Wallenberg, Raoul

views updated May 18 2018

Wallenberg, Raoul

[AUGUST 4, 1912–JULY 17, 1947]

Swedish diplomat

Raoul Wallenberg has entered history as a humanitarian activist who took considerable personal risks to save men, women, and children from impending genocide. In the summer and fall of 1944, and until his disappearance in January 1945, Wallenberg was affiliated with the Swedish Legation in Budapest, Hungary, where he conducted a special rescue mission to save many thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to the Nazi extermination camps. Wallenberg had no kinship to the victims; he was a Lutheran by faith and a neutral Swede by nationality. Yet he accepted a difficult and dangerous assignment in a foreign country—a mission which he carried out with skill, determination, and courage.

Early Life and Humanitarian Appointments

Wallenberg was born in 1912 in Stockholm to an aristocratic family of industrialists and bankers. In 1930 he graduated from secondary school with top grades, in particular in Russian, which would serve him well in his later career. Following compulsory military service, he traveled to the United States to study architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, from which he received his B.S. degree in 1935. Following his return to Sweden, he took a position with a Swedish firm in Cape Town, South Africa, engaged in the sale of building materials. In 1936 he was employed at a branch office of a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine (present-day Israel). In Palestine he met Jews who had fled from persecution in Germany. Back in Sweden, Wallenberg became the business partner of Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew based in Stockholm and director of the Central European Trading Company, an import and export firm specializing in fine foods such as foie gras. In 1941 Wallenberg became foreign trade representative of the firm and in this capacity traveled to many European countries, including Hungary, Germany, and Nazi-occupied France.

World War II is remembered as the stage for the major genocide of the twentieth century, following the Ottoman extermination of Armenians. Adolf Hitler's "final solution of the Jewish question" first consumed the Polish, Baltic, Ukrainian, Russian, and West European Jews from countries under Nazi occupation. Until 1944 the 700,000 Jews in Hungary had been spared, since Hungary's head of state, Admiral Miklós Horty, was an ally of the Germans, and thus Hitler's henchmen could not freely operate there. This situation changed when Hungary was occupied by the Nazis in March 1944, and the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau began. The first victims were the Jews from the countryside, more than 400,000 of whom were deported in the months of May and June 1944.

Faced by grave danger, some of the Jews in Budapest sought protection from the embassies of neutral countries, especially those Jews who could show some links with those countries and thus request special passports. The Swedish Legation in Budapest issued some seven hundred temporary passports; those possessing the passports were exempted from having to wear the Star of David. In view of the magnitude of the problem, Valdemar Langlet, head of the Swedish Red Cross, provided assistance to the Swedish Legation. He rented buildings in the name of the Red Cross and identified these buildings as the "Swedish Library" or "Swedish Research Institute," although they were essentially intended as hiding places for Jews. Furthermore, the Legation turned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stockholm and requested more staff.

Meanwhile, following the establishment of the American War Refugee Board in 1944, an organization whose task was to save Jews from Nazi persecution, the World Jewish Congress, held a meeting in Stockholm to organize a rescue mission for the Hungarian Jews. The organization considered sending Count Folke Bernadotte, chairperson of the Swedish Red Cross and a relative of King Gustav V. When the Hungarian government did not approve Bernadotte, Lauer proposed that Wallenberg be sent instead.

In late June 1944 Wallenberg was appointed first secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest. The embassy granted him very broad powers of initiative, and he did not have to clear his decisions concerning the rescue mission with Stockholm or with the Swedish Legation in Budapest, which at the time was headed by Minister Carl Ivar Danielsson and assisted by his deputy Legation secretary Per Anger.

Assisting the Jews

When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, about 200,000 Jews were still in the capital. SSObersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann intended to deport all of them within a few days, but King Gustav V addressed a letter to Horty containing a humanitarian appeal to stop the deportation of Jews. Upon Horty's intercession, the deportations were canceled. Historians speculate that the cancelling of deportations was in part due to SS-Chief Heinrich Himmler, who was attempting to negotiate a separate peace agreement with the Western Allies and thus believed he would improve his negotiating position by making certain concessions toward the Jews.

