Raoul Wallenberg (1912 – ?)





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by David Metzler

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian. He is widely celebrated for his successful efforts to rescue tens of thousands to about one hundred thousand Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust from Hungarian Fascists and the Nazis during the later stages of World War II. [Wikipedia]

by David Metzler

Raoul Wallenberg belongs — or belonged — to one of the most famous families in Sweden, the large Wallenberg family. It is a family that has contributed to Sweden bankers, diplomats and politicians during several generations. Raoul’s father, Raoul Oscar Wallenberg, was an officer in the navy, and cousin to Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, two of Sweden’s most famous bankers and industrialists. Raoul was born August 4, 1912, three months after his father’s death. His mother, Maj Wising Wallenberg, remarried Fredrik von Dardel in 1918.

Raoul’s grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg, took care of Raoul’s education. The plan was for him to continue the family tradition and become a banker, but he was more interested in architecture and trade.

In 1930, Raoul Wallenberg graduated with top grades in Russian and drawing. After his army service he traveled to the USA in 1931 to study architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Wallenberg spent a lot of time studying, and he graduated in 3 1/2 years. Most of his classes were held in what is now Lorch Hall. Wallenberg graduated with honors and won a medal that went to the person with the most impressive academic record.

Wallenberg’s letters reveal that he enjoyed his studies. He wrote to his grandfather, “When I now look back upon the last school year, I find I have had a completely wonderful time.” In 1935, he received his bachelor degree of Science in Architecture and returned to Sweden. But the market for architects was small in Sweden, so his grandfather sent him to Cape Town, South Africa, where he practiced at a Swedish firm selling building materials. After six months, his grandfather arranged a new job for him at a Dutch bank office in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel).

It was in Palestine he first met Jews that had escaped Hitler’s Germany. Their stories of the Nazi persecutions affected him deeply. Perhaps because he had a very humane attitude to life and because he owned a drop of Jewish blood (Raoul’s grandmother’s grandfather was a Jew by the name of Benedicks whom arrived to Sweden by the end of the 18th century). After his return from Haifa in 1936, Raoul Wallenberg resumed his old interest for business.

Through Jacob Wallenberg’s good contacts in the business world, Raoul was eventually brought together with Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew. He was a director of a Swedish based import and export company specializing in food and delicacies.

Thanks to Raoul Wallenberg’s excellent language skills, and thanks to his freedom of movement in Europe, he was a perfect business partner for Lauer. Within eight months, Raoul Wallenberg was a joint owner and international director of the Mid-European Trading Company.

Through his trips in Nazi-occupied France and in Germany itself, Raoul quickly learned how the German bureaucracy functioned. He had also made several trips to Hungary and Budapest, where he visited Lauer’s family. Hungary was still a relatively safe place in a hostile surrounding.

During the spring of 1944 the world had awoken and realized what Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish problem” meant. In May 1944 the first authentic eye witness report reached the western world of what happened in the extermination camp Auschwitz. It came from two Jews who managed to escape the German gas chambers.

Hitler’s plans for the extermination of the Jews of Europe became known. In Hungary, which had joined Germany in the war against the Soviet Union in 1941, there still lived an estimated 700,000 Jews at the beginning of 1944.

When the Germans lost the battle of Stalingrad 1943, Hungary wanted to follow Italy’s example and demand a separate peace. Hitler then called the Hungarian head of state, Miklós Horthy, and demanded continued solidarity with Germany. When Horthy refused to meet the demands, Hitler invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944. Soon after that, the deportations of Jews started. The destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland, and a certain death.

The Germans started deporting the Jews from the country side, but the Jewish citizens of Budapest knew that their hour of fate was also soon to come. In their desperation they sought help from the embassies of the neutral countries, where provisional passes were issued for Jews with special connections to these countries.

The Swedish legation in Budapest succeeded in negotiating with the Germans that the bearers of these protective passes would be treated as Swedish citizens and exempt from wearing the yellow Star of David on their chest. It was Per Anger, a young diplomat at the legation in Budapest, who initiated the first of these Swedish protective passes. (In 1982, Per Anger was also awarded the honor of “righteous among the nations” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for his heroic actions to save Jews during the war.)

