Wallenberg, Raoul (1912–1947?)

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WALLENBERG, RAOUL (1912–1947?)


Swedish diplomat who helped rescue Jews during World War II.

Raoul Gustav Wallenberg was born on 4 August 1912 to an affluent Swedish family of bankers, diplomats, and army officers. His father, Raoul Oskar Wallenberg, was an officer in the Swedish fleet; several of his uncles were among the country's most important bankers. Wallenberg was born three months after his father died and was raised by his stepfather, Fredrik von Dardel, whom his mother married in 1918. His family hoped that Raoul would take a position in its banking businesses, but his interests and aptitudes lay in the arts. After finishing high school, he went to the United States in 1931 and studied architecture at the University of Michigan. He graduated cum laude in three and a half years and returned to Sweden in 1935. His grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg, the family member to whom he was closest, hoped he would join the family business and therefore sent him to South Africa to engage in sales and commerce for it. About six months later, he switched to a job at a branch of a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine.

It seems to have been in Haifa that he first encountered Jews who had left Nazi Germany. After returning to Sweden in 1936, he did join the family business and took professional trips to Germany, France, and Hungary, using his Swedish passport to circulate freely. His duties included dealing with Germans in various positions, from which he learned well the modus operandi of the Nazi German bureaucracy and how to work with it.

Sweden had been intensively involved in relief efforts in Hungary even before Wallenberg reached Budapest in 1944. The mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, engineered by Adolf Eichmann after Germany had invaded Hungary in March 1944, had begun. The Swedish envoys in Budapest—the ambassador, Carl Ivan Danielsson, and the secretary, Per Anger—had already set rescue efforts in motion. They issued diplomatic protective passports to Jews for whom these documents were appropriate. The Swedish Foreign Ministry facilitated these actions in conjunction with other groups, such as the World Jewish Congress. After the activation of the War Refugee Board (WRB), a panel established under the auspices of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in early 1944 for the purpose of aiding and rescuing Jews, WRB activists began to explore paths of action with the government of Sweden, which already had diplomatic envoys in Budapest. After discussions and consultations in Stockholm, with the participation of WRB officials Raoul Wallenberg was posted to Budapest as a special diplomatic envoy for the rescue of Hungarian Jews. In June 1944 he was named first secretary of the Swedish legation in Budapest and reached the Hungarian capital on 9 July.

In accordance with the conditions he had laid down before he undertook the mission, Wallenberg was vested with full powers to negotiate with any party whom he deemed fit and to operate in exceptional diplomatic ways. In an unusual move, the agreements in these matters were forwarded for approval to the prime minister of Sweden, Per Albin Hansson, who consulted with King Gustav V. In this sense, Wallenberg's mission in Hungary enjoyed the full diplomatic backing of the government of Sweden.

When Wallenberg reached Budapest, Eichmann's operatives were in the midst of sending some four hundred thousand Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz for extermination. Approximately two hundred thirty thousand Jews remained in the country in July 1944, nearly all in the capital, Budapest. The international reverberations and protests about the developments in Hungary, including a letter from the king of Sweden to the Hungarian ruler, Miklós Horthy, prompted Horthy to stop the deportations. The deportation trains that Eichmann and his associates had set in motion ground to a halt.

On 15 October 1944, however, the political situation changed. The Hungarian Nazi Party, the Arrow Cross, seized power and began applying violent measures against the Jews of Budapest. The vestiges of the Jewish population were in steadily escalating danger of deportation. Wallenberg and his staff, including many Jews who had been recruited to work with him, embarked on the large-scale issuance of protective passports that carried the Swedish royal seal. The Hungarian and German authorities honored these documents, the bearers of which were thereby protected from the menace of deportation. Wallenberg's operating tactics were unconventional by the standards of official diplomacy. They ranged from bribing Hungarian officials to making veiled threats to settle scores after the war with locals who collaborated with the Nazis in deporting Jews. The number of protective passports issued at Wallenberg's initiative came to forty-five hundred, even though at first he had been authorized to issue only fifteen hundred.