Wallenberg's first task in Budapest was to design a Swedish protective passport (Schutz-Pass), printed in blue and yellow (Sweden's national colors), bearing the Three Crowns heraldry in the center. Although these "protective passports" were not documents customarily recognized in international diplomatic practice, they did appear official enough and impressed the German and Hungarian authorities sufficiently to persuade them to leave the bearers in peace. Initially 1,500 such passports were issued, soon thereafter another 1,000, and eventually the quota was raised to 4,500. Scholars estimate that Wallenberg actually issued three times that amount. Meanwhile his department at the Swedish Legation continued to grow, eventually employing 340 persons and volunteers, and harboring 700 persons who lived on the premises of the Legation.

When on October 15, 1944, Horty announced that he was seeking a separate peace agreement with the Russians, German troops quickly deposed him, and he was replaced by the leader of the Hungarian Nazis, Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross movement. Thereupon Wallenberg proceeded to expand the "Swedish houses" to thirty-two buildings, mostly in Budapest, where many of the Jews resided. The number of inhabitants of these houses reached 15,000. Other diplomatic missions in Budapest also started issuing protective passports.

In November 1944 Eichmann forced thousands of Jews to leave Hungary by foot, some 200 kilometers to the Austrian border. Wallenberg distributed protective passports, food, and medicine to many victims of these forced marches, and by threats and bribes persuaded the Nazis to release those who had been given Swedish passports. Then followed the deportations by trainloads, and again Wallenberg personally went to the train stations to save individuals. Reports claim that he climbed on trains and passed bundles of protective passports to the occupants.

Early in January 1945 Wallenberg learned that Eichmann was about to liquidate the Jews in the ghettos. Wallenberg, with the assistance of an Arrow Cross member Pa'l Szalay, whom he had bribed, approached General August Schmidthuber, commander of the German troops in Hungary. Due to this intervention, the massacre was averted. On January 12, 1945, Soviet troops entered Budapest and found some 120,000 Jews still alive in the city. On January 17, Wallenberg and his chauffeur traveled to the Soviet military headquarters in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary. It appears that there he was arrested on suspicion of espionage for the United States and taken to Lubjanka Prison in Moscow, where, according to Soviet sources and the so-called Smoltsov Report, he died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947. Another version of the story stated that Wallenberg was still alive in the 1970s and 1980s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, new efforts were undertaken to clarify his fate, and in confidential talks between Russian and Swedish diplomats, the version emerged that he had been executed in 1947. A Swedish-Russian working group that investigated the matter found no hard evidence to support this theory.

Wallenberg's Legacy

It is not certain exactly how many persons were directly or indirectly saved by Wallenberg's mission. Certain is that his tireless efforts, combined with the initiatives taken by the Swedish Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross, other diplomatic missions in Budapest, and the papal nunciature, saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.

There are many parks, monuments, statues, and institutes named after him, notably the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Institute at the University of Lund in Sweden.

On June 20, 2000, the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan remarked at a memorial service in Budapest that "Raoul highlighted the vital role of the bystander, of the third party amidst conflict and suffering. It was here, in the face of despair, that his intervention gave hope to victims, encouraged them to fight and resist, to hang on and bear witness."

Wallenberg is an honorary citizen of the United States, Canada, Israel, and the city of Budapest.

SEE ALSO Rescuers, Holocaust


Anger, Per (1995). With Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest: Memories of the War Years in Hungary, trans. David Mel Paul and Margareta Paul. Washington, D.C.: Holocaust Library.

Besymenski, Lew (2000). Die Wahrheit über Raoul Wallenberg: Geheimdokumente und KGB-Veteranen beschreiben die Mission und die Ermordung des schwedischen Diplomaten, der im Zweiten Weltkrieg Ungarns Juden zu retten versuchte. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl Verlag.

Derogy, Jacques (1980). Le Cas Wallenberg. Paris: Éditions Ramsay.

Gann, Christoph (1999). So viele Menschen retten wie möglich (Saving as Many Persons as Possible). Munich: C. H. Beck.

Gilbert, Joseph (1982). Mission sans retour: l'Affaire Wallenberg. Paris: Albin Michel.

