The population of the “Swedish houses” soon rose to 15,000. Other neutral legations in Budapest started to follow Wallenberg’s example, issuing their own protective passes, and a number of diplomats from other countries were even inspired to open their own “protective houses” for Jewish refugees.
Toward the end of the war, when the situation became increasingly desperate, Wallenberg issued a simplified form of his protective pass, one copied page with his signature alone. In the existing chaos even that worked.
The newly instated Hungarian Nazi government immediately let it be known that with the change of power the protective passes were no longer valid. Wallenberg was undeterred and soon befriended the Baroness Elizabeth “Liesel” Kemény, wife of the foreign minister, and with her cooperation the passes were made valid again.
During this time Eichmann started his brutal “death marches.” He went through with his promised deportation plan by forcing increasingly large numbers of Jews to leave Hungary by foot. The first march started November 20, 1944, and the conditions along the 200-kilometer road between Budapest and the Austrian border were so horrendous that even the Nazi soldiers accompanying the Jews complained themselves.
The marching Jews could be counted in the thousands of never-ending rows of starving and tortured people. Wallenberg was in place all the time to hand out protective passes, food and medicine. He threatened and he bribed until he managed to free those with Swedish passes.
When Eichmann’s killers transported the Jews in full trains, Wallenberg intensified his rescue efforts. He even climbed the train wagons, stood on the tracks, ran along the wagon roofs, and stuck bunches of protective passes down to the people inside. At times, German soldiers were ordered to open fire but were so impressed by Wallenberg’s courage that they deliberately aimed too high. Wallenberg could jump down unharmed and demand that the Jews with passes leave the train together with him.
Toward the end of 1944, Wallenberg moved over the Danube river from Buda to Pest where the two Jewish ghettos were situated. Even the once minimal level of law that existed on this side was now gone. Simultaneously, Wallenberg’s department at the Swedish legation grew constantly and finally kept 340 persons “employed.” Another 700 people also lived in their building.
Wallenberg searched desperately for suitable people to bribe, and found a very powerful ally in Pa’l Szalay, a high-ranking officer in the police force and an Arrow Cross member. (After the war, Szalay was the only Arrow Cross member that wasn’t executed. He was set free in recognition for his cooperation with Wallenberg.)
In the second week of January 1945, Wallenberg discovered that Eichmann planned a massacre in Budapest’s largest ghetto. The only one who could stop it was general August Schmidthuber, commander-in-chief for the German troops in Hungary.
Wallenberg’s ally Szalay was sent to deliver a note to Schmidthuber explaining how Wallenberg would ensure that the general be held personally responsible for the massacre if it proceeded and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war. The massacre was stopped at the last minute thanks to Wallenberg’s action.
Two days later, the Russians arrived and found 97,000 Jews alive in Budapest’s two Jewish ghettos. In total 120,000 Jews survived the Nazi extermination in Hungary. According to Per Anger, Wallenberg’s friend and colleague, Wallenberg must be honored with saving at least 100,000 Jews.
On January 13, 1945, an advancing Soviet army unit saw a man standing and waiting for them in front of a house with a large Swedish flag above the door. In fluent Russian, this man, Raoul Wallenberg, explained to a surprised Russian sergeant that he was Swedish chargé d’affaires for the Russian-liberated parts of Hungary. Wallenberg requested, and was given permission to visit the Soviet military headquarters in the city of Debrecen east of Budapest.
Last Known Picture of Wallenberg
On January 17, 1945, on his way out of the capital 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, Wallenberg said that he wasn’t sure if he was going to be the Russian’s guest or their prisoner, though he expressed hope that he’d be back within eight days.
Raoul Wallenberg was never seen again.
The Russians claimed that he died in Russian captivity on July 17, 1947. A number of testimonies , however, indicate that he was alive after that date and that he could have still been alive into and through the 1980’s.
But why did Wallenberg want contact with the Russians in Debrecen? And why did the Russians arrest him?
In November 1944, Wallenberg had established a section in his department that under his supervision would make a detailed financial support plan for the surviving Jews. The Russians did not have the same views of Jews and, presumably, couldn’t understand that a person had devoted his soul to save them. Therefore, it was important to Wallenberg to explain his rescue operation.
The Russians, on the other hand, probably believed that Wallenberg had other reasons for his rescue efforts. They probably suspected him of being an American spy and were almost certainly skeptical of Wallenberg’s 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 the NKVD, the organization later known as the KGB, who placed Wallenberg and Langfelder in separate cells in the Lubyanka prison, according to eyewitnesses.
