Raoul Wallenberg in the 1940s

Note: Last year when I was doing research on the history of the “Bank for International Settlements,” I ran across the remarkable and heroic story of a man named Raoul Wallenberg, who virtually single handedly led a mission that saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from certain death in the Nazi concentration camps toward the end of World War II. Wallenberg was born into the famous Swedish Wallenberg family in 1912, two members of which, the brothers Jacob and Marcus, were the CEO and Deputy CEO respectively of the prominent Swedish Enskilda Bank before and during World War II. (Raoul’s grandfather Gustaf Wallenberg, and Jacob’s and Marcus’ father, Marcus Wallenberg Sr, were brothers) The Wallenberg brothers and their bank were known for their willingness to deal with Germany and the Nazis during the war; to the point that US Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau and the FBI initiated a blockade of the Swedish bank in the United States that wasn’t lifted until 1947. Fortunately for many Hungarian Jews, not every member of the Wallenberg family was as mercenary as Jacob and Marcus. With that preamble, here is the incredible true story of Raoul Wallenberg. Please read on…MA

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During the late 1930s and the very early years of World War II, Hungary, under the rule of a man named Miklos Horthy, was an ally of Nazi Germany. In 1938, using the German Nuremberg Laws[1]as a model, the eastern European nation passed a series of anti-Semitic laws that severely restricted the rights of Hungarian Jews; prohibiting intermarriage, and greatly reducing Jewish access to government and public service jobs, as well as certain professions. In June of 1941 Hungary joined in Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, which ultimately resulted in the historic Russian victory at Stalingrad in February of 1943; probably the major turning point of World War II.

Because of the Hungarian anti-Jewish laws, travel for any Jew in and out of Hungary became problematic. One of the Jews affected by this was a businessman named Kálmán Lauer, who at the time was living in Sweden. Concerned about his family and business interests still in Hungary, Lauer persuaded Raoul Wallenberg, an associate of his, to travel to Hungary on his behalf to check on things.  In this capacity Wallenberg made several trips to Budapest across the early 1940s to tend to business matters and to look in on Lauer’s family members still residing there. During these visits Wallenberg became acquainted with the Hungarian capital and its Jewish community. He also made business trips to other German occupied nations during this time, and was able to closely observe their administrative methods; knowledge that he would put to good use in his later dealings with the Nazis.

With the German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943, and the Hungarian army suffering massive casualties in the fighting, Horthy began to have second thoughts about siding with the Nazis and started to engage in secret peace talks with the United States and England. When Hitler found out about the Hungarian leader’s betrayal he ordered that the country be occupied by German troops and that a puppet government loyal to Germany be installed. This was done in March of 1944, with Horthy being placed under house arrest. For the Hungarian Jews, who to this point in the war had largely been spared the Holocaust, the Nazi take over was a disaster. Wasting no time, by April the Nazis had begun the mass deportation of the Hungarian Jews to the extermination camps in Poland and Germany.

Budapest in the 1940s

By May of 1944 the calamitous situation faced by the Hungarian Jews was becoming well known to the Allies, with Winston Churchill himself commenting that, “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.” In response U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt sent an emissary, a man named Iver C. Olsen[2], to Stockholm, Sweden tasked with finding a way to aid Hungary’s Jews. Olsen established contact with a committee composed of many prominent Swedish Jews, one of which was Wallenberg’s friend, Kálmán Lauer. Lauer introduced Olsen to Wallenberg in June of 1944. He came away impressed and proposed that Raoul be appointed as the head of the rescue mission to the Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg’s appointment to the mission initially met with resistance within the Roosevelt administration, specifically from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, due to the complicity of Raoul’s banking relatives with the Nazis. Ultimately this was overcome, however, and in July of 1944 Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, using his appointment to the Swedish diplomatic corps there as a cover. His real mission was to rescue the remaining Hungarian Jews.

By the time Raoul got to Budapest in the summer of 1944 the Nazi program to exterminate the Hungarian Jews, under the command of the infamous mass murderer Adolf Eichman, was well underway.  Hundreds of thousands, by some estimates as many as 400,000, had already been packed into the trains and sent north to their deaths; leaving perhaps 200,000 Jews still in the country, mostly in Budapest, awaiting their fate. Seeing the situation, Wallenberg knew he had to act fast, and he went right to work. Utilizing his knowledge of Nazi administrative methods gained in his earlier travels, his plan was to use his diplomatic authority as part of the Swedish legation in Budapest to save as many Jews as he could. His primary way of doing so was to issue “protective passports” to the Jews which identified them as Swedish subjects who were waiting to be sent back to Sweden. This action stalled the Nazis and prevented many Jews from being sent to death. To house the Jews while waiting he rented 32 buildings in Budapest, had large Swedish flags placed on them, and declared them to be protected by diplomatic immunity, thus placing them outside Nazi controlled territory and laws. These buildings eventually housed and saved over 10,000 Jewish people.

The lengths to which Wallenberg went to distribute his “passports” demonstrates the danger he faced, as well as the unbelievable courage of the man. One of his drivers at the time, a man named Sandor Ardai, relayed the following eyewitness account of Raoul encountering a trainload of Jews about to be sent to Auschwitz. According to Ardai, … 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[3] 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. I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot hit him, which would have been impossible otherwise. I think this is what they did because they were so impressed by his courage. After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours. I don’t remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train, and the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it.”

To help the Jews Wallenberg used other techniques as well, among them bribery, if necessary, to provide extra incentive for some Nazi or Arrow Cross official to “look the other way,” or to accept his passports as valid. Because of his actions he was marked for death or capture by Eichman, as well as by the goons of the Arrow Cross party; and to protect himself he took to sleeping in a different location each night, doing his best to remain elusive and stay alive.

