Wallenberg could have led a life of luxury. Born into a prominent aristocratic banking family in Sweden, he was destined to succeed in life. But it was not his destiny to be a hero, to save the lives of thousands of strangers – that was his choice.
In the spring of 1944, the Western world was awakening to the horrors of the Holocaust as authenticated eyewitness reports of the Auschwitz extermination camp were circulated. The US established the War Refugee Board, whose goal was to save Jews. The WRB’s representative in Sweden organized a committee to locate someone to lead a rescue mission in Budapest. Raoul Wallenberg decided to lead the mission to try and save the Jews of Hungary from the Nazi death camps following Hitler’s invasion of March 1944.
Fortunately, Wallenberg did not have to start his mission from scratch. Per Anger, a junior diplomat at the Swedish Legation had already started passing out provisional passports to Jews who had relatives or business colleagues in Sweden. Per Anger also issued special certificates to Jews who had applied for Swedish citizenship.
One of Wallenberg’s first tasks as the head of the legation department for assisting the Jews was to design a Swedish protective pass. These documents had no real standing in international law. However, Wallenberg had an excellent understanding of Nazi bureaucracy due to his previous business dealing in Germany and Nazi-occupied France. He knew that the official looking passes, with stamps, signatures and the coat of arms of Sweden, would command respect. Wallenberg managed to negotiate a quota of 4,500 passes with the Hungarian authorities, yet in actuality issued three times as many.
Wallenberg didn’t stop at issuing protective passes. He opened “Swedish Houses” where Jews could hide. Protected only by a flag and Wallenberg’s declaration that these buildings were Swedish territory, 15,000 Jews were given refuge.
Although he held the rank of first secretary at the Legation, Raoul Wallenberg was not a conventional diplomat. At first his unique activities stunned his fellow Swedish diplomats. But his success at helping the Jews soon won them over. Then legations of other neutral countries followed suit, issuing protective passes while a number of other “national houses” were opened.
Though the end of World War II was in sight, the extermination of the Jews continued. SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of implementing the “Final Solution” of European Jews, instituted death marches to deport the Jews of Hungary. Starting in November 1944, tens of thousands of starving Jewish men, women and children were forced marched along hundreds of kilometers in the harsh winter, with many dying alongside the road.
Raoul Wallenberg did not remain passive in the face of this horrendous crime. He chased the marches in his car, handing out food, clothing, medicine and his special passes. Using threats and bribes, he rescued those Jews who possessed Swedish passes, taking them back to Budapest despite being threatened himself with the guns of the Iron Cross guards.
When deportations took place by train, Wallenberg displayed extraordinary courage, climbing onto railcars aimed at Auschwitz and handing protective passes to the Jews already inside the train. He would then demand that the Jews with passes be taken off the trains. All this under the watchful eyes of armed Nazi soldiers.
Eichmann planned to massacre all the Jews in the largest ghetto in mid-January 1945. Wallenberg found out about the plot and went into action. Unable to stop the massacre by himself, he turned to the only person who could, the commander-in-chief of German troops in Hungary, General August Schmidthuber. Using a trusted go-between, Wallenberg sent a letter to the general, threatening that if the massacre was carried out, he would be held personally responsible and tried as a war criminal when WWII was over. The threat worked, and the massacre was cancelled at the last minute.
Mere days later, the Russians entered Hungary. 120,000 Hungarian Jews had escaped the Final Solution. It is not known exactly how many survived due to the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, but he is credited with saving tens of thousands of Jewish lives at the very least.
After the war, Wallenberg should have returned to Sweden a hero. He should have been feted and honored, lived a long life of happiness forever treasured by those he saved, by their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sadly, that was not to be.
On 17 January 1945, Wallenberg was escorted by Soviet troops to their military headquarters east of Budapest. On his way, he told one of his colleagues that he was not sure if he was going to be the Russian’s guest or their prisoner. Raoul Wallenberg has been missing since that day, and his true fate has never been disclosed.
In 1944-5, when Europe was imprisoned in a veil of darkness, an orgy of mass murder and attempted extermination, Wallenberg’s feats shone brightly like a singular ray of hope. That is why his legacy lives on in all our memories, in books and TV shows about his life, in the streets and schools named after him and in generations of Jews who are alive today due to his efforts. Wallenberg was awarded honorary American citizenship by the US in a motion put forward by Congressman Tom Lantos, whose life had been saved by Wallenberg. He also was made an honorary citizen of Israel and of Canada.
Commemorating 100 years to Raul Wallenberg’s birth, we remember his legacy to humankind, especially as antisemitism is on the rise again. Raoul Wallenberg must never be forgotten