by Norm Nason
© 2004 Norm Nason. All rights
reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced in any form without prior approval from the author.
One of the most compelling stories to arise from World War II is also among the least known. The postwar world has heard little of Raoul Wallenberg’s courageous achievements in Budapest in late 1944, and even less about the appalling circumstances surrounding his fate. Yet, under the veil of an obscure diplomatic cover—and at daily risk to his own life—this single man’s heroic efforts saved between 20,000 and 100,000 Hungarian Jews from deportation to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Raoul Gustav Wallenberg was born August 4th, 1912, three months after his 23 year old father died of cancer. From then on Raoul’s grandfather, Ambassador Gustav Wallenberg, oversaw Raoul’s education. In 1930 Raoul graduated from high school with high marks in drawing and Russian. After completing his mandatory nine months of military service, Gustav sent him to France for a year to perfect his French (he was already proficient in English, German, and Russian). Later he attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and after only 3 1/2 years received his bachelor’s degree in Science in Architecture. Returning to Sweden in 1935, Raoul found only a small market for architects, so his grandfather sent him to Cape Town, South Africa, where he worked at a Swedish firm selling building materials. Half a year later, Gustav found his grandson a job at a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel), where he met Jews who had escaped Nazi Germany. Their stories had a profound effect on him.
Raoul returned from Haifa in 1936, and became associated with Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew and director of the Swedish based Mid-European Trading Company. Due in large part to his excellent language skills, Wallenberg became joint owner and international director in only eight months. Traveling freely through Germany and Nazi-occupied France, Raoul quickly learned the ins and outs of German bureaucracy. He also made numerous trips to Hungary and Budapest, where he learned that Hungary was still a relatively safe haven in a continent on the verge of war.
Hungary joined with Germany in 1941 in the war against the Soviet Union, but when the Germans lost the battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and seemed destined also to lose the war, Hungary attempted to make a separate peace. In response, Hitler met with the Hungarian head of state, Miklós Horthy, and demanded continued solidarity. Horthy refused, and Hitler’s prompt response was to force compliance by invaded Hungary on March 19th. In May, the meaning of Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish problem” became apparent to the world. Eye-witnesses who managed to escape the German gas chambers reported on the happenings at Auschwitz in southern Poland. Soon after, Hungarian Jews began to be deported to the camps.
At first, the Germans rounded up Jews by the train load from the Hungarian country side. As word spread, more and more sought refuge in the relative safety of Budapest, knowing that even here, the Germans would soon be upon them. Tens of thousands desperately sought help from the embassies of neutral countries, knowing that provisional passes were sometimes issued. Per Anger, a young diplomat at the Swedish legation, initiated the first Swedish protective passes, allowing Jews holding them to be treated as Swedish citizens and being exempt from having to wear the yellow Star of David on their chests. The Swedish legation swiftly issued 700 passes, but this did nothing for the nearly 700,000 Jews remaining in Budapest. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the United States established the War Refugee Board (WRB), calling a committee of prominent Swedish Jews to discuss the problem. Among the participants was Raoul Wallenberg’s business partner Koloman Lauer, selected for his Hungarian expertise. The committee called for the recruitment of a suitable non-Jew to go to Budapest on a critical rescue mission. Since it would not be possible for this person to represent an official U. S. organization in a state with which the United States was at war, he must appear to represent the neutral Swedish government.
Lauer recommended that Wallenberg be appointed first secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest, with the sole mission of rescuing Jews. The committee at first rejected Raoul, thinking him too young and inexperienced for such a crucial post. But Lauer persisted. Determined that his hands not become hamstrung by protocol or bureaucratic red tape, Raoul demanded exceptional powers to fulfill his duty. His nine-point plan was hotly negotiated for fourteen days, and was referred all the way up the chain of command to the prime minister, who consulted the king before passing down the word, through the foreign minister, that Wallenberg’s conditions were accepted. These were: (1) he must be allowed to use any methods he saw fit, including bribery; (2) if the need arose for personal consultations with the Foreign Office, he must be permitted to return immediately to Stockholm, without having to seek prior permission; (3) he must be provided with financial resources sufficient to meet the requirements of his task; (4) he should have adequate status to do the job; (5) he should be allowed to contact any persons in Budapest, including Nazi officers; (6) he should be empowered to deal directly with any member of the Hungarian government—including the prime minister—without going through the Swedish ambassador; (7) he should be allowed to send dispatches directly to Stockholm, avoiding normal channels; (8) he should have the right to officially seek an interview with the regent, Horthy, to ask for intercession on behalf of the Jews; and (9) he should be given the authority to provide asylum in legation buildings, to individuals carrying Swedish protective passes.