By December 1944, with the Russian Army closing in, Eichman and his henchman were planning the liquidation of the last 70,000 Jews in Budapest, basically all that were left in the nation. Their strategies for this ranged from burning down or blowing up the Budapest Jewish ghetto with the Jews still in it, to forcing them into a death march, killing them with exposure and starvation. Again, Wallenberg intervened with effective action. He bribed an Arrow Cross official to deliver a written communication to both Eichman and to the supreme German Army commander in the country. The note threatened both men with being charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity after the war if they followed through with their plans against the Jews. Raoul’s threats paid off, and the Nazi plans against the Jews were never carried out. With the arrival of the Russian Army a few weeks later the Nazis retreated from Budapest and the remaining Hungarian Jews, at last, were safe.

Raoul Wallenberg did not get to see the final liberation of the Budapest Jews he had worked so hard and risked his life to save. On January 17th, 1945, just before the fall of Budapest to the Russian Army, he was summoned to the headquarters of the Russian commander, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, to respond to charges he had been engaged in espionage.[4]  His last comment, made just before leaving to meet the Russians, indicated that he was aware of the possibility that he might be arrested: I’m going to Malinovsky’s,” he said, “… whether as a guest or prisoner I do not know yet.”

 What happened to Wallenberg after meeting the Russians is still shrouded in speculation and mystery. He disappeared into the Russian prison maze and was never heard from again. Some reports state he died later in 1945, while some state that he was executed in 1947 in a Russian prison. Still other reports indicate that he was seen alive and had been spoken to in Russian prisons up into the 1960s and beyond. With no definitive word, he was finally declared dead by the Swedish tax agency in October, 2016.

Monument to Raoul Wallenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel

For his efforts at saving the Hungarian Jews during World War II, Raoul Wallenberg has been honored in memorials and monuments all over the world. Israel has bestowed its “Righteous Among Nations” honor upon him, and in 1981 US Congressman Tom Lantos, who himself had lived in one of Wallenberg’s buildings in Budapest in 1944 and thus was saved by the Swedish diplomat, sponsored a bill to make Wallenberg an Honorary Citizen of the United States. The proposal was passed and he became the second person ever to be so honored. (Winston Churchill was the first.) In 1985 the street in Washington DC on which the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is located was renamed Raoul Wallenberg Place by an Act of Congress. In 2012 the U.S. Congress again acknowledged Wallenberg when, “In recognition of his achievements and heroic actions during the Holocaust,” it awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal. 

Demonstrating, as his story does, what one person can do in the face of injustice, suppression and intolerance, the life of Raoul Wallenberg stands as an example for us all.

We should all have that kind of courage.

Copyright © 2018

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

[1] The Nuremberg Laws were enacted in Germany in September, 1935, at a special meeting of the Reichstag that took place in Nuremberg at the Nazi Party rally that year. The laws practically had the effect of making it illegal to be a Jew; stripping them of full citizenship, making marriage to or having sexual relations with non-Jews illegal, denying them jobs in government or civil service; and prohibiting their entry into or practicing of certain professions. These laws fundamentally de-humanized Jewish people, thus setting the stage for the Holocaust.

[2] The man Roosevelt sent to Sweden in 1944, Iver C. Olsen, was charged with another hat besides his job of aiding the Hungarian Jews. Covertly he was an agent of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS—the US World War II intelligence organization established by President Roosevelt) assigned to the Stockholm branch as a currency specialist. This has led some to speculate that Wallenberg, perhaps, had another mission in Hungary besides aiding the Jews, and that was to aid the OSS in assisting the Hungarian anti-Nazi resistance. That Wallenberg indeed was an OSS asset was later verified by de-classified documents released in 1996.

[3] The Arrow Cross party was a fascist political party in Hungary during World War II, modeled after the German Nazi party. After Germany occupied Hungary in 1944 the Arrow Cross was briefly in control of Hungary (under a watchful German eye) until the Russians liberated the country in early 1945.

[4] De-classified documents released in 1996 confirm the suspicion that Raoul Wallenberg was indeed working for the OSS in support of the Hungarian resistance during his time in Budapest in 1944-45. For awhile, considering that the U.S. and Russia were World War II allies, it didn’t make sense to me that the Russians would go after Wallenberg as they did; but I now believe I understand why. Though England, the U.S. and the Russians were World War II allies, there was considerable distrust between the Russian leader Stalin and his western counterparts. Stalin was particularly concerned that the buffer states of Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, remain under Russian dominion after the war, and that Germany be defeated so thoroughly that it could never again mount a threat to Russia, as it had done twice in the prior 30 years (World War I and II). When you consider the costs of World War II to the Russian nation, over 20 million people killed and the massive destruction of agriculture and infrastructure, Stalin’s concerns, if not his methods, are actually understandable; the Nazis had used these eastern European nations as the attack corridor on Russia. An American OSS intelligence asset in Hungary, in this case Wallenberg, was possibly viewed as a threat to this Russian post war dominion, and therefore had to be removed. This is just my theory, but I believe it makes sense.   

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6 Responses to Angel of Budapest-The Heroic Story of Raoul Wallenberg—by Mark Arnold

  1. Tammy says:

    Excellent and inspiring! A true Freedom Fighter! Thanks for writing this Mark.

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks, Tammy! A man who truly was willing to and who did pay the “Price of Freedom.” I had to write his story. L, Mark

  2. Becky McLoud says:

    A man who knew right from wrong and didn’t cave to greed and group agreement. A true hero.

    Thanks for this informative article, Mark.

  3. Hi Mark. That was very interesting and I learned some history that I hadn’t known. This guy was a true hero.
    Thank you !! Stan

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks, Stan! I found Wallenberg’s story to be truly inspiring, so I had to write it. I appreciate your interest and feedback. L Mark

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