Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II by sheltering them in "protected houses," where he flew the flags of Sweden and other neutral countries. He was taken into detention by the Soviets and is reported to have died in their custody. In recognition of his valor, Wallenberg has since been made an honorary citizen of the United States, Canada, Hungary and Israel. In 2012, he was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.
Raoul Gustav Wallenberg was born into a prominent Swedish family on August 4, 1912. His father died before he was born, and he was raised primarily by his mother and grandmother. In the hopes of making Wallenberg a citizen of the world, his paternal grandfather arranged for most of his education, as well as trips to foreign countries, where he became proficient in languages and the art of diplomacy.
Despite his family's wishes that he become a banker, following high school and compulsory military service Raoul Wallenberg traveled to the United States and majored in architecture at the University of Michigan. He graduated in 1935 and returned to Sweden, where his grandfather arranged employment for him at a Swedish firm in South Africa selling construction materials and then a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine. There he met Jews who had escaped the persecution in Nazi Germany, and their stories had a profound effect on him.
In 1936, Raoul Wallenberg returned to Sweden and worked for Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who directed an import/export business. By 1938, travel restrictions imposed by the Nazis in Europe made it difficult for Lauer to personally conduct business, especially in his native Hungary, so Wallenberg went in his place. In Hungary, Wallenberg quickly learned how the Nazi bureaucracy operated, and with his excellent language and interpersonal skills, succeeded in expanding the business, eventually becoming a joint owner.
The Nazi’s Implement the “Final Solution”
In 1941, Hungary joined Germany in the assault against the Soviet Union, but with the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, the Hungarian government wanted to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies. In March 1944, Adolf Hitler found out about the plan and ordered the occupation of Hungary. Soon, many of Hungary’s 700,000 Jews were in jeopardy of being deported to concentration camps in Poland under the direction of high-ranking SS officer Adolf Eichmann.
By 1944, hard evidence regarding Nazi Germany’s plan for Europe’s Jews came to light. In desperation, Hungarian Jews sought refuge in neutral countries. The Swedish delegation in Budapest succeeded in convincing the Germans that bearers of protective passes would be treated as Swedish citizens and exempt from wearing the yellow Star of David insignia that the Nazis used to identify Jews.
In January 1944, the United States established the War Refugee Board to help European Jews escape Nazi Germany’s persecution. By that summer, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps for extermination. An additional 200,000 were in the Budapest ghettos awaiting their fate. The War Refugee Board sought to identify someone who could travel to Budapest and conduct evacuations. Raoul Wallenberg was selected for his language abilities, sympathy for the Jewish plight and familiarity with Budapest.
Taking a Stand Against Barbarism
In July 1944 the 31-year-old Wallenberg left the privilege and safety of his life in Stockholm, Sweden, and entered into the depths of hell in Budapest, Hungary. He promptly opened up a Swedish embassy office close to the major Jewish ghetto and hired 400 individuals, most of them Jews, to operate the facility. Wallenberg handed out hundreds of passports, called "schutz passes," and sheltered many in dozens of protective houses, where he ordered the Swedish flag flown, thus converting them into embassy annexes and shielding the inhabitants from the Nazis. He also created cells of spies who provided intelligence on the operations of the Budapest police and Hungarian fascists.
By the fall of 1944, Germany was losing the war, and the Soviet Army was advancing on Nazi strongholds in Central Europe. Seeing the end approaching, the Nazis intensified their deportation of Jews, and Raoul Wallenberg stepped up to protect them. As trains were loading Jews for the death camps, Wallenberg personally handed out food and clothing to the prisoners and distributed schutz passes to anyone he could reach. He then ordered those with the passports to leave the train and come with him. Hundreds did, and the Nazi officials just stood there dumbfounded.
A Mysterious Disappearance
In early January 1945, Soviet troops arrived in Budapest and found 120,000 Jews living in and around two ghettos. They were safe, for now. On January 17, Raoul Wallenberg and his driver traveled to Debrecen, 120 miles east of Budapest to meet with Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, presumably to answer allegations of espionage. Just before he left, Wallenberg told some friends he wasn’t sure if he was being invited as a prisoner or a guest. He was never seen again.
As massive armies cut swaths though land, populations and infrastructure, Hungary plunged into extreme turmoil and confusion. Communications were chaotic at best and almost always inaccurate. Two months after Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance, Hungarian radio reported that he had been murdered on the way to Debrecen, implying that it was by the hand of the Nazis. In 1947, Soviet authorities denied holding Wallenberg and suggested he probably died during the siege of Budapest. Then, in 1957, Soviet foreign minister Andrey Gromyko announced that documents showed Wallenberg had died of heart disease in a Soviet prison in July 1947 and that his body had been cremated. The documents were never released, and the reasons for his arrest, imprisonment and cremation were never explained. However, there were also several unconfirmed reports from former prisoners of the Soviet Union that Wallenberg had been seen alive in prison in the 1950s and even in during the 1980s.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wallenberg’s heroism and the mystery surrounding his disappearance had earned him international notoriety. His legacy as a compassionate person with the courage to not only confront evil, but resist it, had transformed the lives of thousands of people. Organizations were formed to investigate his death, and numerous monuments and statues were erected all over the world in his honor.
On September 22, 1981, the United States Congress granted honorary citizenship to Raoul Wallenberg, an honor that has been granted only one other time—to Winston Churchill. In 1986, Israel did the same, making him the first non-Jew to receive such an honor. Also in 1986, the American TV miniseries Wallenberg was produced, starring Richard Chamberlain in the title role. In 2012, US President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Wallenberg the Congressional Gold Medal.
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