In a short period of time the Swedish legation issued 700 passes, a drop in the ocean compared to the enormous number of Jews being threatened. The legation requested immediate staff reinforcements from the foreign department in Stockholm.

In 1944, the USA established The War Refugee Board (WRB), an organization with the purpose of saving Jews from Nazi persecution. The WRB soon realized that serious attempts were being made from the Swedish side to rescue the Jewish population in Hungary. The WRB’s representative in Stockholm called a committee with prominent Swedish Jews to discuss suitable persons to lead a mission in Budapest for an extensive rescue operation. Among the participants was Raoul Wallenberg’s business partner Koloman Lauer, chosen as an expert on Hungary.

The first choice was Folke Bernadotte, chairman of the Swedish Red Cross and relative to the Swedish king. After Bernadotte was disapproved by the Hungarian government, Koloman Lauer suggested that his business partner Raoul Wallenberg should be asked. Lauer emphasized that Wallenberg had made many trips to Hungary while working for their joint company. Raoul was considered too young and seemed inexperienced, but Lauer was persistent. Raoul was the right man according to him — a quick thinker, energetic, brave and compassionate. And he had a famous name.

Soon everybody had approved Wallenberg. At the end of June 1944 he was appointed first secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest with the mission to start a rescue operation for the Jews. Raoul was very excited to go to Hungary, but first he wrote a memo to the Swedish foreign department. He was determined not to get caught in the protocol and paperwork bureaucracy of diplomacy. He demanded full authorization to deal with whom he wanted without having to contact the ambassador first. He also wanted to have the right to send diplomatic couriers beyond the usual channels.

The memo was so unusual that it was sent all the way to Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson, who consulted the king before he announced that the demands had been approved.

By the time Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944, the Germans under the leadership of Adolf Eichmann had already sent away more than 400,000 Jewish men, women and children. They had been deported on 148 freight trains between the May 14 and July 8. When Wallenberg came to Budapest, only about 230,000 Jews were left.

The German SS officer Adolf Eichmann was now preparing a plan that in one day would exterminate the whole Jewish population in Budapest. In a report to Berlin he said that “the technical details will take a few days.”

If this plan had been but into action Raoul Wallenberg’s mission would have been meaningless. Then the “Jewish issue” would have been “permanently solved” for that part of Hungary. The head of state, Miklós Horthy, meanwhile received a letter from the Swedish King, Gustav V, with an appeal that the deportations should stop. Horthy sent a note to the Swedish king saying he “did everything in his power to ensure that the principals of humanity and justice would be respected.” The Germans deportations were canceled and one train with 1,600 Jews was stopped at the border and sent back to Budapest.

Oddly enough the German authorities approved the cancellation of the deportations. The explanation may have been that Heinrich Himmler, one of the top Nazi officials during this time, played a high level game for peace. He thought he could negotiate a separate peace with the western allies and might have thought he’d stand a better chance if the pressure on the Jews was decreased. Adolf Eichmann could do nothing but wait.

At this time minister Carl Ivar Danielsson was head of the Swedish legation. His closest aide was secretary Per Anger. Raoul Wallenberg now headed the department responsible for helping the Jews. Before Wallenberg arrived the head of the Red Cross in Hungary, Valdemar Langlet, helped the Swedish legation. Langlet rented buildings for the Red Cross and put signs like “The Swedish Library” and “The Swedish Research Institute” on its doors. These buildings were then used as hiding places for Jews.

Raoul Wallenberg did not use traditional diplomacy. He more or less shocked the diplomats at the Swedish legation with his unconventional methods. Everything from bribes to extortion threats were used with success. But when the rest of the staff of the legation saw Wallenberg’s results, he quickly got their unreserved support.

Raoul Wallenberg’s first task was to design a Swedish protective pass to help the Jews against the Germans and Hungarians. He had previous experience that both the German and Hungarian authorities were weak for flashy symbols. He therefore had the passes printed in yellow and blue with the coat of arms of the Three Crowns of Sweden in the middle, and added the appropriate stamps and signatures on it. Of course Wallenberg’s protective passes had no value whatsoever according to international laws, but it provoked respect. To begin with Wallenberg only had permission to issue 1,500 passes. Quickly, though, he managed to negotiate another 1,000, and through promises and empty threats to the Hungarian foreign ministry he eventually managed to raise the quota to 4,500 protective passes.

In reality Wallenberg managed to issue more than three times as many protective passes. He controlled a staff of several hundred co-workers. They were all Jews and thanks to their work with Wallenberg they didn’t have to wear the degrading yellow star.

In August 1944, the Hungarian head of state, Horthy, fired his pro-German Prime Minister Sztójay and let General Lakatos succeed him. The situation for the Jews improved considerably. Through diplomatic pressure, mediated and emphasized by Raoul Wallenberg, the responsibility to “solve the Jewish issue in Hungary” was taken away from Adolf Eichmann.

Now Wallenberg thought his department at the legation could be dismantled and that he himself could return back to Sweden. He expected the invading and winning troops of the Soviet Union to soon take over Budapest.

On October 15, the head of state, Miklós Horthy, declared that he wanted peace with the Soviets. But his radio speech had barely been broadcast when the German troops took command. Horthy was overthrown immediately and replaced by the leader of the Hungarian Nazis, Ferenc Szálasi. He was the leader of the Arrow Cross organization, who was just as feared as the German Nazis for their cruel methods against the Jewish population. Adolf Eichmann returned and received a free hand to continue the terror against the Jews.

Raoul Wallenberg kept on fighting in spite of the ruling powers of evil and appeared often as an unwelcome witness to the atrocities. In many cases he managed to save Jews from the clutches of the Nazis with his firm action and courage as his only weapon.

Now Raoul started to build his “Swedish houses.” It was some 30 houses in the Pest part of the city where the Jews could seek refuge. A Swedish flag hung in front of the door and Wallenberg declared the house Swedish territory. The population of the “Swedish houses” soon rose to 15,000.

The other neutral legations in Budapest started to follow Wallenberg’s example and issued protective passes. A number of diplomats from other countries were inspired to open their own “protective houses” for Jewish refugees.

Toward the end of the war, when the situation became increasingly desperate, Wallenberg issued a simplified form of his protective pass, one copied page with his signature alone. In the existing chaos even that worked.

The newly instated Hungarian Nazi government immediately let it be known that with the change of power the protective passes were no longer valid. Meanwhile, Wallenberg befriended the Baroness Elizabeth “Liesel” Kemény. She was the wife of the foreign minister, and with her cooperation the passes were made valid again.

During this time Eichmann started his brutal “death marches.” He went through with his promised deportation plan by having large numbers of Jews leave Hungary by foot. The first march started November 20, 1944, and the conditions along the 200 kilometer long road between Budapest and the Austrian border were so horrendous that even the Nazis themselves complained.

The marching Jews could be counted in the thousands along never-ending rows of starving and tortured people. Raoul Wallenberg was in place all the time to hand out protective passes, food and medicine. He threatened and he bribed until he managed to free those with Swedish passes.

When Eichmann’s killers transported the Jews in full trains, Wallenberg intensified his rescue efforts. He even climbed the train wagons, stood on the tracks, ran along the wagon roofs, and stuck bunches of protective passes down to the people inside. The German soldiers were ordered to open fire, but were so impressed by Wallenberg’s courage that they deliberately aimed too high. Wallenberg could jump down unharmed and demand that the Jews with passes should leave the train together with him.

Raoul Wallenberg’s department at the Swedish legation grew constantly and finally kept 340 persons busy. Another 700 people also lived in their building.
Toward the end of 1944, Wallenberg moved over the river Danube from Buda to Pest where the two Jewish ghettos were situated. The minimal level of law and order that once existed was now gone. The Arrow Cross, police and German war machine shared power.

Wallenberg searched desperately for suitable people to bribe, and found a very powerful ally in Pa’l Szalay, a high-ranking officer in the police force and an Arrow Cross member. (After the war, Szalay was the only Arrow Cross member that wasn’t executed. He was set free in recognition for his cooperation with Wallenberg.)

The second week of January 1945 Raoul Wallenberg found out that Eichmann planned a total massacre in the largest ghetto. The only one who could stop it was general August Schmidthuber who was commander-in-chief for the German troops in Hungary.

Wallenberg’s ally Szalay was sent to deliver a note to Schmidthuber explaining that Raoul Wallenberg would make sure that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war. The massacre was stopped at the last minute thanks to Wallenberg’s action. Two days later, the Russians arrived and found 97,000 Jews alive in Budapest’s two Jewish ghettos. In total 120,000 Jews survived the Nazi extermination in Hungary.

According to Per Anger, Wallenberg’s friend and colleague, Wallenberg must be honored with saving at least 100,000 Jews.

On January 13, 1945, an advancing Soviet troop saw a man standing and waiting for them in front of a house with a large Swedish flag above the door. In fluent Russian, Raoul Wallenberg explained to a surprised Russian sergeant that he was Swedish chargé d’affaires for the Russian-liberated parts of Hungary. Wallenberg requested, and was given permission to visit the Soviet military headquarters in the city of Debrecen east of Budapest.
On his way out of the capital on January 17 — with Russian escort — Wallenberg and his driver stopped at the “Swedish houses” to say good-bye to his friends. To one of his colleagues, Dr. Ernö Petö, Wallenberg said that he wasn’t sure if he was going to be the Russian’s guest or their prisoner. Raoul Wallenberg thought he’d be back within eight days–but he has been missing since then.

Whether Raoul Wallenberg is alive or not is uncertain. The Russians claim that he died in Russian captivity on July 17, 1947. A number of testimonies indicate, however, that he was alive and that he still could be alive. Before we elaborate on Raoul Wallenberg’s captivity in the Soviet Union we have to straighten two things out. First, why did he want contact with the Russians in Debrecen? Secondly, why did the Russians arrest him?

In November 1944, Wallenberg had established a section in his department that under his supervision would make a detailed financial support plan for the surviving Jews. The Russians did not have the same views of Jews and, therefore, presumably couldn’t understand that a person had devoted his soul to save them. Therefore it was important to Wallenberg to explain his rescue operation.

The Russians probably believed that Wallenberg had another reason for his rescue efforts. They probably suspected him of being an American spy and were almost certainly skeptical of Wallenberg’s contact with the Germans.
Raoul Wallenberg and his driver Vilmos Langfelder never returned from Debrecen. According to reliable testimonies they were arrested and sent to Moscow. They were arrested by NKVD, an organization that later changed its name to KGB. Wallenberg and Langfelder were placed in separate cells in the Lubjanka prison according to eye witnesses.

Wallenberg wasn’t the only diplomat in Budapest that aroused Soviet suspicion. The Swiss legation had also run extensive rescue operations for the Hungarian Jewish population. The Russians arrested a secretary of their legation together with a clerk and sent them to the Soviet Union. The Swiss succeeded, however, in getting them extradited with Soviet citizens detained in Switzerland.

It would take some time before authorities in Stockholm became concerned about Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance. In a letter to the Swedish ambassador in Moscow, the Russian Vice Foreign Minister Dekanosov declared that “the Russian military authorities had taken measures and steps to protect Wallenberg and his belongings.”

The Swedes, of course, expected Raoul Wallenberg to come home soon. When nothing happened, Raoul’s mother, Maj von Dardel, contacted the Russian ambassador in Stockholm, Aleksandra Kollontaj, who explained that she could be calm, since her son was well kept in Russia. To the Swedish Foreign Minister Christian Günther’s wife, Aleksandra Kollontaj said at the same time that it would be best for Wallenberg if the Swedish government wouldn’t stir things up.

On March 8, 1945, the Soviet-controlled Hungarian radio announced that Raoul Wallenberg had been murdered on his way to Debrecen, probably by Hungarian Nazis or Gestapo agents. This created a certain passiveness with the Swedish government. Foreign Minister Östen Undén and Sweden’s ambassador in the Soviet Union presumed that Wallenberg was dead. In most places, however, the radio message wasn’t taken seriously.