Wallenberg wasn’t the only diplomat in Budapest that aroused Soviet suspicion. The Swiss legation had also run extensive rescue operations for the Hungarian Jewish population. The Russians arrested a secretary of their legation together with a clerk and sent them to the Soviet Union. The Swiss succeeded, however, in getting them extradited in exchange for Soviet citizens detained in Switzerland.
It would take some time before authorities in Stockholm became concerned about Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance. In a letter to the Swedish ambassador in Moscow, the Russian Vice Foreign Minister Dekanosov declared that “the Russian military authorities had taken measures and steps to protect Wallenberg and his belongings.”
The Swedes, of course, expected Wallenberg to be sent home soon. When nothing happened, Raoul’s mother, Maj von Dardel, contacted the Russian ambassador in Stockholm, Aleksandra Kollontaj, who explained to her that she should be calm since her son was well kept in Russia. Kollontaj also told the Swedish Foreign Minister Christian Günther’s wife that it would be best for Wallenberg if the Swedish government wouldn’t stir things up.
On March 8, 1945, the Soviet-controlled Hungarian radio announced that Raoul Wallenberg had been murdered on his way to Debrecen, probably by Hungarian Nazis or Gestapo agents. This created a certain passiveness within the Swedish government. Foreign Minister Östen Undén and Sweden’s ambassador in the Soviet Union presumed that Wallenberg was dead. In most places, however, the radio message wasn’t taken seriously.
Many people have drawn the conclusion that Sweden had an opportunity to negotiate for Wallenberg’s release after the war but that they missed their chance.
The Soviet authorities denied having any knowledge of Wallenberg.
In April 1956, Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander traveled with Domestic Minister Gunnar Hedlund to Moscow where they met Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Bulganin, and Vyacheslav Molotov. These men promised to re-investigate what had happened to Wallenberg.
On February 6, 1957, the Russians announced they had made extensive investigations and found a hand-written document that said, “prisoner Wallenberg passed away this night in his cell.” The document was dated July 17, 1947, and signed by Smoltsov, head of the Lubyanka prison infirmary. The document was addressed to Viktor Abakumov, the minister for state security in the Soviet Union.
The Russians expressed regret in their letter to the Swedes that Smoltsov died in May 1953 and that Abakumov had been executed. The Swedes were suspicious but the Russians never deviated from this story.
After January 1945, foreign prisoners started to be released from Russian jails and several said Wallenberg was imprisoned throughout the 1950’s.
In 1965, the Swedish government published a report on the Wallenberg case in which Erlander said he had done everything in his power to find out the truth about Wallenberg’s fate, but had been unsuccessful.
At the end of the 1970’s,the case was revived. According to the Swedish foreign department, two very interesting testimonies were the basis for a note to Moscow requesting the case to be reexamined. The answer from the Kremlin was the same as earlier – Wallenberg died in 1947. On the grounds of additional material considered reliable, Foreign Minister Ola Ullsten sent another request in the beginning of the 1980’s regarding Wallenberg to the Russian chief of government Aleksei Kosygin. The reply was the same as usual – Wallenberg died in 1947.
During the 1980’s, interest in Wallenberg grew around the world. In 1981, he became an honorary citizen of the United States. He received the same honor in Canada in 1985 and Israel in 1986. In Sweden and other countries, Raoul Wallenberg associations worked tirelessly to find answers to what happened.
In November 2000, Alexander Yakovlev, the head of a presidential commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate, announced that the diplomat had been executed in 1947 in the KGB’s Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. He said Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former Soviet secret police chief, told him of the shooting in a private conversation. The Russians released another statement in December admitting that Wallenberg was wrongfully arrested on espionage charges in 1945 and held in a Soviet prison for 2½ years until he died. The statement did not explain why Wallenberg was killed or why the government lied about his death for 55 years, claiming from 1957 to 1991 that he died of a heart attack while under Soviet protection.
On January 12, 2001, a joint Russian-Swedish panel released a report that did not reach any conclusion as to Wallenberg’s fate. The Russians reverted to the claim that he died of a heart attack in prison in 1947, while the Swede’s said they were not sure if Wallenberg was dead or alive. The report did unearth evidence that the reason the Soviets arrested Wallenberg was the suspicion that he was a spy for the United States.
Sources: @ David Metzler, Raoul Wallenberg.
Sharon LaFraniere, “Moscow Admits Wallenberg Died In Prison in 1947,” Washington Post, (December 23, 2000).
T.R. Reid, “Committee Divided on Holocaust Hero's Fate Remains Unknown,” Washington Post, (January 13, 2001).