Handler, Andrew (1996). A Man for All Connections: Raoul Wallenberg and the Hungarian State Apparatus, 1944–1945. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Larsson, Jan. "Raoul Wallenberg." Available from http://www.raoul-wallenberg.org.

Marton, Kati (1995). Wallenberg: Missing Hero. Boston: Arcade Publishing.

Skoglund, Elizabeth (1997). A Quiet Courage: Per Anger, Wallenberg's Co-Liberator of Hungarian Jews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2000). Raoul Wallenberg: Report of the Swedish-Russian Working Group. Stockholm: Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Wallenberg, Raoul (1995). Letters and Dispatches, tran. Kjersti Board. New York: Arcade.

Werbell, Frederick, and Thurston Clarke (1982). Lost Hero. The Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Alfred de Zayas

Raoul Wallenberg

views updated May 29 2018

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg (1912-?) was one of the great heroes of World War II and one of the first victims of the Cold War. In 1944, as a Swedish diplomat in Budapest, he saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from certain death. Taken into custody by the Russians at the beginning of 1945, he simply disappeared.

Raoul Wallenberg was born on August 4, 1912, into one of Sweden's wealthiest families, three months after his father had died of cancer. His grandfather, a distinguished diplomat, saw to it that the precocious boy traveled and studied widely, acquiring fluency in several languages, international perspective, and savoir-faire.

After graduation in 1935 from the University of Michigan with an honors baccalaureate in architecture, Wallenberg worked in commercial enterprises first in Capetown and then in Haifa, where he learned from German refugees what was happening to the Jewish Germans under Hitler. In 1941 he joined a Stockholm-based export firm whose Jewish owner could no longer safely travel in Hitler-controlled Central Europe. In this position he developed a knowledge of Budapest that made him an ideal volunteer three years later for a desperate rescue mission initiated by the U.S. War Refugee Board.

Until the last year of the war, Hungary, though an Axis ally, had not cooperated in Hitler's program of genocide. Its Jewish community, once Europe's third largest, had even been increased by Jews seeking refuge in Hungary. In 1944, however, German army units moved in, together with a special SS force commanded by SS-Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, the engineer of the Holocaust. During the spring and summer of 1944 his men scoured the Hungarian countryside, rounding up and sending 400,000 Jews and others to the death camps.

Determined to do whatever he could to save the 200,000 surviving Jews assembled in Budapest, Wallenberg accepted a diplomatic appointment to the Swedish legation as special attaché for humanitarian questions. Carrying the two knapsacks he had used hitchhiking in America, a sleeping bag, a windbreaker, and a revolver, the soft-spoken, dark-eyed bachelor of 31 arrived in Budapest in July 1944 with a mandate even more unusual for a diplomat than his baggage: he had elicited from the Swedish Foreign Ministry, with American support, formal personal authorization to appeal directly to Stockholm, to use his unprecedented funding (from U.S. and Jewish sources) even for bribery, and to grant Swedish diplomatic asylum to documented victims of persecution.

He opened a special branch office of the Swedish legation near the Jewish quarter, built up a staff of 400 (mostly Jews, all granted diplomatic immunity), and by January 1945, when the Russians took Budapest, had issued protective passports to perhaps 20,000 Jews placing them under the protection of the Swedish crown until they could emigrate to Sweden. He sheltered over 12,000 in dozens of buildings over which he flew the Swedish colors, making them de facto annexes of the Swedish legation with extra-territorial status.

To the consternation of bureaucratic colleagues, Wallenberg acted on the premise that the conventional rules could not be honored. "When there is suffering without limits, there can be no limits to the methods one should use to alleviate it," he argued and, with desperate ingenuity, acted accordingly. He cajoled, intimidated, and bribed Axis officials, established networks of spies within the Hungarian fascist party and the Budapest police, provided officials with food and amenities from hoards he could afford to lay in before the black market was sold out, and even issued protective passes to key fascists—documents that might greatly facilitate their "disappearance" at the end of the war.