By the end of June, 1944, Wallenberg’s appointment was fully approved and he prepared to leave for Budapest. For two full days he read through recent, urgent dispatches from the Swedish legation and must have been shocked to learn that approximately 300,000 Hungarian Jews had already been deported to the gas chambers. On July 6th 1944 Raoul rushed to Budapest.
Arriving by passenger train on July 9th, Wallenberg quite probably crossed paths with a train of twenty-nine sealed cattle cars carrying the last batch of Hungary’s provincial Jews to Auschwitz. Hitler’s proconsul in Budapest, Edmund Veesenmayer, stated in a telegram to Berlin that 437,402 Jewish men, women and children had been shipped out aboard 148 trains between May 14th and July 8th. Only 230,000 remained, trapped in the capital.
Adolf Eichmann was Chief of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo and facilitator of Hitler’s “final solution.” Given orders bearing SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s signature, he was instructed to personally lead the mass-deportation of Hungarian Jews, the last “big job” that he hoped would re-establish his reputation within the Nazi party. If he succeeded in proving his efficiency to his superiors, he might even be promoted to the rank of full colonel. While Eichmann’s ruthlessly efficient tactics had already swept millions of Jews from Germany, France, Austria, Holland, Belgium, Poland and Checkoslovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria—his initial plan in Hungary was to round up the entire remaining Jewish population of Budapest in a stunning twenty-four hour blitz. This was to take place some time between the middle and the end of July, but Horthy, the Hungarian regent, had received numerous repeals and was bombarded by the world’s press. He was also threatened by the advancing Russian army, so he instructed Prime Minister Döme Sztojay to put an end to the deportations. Eichmann was furious, but for the moment there was nothing he could do about it. The 1,600 Hungarian soldiers originally brought to the capital to help round up the Jews had now been ordered back. Without them, Eichmann didn’t have enough manpower to deal with nearly a quarter million deportees.
Eichmann appealed to Berlin but the reply was delayed—probably because of the July 20th bomb plot on Hitler’s life. When Himmler’s reply finally did come, it was not as Eichmann had hoped: Germany accepted the suspension of deportations. Himmler, by this time, was walking a fence. He knew the end of the war was near, and saw himself as the man who would negotiate a separate peace with the Western Allies. Relieving pressure on the Jews would, he thought, improve his chances.
Eichmann forced his hand. He made contact with the Hungarian Jewish leaders and told them outright that from then on “all the affairs of Hungarian Jewry are transferred to the competence of the SS.” Jewish citizens were promptly stripped of their rights. They were not allowed to leave Budapest, change residence, or even leave their homes without permission; they were forced to give up their property: cars, radios and telephones; children had to relinquish their bicycles. Bank accounts were frozen and food rations reduced; their businesses were turned over to the German authority. As was the case in Cracow, Poland, Jews were finally rounded up and forced to live in appalling, over-crowded local ghettos, the last stage before deportation to the concentration camps.
Deportations soon resumed at a stunning pace. Up to five trains a day left for Auschwitz, each carrying up to four thousand men, women and children packed up to a hundred per car, doors nailed shut. The trip took three or four days, with the occupants deprived of food, water, and sanitary facilities. The Jews were now arriving at Auschwitz in such numbers that the camp couldn’t cope with the volume. A dispatch was sent to Eichmann, telling him, in effect, to “slow down.” He reluctantly agreed to limit the trains to three a day.
Upon his arrival in Budapest, Wallenberg quickly realized that three things worked in his favor: (1) the Hungarian puppet régime desired international recognition as the legitimate government; (2) Sweden was poised to play a pivotal role in negotiating Germany’s fate at the war’s end; (3) prominent Hungarians were increasingly susceptible to threats of post-war retribution and wished to placate the West by remaining open to Swedish diplomacy. Wallenberg was also aware of the importance of appearances. After setting up his Department C at the legation in Budapest, the first thing he did was personally design an official-looking Swedish passport—the Schultz-Pass—to replace the drab ones previously used. The new passport was colored yellow and blue and was enhanced with the triple crown of the Royal Swedish government. It displayed an impressive array of stamps, seals, signatures, and counter-signatures. It had absolutely no legal validity, but it commanded respect and notified the Germans and Hungarians that the holder was under the protection of the leading neutral power of Europe. The passports also gave a desperately needed morale boost to the Jews who received them.
