Who saved thousands of lives from the Holocaust, and, in so doing, gave the world an enduring example of courage, compassion, and dedication…
Raoul Wallenberg was born into a famous, influential Swedish family of bankers in 1912. He preferred architecture and business to banking and had a facility for languages, including Russian and German. He spent time in South Africa selling building materials, then worked in a bank in Haifa, Palestine (which is now Israel). Here he heard horror stories from Jewish people who had escaped from the Nazis in Germany, which likely informed his later actions.
Wallenberg returned from Haifa and prepared for a career in business. Through his family’s connections he met, and eventually became partners with, Koloman Lauer, director of a Swedish-based import-export business. Lauer was also a Hungarian Jew, and recognized Wallenberg’s ability to travel easily through Nazi-occupied Europe to conduct business.
Their business came to a halt in 1944, when Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” (total annihilation) came into force. Sweden began issuing passes to allow Hungarian Jews to be treated as Swedish citizens. As the situation for Jews deteriorated, Wallenberg was appointed to lead a rescue mission in Budapest on the strength of both a recommendation from Lauer, and his own influential family name. This was June of 1944. He immediately set to work, using extremely bold and unorthodox (even illegal) methods to achieve his goal. Having been given carte blanche, Wallenberg began printing thousands of impressive, official-looking, legally worthless passes to protect Jews from persecution; it worked. He bribed whomever he could for help, and issued empty threats to others. His name and nerve made him successful in these endeavors. He even hung Swedish flags over houses, and declared them to be part of Swedish territory, allowing thousands of Jews to take refuge in the so-called “Swedish Houses.”
Adolf Eichmann had a plan to kill all of the Jews in Budapest. When his plan was thwarted, he forced the Jews on death marches, but Wallenberg was there with his passes, doing whatever was necessary to ensure that those thus prepared were freed. He even ran along the tops of the cars of a train filled with Jews about to be deported, handing passes down to the people. From his driver, Sandor Ardai:
“Then he climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross men began shooting and shouting at him to go away. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them … after Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to a caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colors … the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it!”
In early January, 1945, he managed to prevent a massacre in one of Budapest’s ghettos by threatening to have the general behind the attack hanged after the war. In mid-January, Wallenberg left the city with a Russian escort on unknown business, and was never heard from again.
It remains unclear as to when Wallenberg died. The common opinion is that he died in 1947 in a Soviet prison, but this is far from certain. What is certain, however, is that Raoul Wallenberg, in just a few months, used his name, wits, ingenuity, and courage to save the lives of tens of thousands, if not up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis.