Wallenberg, Raoul (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
[AUGUST 4, 1912ULY 17, 1947]
Raoul Wallenberg has entered history as a humanitarian activist who took considerable personal risks to save men, women, and children from impending genocide. In the summer and fall of 1944, and until his disappearance in January 1945, Wallenberg was affiliated with the Swedish Legation in Budapest, Hungary, where he conducted a special rescue mission to save many thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to the Nazi extermination camps. Wallenberg had no kinship to the victims; he was a Lutheran by faith and a neutral Swede by nationality. Yet he accepted a difficult and dangerous assignment in a foreign country mission which he carried out with skill, determination, and courage.
Early Life and Humanitarian Appointments
Wallenberg was born in 1912 in Stockholm to an aristocratic family of industrialists and bankers. In 1930 he graduated from secondary school with top grades, in particular in Russian, which would serve him well in his later career. Following compulsory military service, he traveled to the United States to study architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, from which he received his B.S. degree in 1935. Following his return to Sweden, he took a position with a Swedish firm in Cape Town, South Africa, engaged in the sale of building materials. In 1936 he was employed at a branch office of a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine (present-day Israel). In Palestine he met Jews who had fled from persecution in Germany. Back in Sweden, Wallenberg became the business partner of Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew based in Stockholm and director of the Central European Trading Company, an import and export firm specializing in fine foods such as foie gras. In 1941 Wallenberg became foreign trade representative of the firm and in this capacity traveled to many European countries, including Hungary, Germany, and Nazi-occupied France.
World War II is remembered as the stage for the major genocide of the twentieth century, following the Ottoman extermination of Armenians. Adolf Hitler's "final solution of the Jewish question" first consumed the Polish, Baltic, Ukrainian, Russian, and West European Jews from countries under Nazi occupation. Until 1944 the 700,000 Jews in Hungary had been spared, since Hungary's head of state, Admiral Miklós Horty, was an ally of the Germans, and thus Hitler's henchmen could not freely operate there. This situation changed when Hungary was occupied by the Nazis in March 1944, and the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau began. The first victims were the Jews from the countryside, more than 400,000 of whom were deported in the months of May and June 1944.
Faced by grave danger, some of the Jews in Budapest sought protection from the embassies of neutral countries, especially those Jews who could show some links with those countries and thus request special passports. The Swedish Legation in Budapest issued some seven hundred temporary passports; those possessing the passports were exempted from having to wear the Star of David. In view of the magnitude of the
Meanwhile, following the establishment of the American War Refugee Board in 1944, an organization whose task was to save Jews from Nazi persecution, the World Jewish Congress, held a meeting in Stockholm to organize a rescue mission for the Hungarian Jews. The organization considered sending Count Folke Bernadotte, chairperson of the Swedish Red Cross and a relative of King Gustav V. When the Hungarian government did not approve Bernadotte, Lauer proposed that Wallenberg be sent instead.
In late June 1944 Wallenberg was appointed first secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest. The embassy granted him very broad powers of initiative, and he did not have to clear his decisions concerning the rescue mission with Stockholm or with the Swedish Legation in Budapest, which at the time was headed by Minister Carl Ivar Danielsson and assisted by his deputy Legation secretary Per Anger.
Assisting the Jews
When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, about 200,000 Jews were still in the capital. SSObersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann intended to deport all of them within a few days, but King Gustav V addressed a letter to Horty containing a humanitarian appeal to stop the deportation of Jews. Upon Horty's intercession, the deportations were canceled. Historians speculate that the cancelling of deportations was in part due to SS-Chief Heinrich Himmler, who was attempting to negotiate a separate peace agreement with the Western Allies and thus believed he would improve his negotiating position by making certain concessions toward the Jews.
Wallenberg's first task in Budapest was to design a Swedish protective passport (Schutz-Pass), printed in blue and yellow (Sweden's national colors), bearing the Three Crowns heraldry in the center. Although these "protective passports" were not documents customarily recognized in international diplomatic practice, they did appear official enough and impressed the German and Hungarian authorities sufficiently to persuade them to leave the bearers in peace. Initially 1,500 such passports were issued, soon thereafter another 1,000, and eventually the quota was raised to 4,500. Scholars estimate that Wallenberg actually issued three times that amount. Meanwhile his department at the Swedish Legation continued to grow, eventually employing 340 persons and volunteers, and harboring 700 persons who lived on the premises of the Legation.
When on October 15, 1944, Horty announced that he was seeking a separate peace agreement with the Russians, German troops quickly deposed him, and he was replaced by the leader of the Hungarian Nazis, Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross movement. Thereupon Wallenberg proceeded to expand the "Swedish houses" to thirty-two buildings, mostly in Budapest, where many of the Jews resided. The number of inhabitants of these houses reached 15,000. Other diplomatic missions in Budapest also started issuing protective passports.
In November 1944 Eichmann forced thousands of Jews to leave Hungary by foot, some 200 kilometers to the Austrian border. Wallenberg distributed protective passports, food, and medicine to many victims of these forced marches, and by threats and bribes persuaded the Nazis to release those who had been given Swedish passports. Then followed the deportations by trainloads, and again Wallenberg personally went to the
Early in January 1945 Wallenberg learned that Eichmann was about to liquidate the Jews in the ghettos. Wallenberg, with the assistance of an Arrow Cross member Pa'l Szalay, whom he had bribed, approached General August Schmidthuber, commander of the German troops in Hungary. Due to this intervention, the massacre was averted. On January 12, 1945, Soviet troops entered Budapest and found some 120,000 Jews still alive in the city. On January 17, Wallenberg and his chauffeur traveled to the Soviet military headquarters in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary. It appears that there he was arrested on suspicion of espionage for the United States and taken to Lubjanka Prison in Moscow, where, according to Soviet sources and the so-called Smoltsov Report, he died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947. Another version of the story stated that Wallenberg was still alive in the 1970s and 1980s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, new efforts were undertaken to clarify his fate, and in confidential talks between Russian and Swedish diplomats, the version emerged that he had been executed in 1947. A Swedish-Russian working group that investigated the matter found no hard evidence to support this theory.
It is not certain exactly how many persons were directly or indirectly saved by Wallenberg's mission. Certain is that his tireless efforts, combined with the initiatives taken by the Swedish Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross, other diplomatic missions in Budapest, and the papal nunciature, saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.
There are many parks, monuments, statues, and institutes named after him, notably the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Institute at the University of Lund in Sweden.
On June 20, 2000, the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan remarked at a memorial service in Budapest that "Raoul highlighted the vital role of the bystander, of the third party amidst conflict and suffering. It was here, in the face of despair, that his intervention gave hope to victims, encouraged them to fight and resist, to hang on and bear witness."
Wallenberg is an honorary citizen of the United States, Canada, Israel, and the city of Budapest.
SEE ALSO Rescuers, Holocaust
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Alfred de Zayas