The Hungarian Foreign Ministry initially gave Wallenberg permission to issue only 1,500 of the new passports. Quickly, however, he managed to negotiate another 1,000, and by using promises and empty threats eventually raised the quota to 4,500. Raoul soon controlled a staff of several hundred Jewish “employees,” all working feverishly to issue as many passports as possible. Bribing and blackmailing Hungarian officials, he soon increased the number of passes issued to over 13,500.
Wallenberg began setting up soup kitchens, hospitals and nurseries throughout Budapest, using the unlimited funds available to him to purchase clothing, food and medicine. He built some thirty Swedish safe houses where 15,000 Schulz-Pass-holding Jews sought refuge. Toward the end of the war, when the situation became increasingly desperate and printing was impossible, Raoul issued makeshift passports bearing his signature only. In the existing chaos, even that often worked.
When Nazi trains were diverted to the war effort, Eichmann improvised. He began his brutal “death marches” on November 20, 1944, forcing large numbers of Jews to leave Hungary on foot. Conditions along the 200 kilometer long road between Budapest and the Austrian border were horrendous, yet Wallenberg was there to hand out food and medicine. Bribing and threatening, he managed to issue still more Swedish passes. When Eichmann was able to resume transporting the Jews in full trains, Raoul stood on the tracks, climbed the railway cars, ran along the wagon roofs and squeezed handfuls of protective passes down through cracks to the terrified people inside. The German soldiers were ordered to open fire, but were so impressed by Wallenberg’s courage that they deliberately aimed too high. Raoul leaped to the ground and demanded that the Jews with passes should be allowed to leave the train together with him.
At the beginning of 1945, any semblance of law and order that once existed in Budapest was now gone. In early January Wallenberg discovered that Eichmann planned a total massacre in the largest Jewish ghetto. He searched desperately for suitable people to bribe, and found a powerful ally in a high ranking officer in the Police force named Pa’l Szalay. Szalay was sent to deliver a note to general August Schmidthuber, Eichmann’s commander-in-chief for the German troops in Hungary. In the note Wallenberg explained in no uncertain terms that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre, if it occurred, and would be hanged as a war criminal after the war. Because of Wallenberg’s quick action, the planned slaughter did not take place.
The Russians marched into Budapest on January 13, 1945, finding 120,000 Jews alive in the ghettos, monasteries, church cellars, and hiding places in Gentile homes. According to Per Anger, Wallenberg “was the only foreign diplomat to stay behind in Pest, with the sole purpose of protecting these people. And he succeeded beyond all expectations. If you add them all up, 100,000 or more people owed their lives to him.”
In his last days in Budapest, 32 year old Wallenberg moved his living quarters to the eastern city of Debrecen, so he would be in the direct path of the Soviet advance. He was determined to appeal as soon as possible to Marshal Malinovsky, the Soviet commander, for medical supplies and emergency food for the ghettos. At first, Raoul’s meetings with the Russians were amiable. On January 17, he and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, were civilly escorted by Russian Major Demchinkov and two soldiers to Marshal Malinovsky’s makeshift headquarters. Details are sketchy, but apparently somewhere en route Wallenberg and Langfelder were handed over to the NKVD (later known as the KGB). Two weeks later they were placed in separate cells in Moscow’s nortorious Lubianka Prison, the principal Soviet interrogation center.
At first, Wallenberg’s failure to return to his friends and family was no cause for concern, for they thought the Russians were taking measures to protect him. Raoul’s exploits soon began to be published in Swedish and American newspapers, however, and with no word of his whereabouts by early March, officials from both camps began to worry. U.S. treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. raised official concern, as did Swedish Minister Johnson. Astonishingly, American Ambassador Harriman’s offer to help the Swedes find Wallenberg was rebuffed by Swedish Ambassador Söderblom. The Americans were told, in effect, to mind their own business; the Swedes would handle the Wallenberg affair themselves.
