Raoul Wallenberg, the Hero Who Saved 100,000 Jews

raoul wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg (AP Photo/Pressens Bild)

In the dark days of the Holocaust, there were a number of Chassidei Umos Haolam, righteous Gentiles, who heroically defied the Nazi beasts and risked their lives to save Jews. Perhaps the greatest and most heroic of these was a Swedish nobleman named Raoul Wallenberg.

In January of 1945, after saving as many as 100,000 Jewish lives, Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians. He subsequently disappeared into the depths of the Russian gulag, and his true fate is unknown to this very day. His actions have earned him a distinctive and eternal place in the annals of Jewish history, and Klal Yisrael owes him a great, incalculable debt of hakaras hatov. To that end, we saw fit to share with our readers some of the more pertinent background facts and historical data of this man, who represented a beacon of light in one of the darkest eras of our history.

***

“In the name of the Szalasi government, I demand those with Swedish passports to raise them high!”

The voice — though powerful and determined — betrayed no emotion. Hundreds of weakened, emaciated, Hungarian Jews turned around, wondering where the voice was coming from and what the man wanted. Under the constant watch of the Nazi fiends, they had marched 125 miles, through cold and rain, without any real food or shelter. Thousands of their brethren had passed away along the way; some from hunger, some from thirst, and others from sheer exhaustion.

Now they had reached the border crossing at Hegyeshalom, where they were being put on trains to be transported to death camps. Only moments earlier, Adolf Eichmann and his deputy Dieter Wisliceny had been counting them as one would count cattle.

“Funf, sechs, sieben — five, six, seven…”

At the sudden demand for Swedish passports, Eichmann and Wisliceny spun around, staring in surprise at the determined young stranger in their midst.

“I am Wallenberg, Swedish legation.” Wallenberg pointed to an astonished Jew waiting for his turn to be handed over to the executioner. “You, there,” he shouted, “give me your Swedish passport and get into that line. And you get behind him,” he firmly instructed a second Jew. “I know I gave you a passport.”

Wallenberg continued to move quickly, talking loudly, hoping that the Jews would catch on to his intentions.

The Jews started groping in their pockets for bits of identification. A driver’s license or birth certificate sufficed. Wallenberg was grabbing them so fast that the Nazis — who could not read Hungarian anyway — did not seem to be checking. Within minutes he had separated hundreds of Jews into his own convoy. International Red Cross trucks, summoned at his request, arrived, and the Jews climbed on.

Wisliceny resumed counting heads, and Wallenberg jumped into his car. He leaned out the window and whispered to the Jews he was leaving behind:

“I am sorry; I am trying to take the youngest ones first. I want to save a nation.”

***

It was in the last months of 1944. The Nazis could no longer spare trains with which to transport Hungarian Jews to the concentration camps. The fiendish Nazi Adolph Eichmann decided that they should walk instead. The neo-Nazi Hungarian Arrow Cross took Jews from street corners, from shops, and from their homes; no Jew was safe from this terrible fate. Soon the road from Budapest to the border town of Hegyeshalom was one long graveyard. Those who stumbled and fell were generally shot and killed on the spot.

Captain Nandor Batizfalvy, a Hungarian Army officer accompanying the marchers, could not bear the scene before him. He phoned Raoul Wallenberg and described to him what he was witnessing. Wallenberg did not wait for many details. He gathered what food he could, grabbed his typewriter and set out on the Hegyeshalom road.

When he arrived at the border several hours later, he was an emotionally charged man; nothing could possibly have prepared him for what he had seen as he traveled along that road. He knew that by personally confronting Eichmann he would be putting his life in danger. The Nazis were well aware that Wallenberg’s line about speaking in the name of the Szalasi government was pure bluster; as a member of the Swedish legation, he had no such authority. Furthermore, the Hungarian government was nothing more than a neo-Nazi puppet of Hitler. Yet Wallenberg did not stop even to consider his next step. His goal was clear: He was going to save as many Jews as possible. He would allow neither danger nor practical considerations to stand in his way.

Along the way back to Budapest he and his convoy stopped frequently. They set up first-aid stations and distributed food while Wallenberg’s assistant, Per Anger, typed up passport applications they had brought along for the marchers.

“I will be back,” he promised.

The next day, Wallenberg returned to the border. This time he was even bolder. Desperate to save lives, he mounted a train that held Jews who had already been “counted” by Eichmann. “Get off this train,” he ordered. “I issued you a passport — your name is right here in my book!”

These Jews may never even have seen a Swedish passport before, let alone procured one, but this did not stop hundreds of them from jumping off the train into the waiting trucks. Once again, risking his own life, Raoul Wallenberg had been the messenger from Hashem to snatch Jews from the jaws of death. 2

The War Refugee Board

Two days before Erev Yom Kippur 5703/1943, in what would become known as the “Rabbis’ March,” more than four hundred Rabbanim marched on Washington, D.C. The march was the brainchild of Hillel Kook, who used the pseudonym Peter Bergson, and was organized by the Vaad Hatzalah. The marchers came to plead for U.S. government action to save Jews from Hitler.

