Raoul Wallenberg – his name is immediately associated with outstanding individual courage, humanity and decisiveness. What happened to Raoul Wallenberg remains untold, however, as the facts concerning his fate are still wrapped in uncertainty. It remains uncontested that Raoul Wallenberg made one of the last century’s most remarkable achievements by saving the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the end of the Second World War. Below follows an overview of his work in Budapest in 1944-45.
When Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944 as secretary to the Swedish Legation, he had no prior background in diplomacy. Raoul Wallenberg, born in 1912 in the renowned Swedish Wallenberg family of bankers, politicians and diplomats, graduated with honors in architecture at the University of Michigan in the United States. Upon return to Sweden in the 30:s, Raoul Wallenberg left for commercial work in South Africa and Haifa, Palestine. In 1941, Raoul Wallenberg was appointed foreign trade representative of the Central European Trading Company, director of which was Kálmán Lauer. Through Lauer, a Hungarian Jew, and his family, Wallenberg made his first acquaintance with Budapest and Hungary through visits in the country between 1941-43.
On 19 March 1944 Hitler invaded Hungary. The new leadership turned over the Hungarian Jews in the countryside to the Nazi’s and almost all of the about 450,000 who were deported, perished. The more than 200,000 strong Jewish Community in Budapest, which had been untouched so far, came in the summer of 1944 into direct life-threatening danger. At the Swedish legation, in similarity to other neutral legations, provisional passports were issued which gave Jews the status of Swedish citizens. More passports and other measures of protection were needed. Reinforcement from Sweden was therefore required in order to accelerate the procedure of protection. After negotiations between the Swedish Foreign Ministry, the American War Refugee Board and the World Jewish Congress it was decided that a Swede would be appointed in order to lead a mission to rescue the Jews of Budapest.
Raoul Wallenberg was chosen upon recommendation by Kálmán Lauer. He found him to be just the “right man for the job”, possessing all qualities needed. Lauer also pointed out Wallenberg’s familiarity with Hungary and his remarkable linguistic talent. Raoul arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944. At that time the deportation trains to Auschwitz had been strapped, after an intervention by King Gustav V of Sweden, but instead the Jews were brought to different labour camps, mainly at the Austrian border, by trains or in “death-marches”. One of Wallenberg’s first actions was to launch the “protective” passports, Schutzpass, blue with the three yellow cronors symbolising the Swedish State. From a limited permitted 1,000 copies, Raoul Wallenberg succeeded to raise the quota to 4,500 passports, while other estimates point at triple that amount. Operating from a special department within the Swedish Legation with the assistance of more than 300 volonteers, Wallenberg’s relief work also involved the establishment of thirty-two so called “safe houses” under the protection of the Swedish Legation. 15-20,000 Jews are said to have been rescued in this way. It is possible that Raoul Wallenberg’s tireless efforts together with actions of other neutral diplomatic missions, the Papal Nunciature and the International and Swedish Red Cross saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews from Nazi persecution – if one includes the 60,000 people living in the Jewish central ghetto at the arrival of the Soviet troops. To achieve these results, it is well known that Wallenberg led negotiations directly with Adolf Eichmann and the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross, which took over power in Hungary after Admiral Miklos Horty, then Head of State, was overthrown in October 1944.
In the midst of these chaotic circumstances, Raoul Wallenberg also drew up a post-war plan on reconstruction and employment opportunities for deportees. Wallenberg brought this plan with him on the day he left the Swedish Legation on 17 January 1945 to visit the Soviet military headquarters in Debrecen in the eastern part of Hungary. Wallenberg was subsequently arrested and brought to the Lubjanka prison in Moscow. The reasons for his arrest remain uncertain but suspicions of espionage on behalf of the Americans as well as his connections with high-level German politicians have been brought forward as main motifs. According to Soviet sources and the so called Smoltsov Report, Wallenberg perished in the Lubjanka prison in July 1947 from infarction. During confidential talks between Swedish and Russian diplomats during the last decade, the Russians stated that Wallenberg in reality was executed.
While this version has also been brought forward during interviews undertaken in connection to a recent report on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg undertaken by a Swedish-Russian working group, no proof or evidence has been found to confirm this theory. In connection to the release of the report in January 2001, Prime Minister Göran Persson commented “As long as there is no unequivocal evidence of what happened to Wallenberg – and this is still the case – it cannot be said that Raoul Wallenberg is dead.” In the preface of the report, the Swedish Secretary of State, Hans Dahlgren, makes the following remark of Raoul Wallenberg: “He did not ask what needed to be done. He did not need a decision-making process in the face of evil. His unerring moral compass indicated the path that he should take…. Raoul Wallenberg thus set an example. He knew that we need not always be prepared to do what is right. He showed that we are all able to meet a challenge.”
Raoul Wallenberg is honorary citizen of the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia and the city of Budapest.