It took twenty years for this fatal snub to become public; more tragic errors were to follow. For reasons that remain unclear, Ambassador Söderblom became convinced (or simply decided) that Wallenberg had somehow died, and that there was no point in annoying the Russians with persistent inquiries. The negative Swedish attitude caused a decline in American interest as well. It appears that—not wanting to upset the emerging Soviet Block—Wallenberg was, in effect, sacrificed to appease the Russians in a world that was increasingly engaged in a cold war.
It was not until December 22, 2000 that Russia officially acknowledged that Wallenberg was wrongfully imprisoned by Soviet authorities for political reasons, until he died. (Prior to this, even his capture had been denied). It was said that he and his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, were kept for more than 2 1/2 years in Soviet prisons on espionage charges (accused of spying for the United States, and possibly for Britain as well) until their death. The circumstances surrounding their demise, however, remained unclear, with the statement saying only that it had not been possible to clear up exactly where and how they died. Later Alexander Yakovlev, chairman of the presidential commission on rehabilitation of victims of political repression, cited former Soviet KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov as saying in a private conversation that Wallenberg was executed at Lubyanka, but provided no documentary evidence.
Indirect evidence suggests that Wallenberg remained alive in prison until at least 1961. Other prisoners have returned from the Gulag, some who shared cells with Wallenberg or who spoke to others who did. A Swiss named Brugger, for example, spent 10 years in Soviet prisons and told Swedish investigators that he and Wallenberg “spoke” by tapping on the wall between their cells in the Corpus II hospital block of Vladimir Prison in July 1948. Another prisoner said independently that he actually shared a cell with Wallenberg for one night at the Corpus II of Vladimir Prison in 1955. A German prisoner named Mulle separately told Swedish officials about meeting a fellow inmate named Simon Gogoberidse at Vladimir Prison in 1956. Gogoberidse told him that Wallenberg had been in solitary confinement for several years—apparently in an effort to limit his contact with outsiders.
In January 1961 physician Nanna Svartz visited Moscow to attend an annual medical-scientific congress. Among the prominent Soviet colleagues she met there was Professor Aleksandr Miashnikov, who informed her that Raoul Wallenberg was alive, in poor health, and a patient in a Moscow mental hospital. (Miashnikov later recounted his story, apparently under direct order from Khrushchev).
It seems unconscionable that Wallenberg—who worked so tirelessly on behalf of others—should have played out the remaining years of his life lost and forgotten in the depths of the Soviet prison system. But sadly, this was indeed his “reward.” As the world entered a new era where superpowers held one another in their cross hairs, “small problems” like the Wallenberg case were simply swept under the rug, overshadowed by larger political concerns. As Russia became the dominant regional force, the Swedish government apparently thought it to be in their best interest to not “rock the boat.” Tage Erlander, former Premier of Sweden later said: “We failed to secure the release of one of our most notable countrymen, one of our greatest. On the continuing efforts to obtain certainty, one must presume that Wallenberg is still alive, otherwise it would be pointless to pursue the matter. It is very likely that he is still alive.”
Raoul Wallenberg was made an Honorary Citizen of the United States in 1981. The bill was sponsored by Representative Tom Lantos, a Hungarian Jew who as a teenager sought refuge in one of Wallenberg's safe houses. He was later made an honorary citizen of Canada in 1985, and of Israel in 1986. He was honored by Israel as one of the “Righteous among the Nations,” those non-Jews who helped save Jews from the Holocaust.
And what of Adolph Eichmann, facilitator of Hitler’s “final solution?” Although he was arrested at the end of the war,
his name and reputation was not widely known. He managed to escape from an American internment camp in 1946 and flee to Argentina in 1950, with the help of the Nazi underground. There he lived
for ten years under the assumed name of Ricardo Klement, until Israeli Mossad agents found him in May, 1960, living in Buenos Aires with his wife and three sons. The Israelis kidnapped him and
forcibly brought him to Israel to stand trial as a war criminal, where he was accused of organizing, categorizing, transporting and supervising the extermination of six million Jews. The
courtroom was packed. After an emotional 16 weeks, Eichman was found guilty on all 15 counts of the criminal indictment against him. He was hanged on May 31, 1962. His body was cremated, and his
ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea.
Bierman, John, Righteous Gentile, The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, Missing Hero of the Holocaust,
New York, The Viking Press, 1981.
Levi, Primo, Survival in Auschwitz,
New York, Touchstone Books, 1996.