Many people have drawn the conclusion that Sweden had an opportunity to negotiate for Wallenberg’s release after the war, but that the Swedish side missed the chance.

From 1965 there is a speech from Sweden’s Prime Minister at the time, Tage Erlander, which is included in a collection of documents regarding the research around Raoul Wallenberg. Erlander concluded that all efforts that had been taken shortly after the war were without results. In fact, the Soviet authorities had even denied knowledge of Wallenberg. Between 1947 and 1951 nothing new occurred. But when foreign prisoners started to be released from Russian jails many testimonies came regarding Raoul Wallenberg’s fate after January 1945.

In April 1956, Prime Minister Tage Erlander traveled with Domestic Minister Gunnar Hedlund to Moscow where they met the Soviet representatives Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Bulganin and Vyacheslav Molotov. These men promised to re-investigate what had happened to Raoul Wallenberg.

On February 6, 1957, the Russians announced that they had made extensive investigations and found a document most likely regarding Raoul Wallenberg. In the hand-written document it was stated that “the for you familiar prisoner Wallenberg passed away this night in his cell.” The document was dated July 17, 1947, and signed Smoltsov, head of the Lubjanka prison infirmary. The document was addressed to Viktor Abakumov, the minister for state security in the Soviet Union.

The Russians expressed regret in their letter to the Swedes that Smoltsov died in May 1953 and that Abakumov had been executed in connection with cleansing within the security police. The Swedes were very distrustful toward this declaration, but the Russians have to this day stuck to the same statement.

Testimonies from different prisoners who had been in Russian jails after January 1945 tell, in contradiction to the Russian information, that Raoul Wallenberg was imprisoned throughout the 1950’s. In 1965, the Swedish government published a new official report on the Wallenberg case. An earlier white book had been released in 1957. According to the new report, Erlander had done everything in his power to find out the truth about Raoul Wallenberg.

Now the Wallenberg case went into a phase when nothing much happened. The stream of war prisoners from the Soviet Union decreased, and the testimonies were few. At the end of the 70’s, the case was brought up again. According to the Swedish foreign department, two very interesting testimonies were the basis for a note to Moscow requesting the case to be reexamined. The answer from the Kremlin was the same as earlier—Raoul Wallenberg died in 1947. On the grounds of additional material considered reliable, Foreign Minister Ola Ullsten sent another request in the beginning of the 80’s regarding Raoul Wallenberg to the Russian chief of government Aleksei Kosygin. The reply was the same as usual—Raoul Wallenberg died in 1947.

During the 1980’s, interest in Wallenberg grew around the world. In 1981, he became an honorary citizen of the United States, in 1985 in Canada, and in 1986 in Israel. All over the world, many people think he’s still alive and demand that he be released from his Russian captivity. In Sweden and other countries — mainly the USA — Raoul Wallenberg associations work endlessly to find answers to what happened Raoul Wallenberg.

In November 2000, Alexander Yakovlev, the head of a presidential commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate, announced that the diplomat had been executed in 1947 in the KGB’s Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. He said Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former Soviet secret police chief, told him of the shooting in a private conversation. The Russians released another statement in December admitting that Wallenberg was wrongfully arrested on espionage charges in 1945 and held in a Soviet prison for 2½ years until he died. The statement did not explain why Wallenberg was killed or why the government lied about his death for 55 years, claiming from 1957 to 1991 that he died of a heart attack while under Soviet protection (Washington Post, (December 23, 2000).

On January 12, 2001, a joint Russian-Swedish panel released a report that did not reach any conclusion as to Wallenberg’s fate. The Russians reverted to the claim that he died of a heart attack in prison in 1947, while the Swede’s said they were not sure if Wallenberg was dead or alive. The report did unearth evidence that the reason the Soviets arrested Wallenberg was the suspicion that he was a spy for the United States (Washington Post, January 12, 2001).

Sources: (c) David Metzler
Raoul Wallenberg