His authority with the Hungarians established, Wallenberg fearlessly challenged the Germans, going so far as to retrieve intended victims from the trains on which they had been jammed for shipment to Auschwitz and personally to confront Eichmann, who was behind at least one attempt on his life. His approach was vigorously followed by representatives of other neutrals, particularly the Swiss consul Charles Lutz, who not only provided documentation to thousands of Jews but accompanied Wallenberg in the perilous retrieval of Auschwitz-bound victims.

In the final days of his mission, as the Russians closed in on the surrounded city, fanatically anti-Semitic Hungarian fascist death squads sought to finish what Eichmann, who had withdrawn in December 1944, had left undone. Countless Jews saved from Auschwitz were murdered in the streets or drowned in the Danube. But Wallenberg's network of collaborators thwarted the fascist murderers' plans for a last-minute, full-scale massacre of the 100,000 Jews who had survived in Budapest.

When the city fell to the Soviet Army in January 1945, Wallenberg was taken into custody by the Russians— possibly as an American agent or possibly because of his fascist connections (realistically cultivated to fulfill his mission). That spring, he did not return to Sweden with the other members of the Budapest legation staff who were held for six weeks after their "liberation" in a Soviet internment camp. The Swedish government then enquired about Wallenberg.

In 1947 Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky finally came up with an answer: Wallenberg was not in the Soviet Union and was assumed to have died during the struggle for Budapest. Not until 1957, after Stockholm had begun to pursue the matter seriously, did Moscow acknowledge responsibility and formally expressed regrets. Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko informed the Swedish ambassador that Wallenberg had died of heart failure in prison in 1947 and had been cremated. But numerous reports indicated that Wallenberg was moved with deliberate frequency from one location to another and was alive in captivity, possibly as late as 1981.

By the end of the 1970s an international movement on behalf of Wallenberg, including participation by many he had saved, organized support for his release to the United States, at whose behest he had undertaken his mission to Hungary. In October 1981 Wallenberg was proclaimed an honorary citizen of the United States—a distinction previously accorded only the descendants of the Marquis de Lafayette and Sir Winston Churchill. The law granting him honorary citizenship also provided, belatedly if not posthumously, for "all possible steps [to be taken] … to secure his return to freedom."

Russian President Boris Yeltsin created a special commission in 1991 to study the Wallenberg case. The commission was short-lived and failed to shed any new light on the Wallenberg mystery. Through the efforts of a number of Holocaust survivors, now American citizens, a bust honoring Wallenberg was placed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 1995. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp (1996) in honor of the Swedish diplomat. Because of the popular belief that Wallenberg may still be alive, the Postal Service did not issue the stamp as a "commemorative," which would have implied that Wallenberg was dead. U.S. government documents released from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1996 confirmed that Wallenberg had been a valued agent for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA). Why the Soviets would have executed Wallenberg or have held him in captivity for so long remains unknown.

Further Reading

The Wallenberg case was made widely known in the United States by an article in the New York Times Magazine of March 30, 1980, "The Lost Hero of the Holocaust: The Search for Sweden's Raoul Wallenberg," by Frederick E. Werbell, a Swedish-born rabbi, and Elenore Lester. Foreign correspondent Kati Marton has provided in Wallenberg (1982), with eight pages of photographs, a concise, readable account based on extensive interviews and archival research. A memoir by a Swedish diplomat is Per Anger's With Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest: Memories of the War Years in Hungary, translated by David Mel Paul and Margareta Paul (1981). Focusing sharply on the failure of the Swedish government to pursue the case vigorously during the crucial first years after the war is Harvey Rosenfeld's Raoul Wallenberg: Angel of Rescue—Heroism and Torment in the Gulag (1982). Two U.S. congressional publications include the War Refugee Board report from 1945 on Wallenberg's activities and information on the U.S. government's efforts on his behalf since 1981: U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Proclaiming Raoul Wallenberg To Be an Honorary Citizen of the United States, hearing before the Committee, June 4 and 9, 1981; and U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Update on Raoul Wallenberg, hearing before the Committee's Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, August 3, 1983. Charles Fenyvesi and Victoria Pope provide an account of CIA documents identifying Wallenberg as a U.S. spy: The Angel Was a Spy (U.S. World News, May 13, 1996). □