Wallenberg's largest rescue endeavor was the establishment of special protected hostels, "Swedish houses," including some thirty buildings in the Pest part of Budapest. Some fifteen thousand Jews found shelter in these buildings, which were recognized as protected diplomatic zones and flew the Swedish flag. When Eichmann sent tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest on death marches to the Austrian border in November 1944, Wallenberg helped the deportees by providing food and medicine and by extricating from the marches Jews who carried Swedish protective passports. In January 1945, when the Red Army entered Budapest, they found about ninety-seven thousand Jews who had been saved by Wallenberg's efforts in the weeks leading up to the liberation. In the late 1980s, when the Soviets handed over Wallenberg's personal effects, including his personal diary, to Sweden, it became clear that the brutal liquidation of the two ghettos where these Jews had been living had been thwarted at the last moment by his actions.

Wallenberg's first encounter with the Red Army apparently took place on 13 January 1945. When a Soviet soldier reached one of the protected dwellings that had been established in Budapest several months earlier, Wallenberg identified himself as an official diplomatic envoy of the Swedish government who, as such, represented the interests of the Soviet Union in the Hungarian capital under an agreement between the two countries. He asked for permission to set out for Debrecen to meet with commanders of the Soviet garrison force in Hungary. On 17 January 1945, he began the trip with a Soviet military escort and stopped at one of the protected houses on the way. He signaled to one of his workers that he was unsure whether the Soviets would allow him to continue operating in Hungary but said that he hoped to return within a week. He then disappeared without a trace.

On 8 March 1945, Hungarian Radio, by then controlled by the Soviet Occupation authorities, announced that Hungarian Nazis had murdered Raoul Wallenberg on his way to Debrecen. For many years, the official Soviet line was that no one by the name of Raoul Wallenberg had been taken prisoner by the USSR and that no such person had reached Moscow. Sweden demanded information about his fate for years, but not until 6 February 1956, during the thaw in Soviet policy under Nikita Khrushchev, did the USSR acknowledge that Wallenberg had been in a Soviet prison. Moscow claimed that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack on 17 July 1947. Years later, however, an accumulation of testimonies, mainly of fellow prisoners, alleged that he had been alive in the 1950s as well.

The reason for Wallenberg's imprisonment and the circumstances of his death remain vague. The Soviets were apparently suspicious about the people behind his activities in Budapest. In November 1944, Wallenberg had established a separate division in his office at the Swedish legation for the purpose of raising funds and assisting Jews. This clashed with Soviet policy, since the USSR was afraid of the involvement of influential outside groups in an area that belonged to its intended sphere of influence. The Soviets evidently believed that Wallenberg had connections with U.S. organizations, especially Jewish ones, that they considered influential in Hungary. They may also have been concerned that his operations in Budapest would include an attempt to make contact with Germany in order to conclude a separate settlement with the West—an action that, of course, was not out of the question from the standpoint of German officials on the eve of the surrender.

Political changes in the Soviet Union brought the Wallenberg affair to an end. In November 2000 Alexander Yakovlev, the head of a presidential commission that investigated Wallenberg's fate, announced that, according to information that had come into his possession, Wallenberg had been executed by KGB agents in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. No documented support for this claim has been found thus far, however. A month later, Russia issued a statement claiming that Wallenberg had been mistakenly arrested in 1945 and had spent about two and a half years in prison, at which time he died.

Raoul Wallenberg has become the premier symbol of the man of conscience who acted on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust and of the Righteous among the Nations generally. The U.S. Congress made him an honorary citizen of the United States, a commemorative and memorial association was established in his name, and humanitarian relief enterprises named for him have operated in various places around the world.

See alsoHolocaust.


Primary Sources

Anger, Per. With Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest: Memories of the War Years in Hungary. Translated by David Mel Paul and Margareta Paul. New York, 1981.

Wallenberg, Raoul. Letters and Dispatches, 1924–1944. Translated by Kjersti Board. New York, 1995.

Secondary Sources

Bierman, John. Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, Missing Hero of the Holocaust. New York, 1981.

Raoul Wallenberg: Report of the Swedish-Russian Working Group. Stockholm, 2000.

Daniel Blatman