Many participants were bitterly disappointed by the fact that not only did President Roosevelt refuse to meet with them, but even the vice president, who spoke with them on the steps of the Senate building, did not invite them in. However, media coverage of the march, expressing outrage over the way the esteemed Rabbanim were treated, helped increase pressure on the Roosevelt administration to save some of the ever-dwindling number of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The Rabbis’ March was a key facet in a media campaign carefully orchestrated by Bergson and his associates. Finally, following the intervention of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and an initiative by Congress to act on the matter, Roosevelt issued an executive order in January 1944 creating the War Refugee Board, an official U.S. government agency whose stated purpose was to rescue refugees from Hitler’s Europe. 3

One day in June 1944, Iver Olson, the War Refugee Board’s newly appointed representative in Sweden, entered the elevator of the eight-story building in Stockholm that hosted the American Legation. He was greeted by Kalman Lauer, whose export-import firm also had offices in this building.

After exchanging brief pleasantries, Olson had a question for Lauer. The War Refugee Board was anxious to send someone to Budapest to see what could be done to save the remaining Jews of Hungary. The Nazis would never let in an American, so he was looking for someone from a neutral country like Sweden who would agree to undertake a very dangerous mission.

“I am looking for a Swede, someone with good nerves, good language ability. He will have to speak German and some Hungarian,” Olson said. “It’s a big order; you probably don’t know anyone…”

But Lauer did have a candidate. He told Olson about one of his employees, thirty-one-year-old Raoul Wallenberg, a member of the wealthiest family in Sweden. Lauer soon arranged for Olson to meet the aristocrat for dinner, and the three discussed the mission straight through the night.4 Olson was highly impressed by the intensity and enthusiasm exhibited by the young Swede and took him to meet the American minister to Sweden, Herschel V. Johnson. Johnson soon cabled the following message to Washington:

“There is no doubt in my mind as to the sincerity of Wallenberg’s purpose because I have spoken to him myself. I was told by Wallenberg [that] he wants to be able to help effectively save lives and he was not interested in going to Budapest merely to write reports to be sent to the Foreign Office. He himself is half Jewish, incidentally.” (Though Johnson was right about Wallenberg’s intention, he was mistaken about his Jewish ancestry. Neither of Wallenberg’s parents was Jewish, although he is believed to have had a Jewish great-great-grandfather.)

Olson’s plan called for Wallenberg to travel to Budapest as a Swedish diplomat, with the empowerment to issue Swedish passports in order to bring as many Jews as possible to Sweden. 5

raoul wallenberg

Olson then proposed Wallenberg’s nomination to the Swedish government. They had agreed in principle to send an envoy to Budapest with diplomatic cover, and Wallenberg was quite acceptable. It was Wallenberg, however, who laid out a list of conditions, determined that his efforts not be stymied by bureaucracy and red tape.

The Swedes were shocked to hear his demands, which included a free hand to use any efforts he saw fit to fulfill his mission — including bribery and the power to deal directly with the Prime Minister or any other member of the Hungarian government. Perhaps most importantly, he insisted on being authorized to give asylum in buildings belonging to the Legation to persons holding Swedish protective passports.

His demands were so unusual that the matter made its way to the Prime Minister of Sweden, who in turn consulted the aging King Gustav the Fifth. In the end, the Swedish government agreed to all of Wallenberg’s conditions.

The Shutzpasses

When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest at the beginning of July 1944, the Swedish Legation, led by Minister Danielsson, was already distributing “Shutzpasses.” These documents stated that the bearers would move to Sweden after the war and were already under the protection of the Swedish government. However, passes were given out only to those Jews who had relatives in Sweden. One of Wallenberg’s first actions was to redesign these documents, which were legally of dubious value. He printed them in the Swedish colors of blue and yellow and imprinted on each one, in gold, the king’s three royal crowns.6 This did much to enhance the papers’ legitimacy in the eyes of the Hungarian and German officials.

Wallenberg proceeded to form a special section within the Legation known as “Section C.” He recruited 400 Jews, who worked tirelessly in three buildings on this crucial mission. In order to receive one of Wallenberg’s protective passports, a Jew first had to establish a link, however thin, between himself and Sweden. Wallenberg feared that unless he was able to back up the protective passports with some sort of actual connection, the documents would lose their influence.

Jews soon poured into the Central Post Office in Budapest and copied down names and addresses of total strangers listed in the Stockholm phone directory. They wrote letters pleading for a response “proving” a connection to a Swede. The government soon caught on and the phone book disappeared, but not before thousands of Jews owned these life-saving documents.

In the coming months Wallenberg grew more and more desperate to save Jews from being sent to their deaths, and the circle of Jews furnished with “protective” passports constantly widened — far beyond the relatively limited group with some link to Sweden. The total number of Jews in houses under the protection of the Swedish Legation alone gradually rose to somewhere between 15 and 20,000 people.7

The Swiss Legation, led by Karl Lutz, soon began to emulate Wallenberg, issuing its own “Palestinian Passes.” Though these documents had no real validity since the British, and not the Swiss, held the mandate to Eretz Yisrael, the ruse helped save many Jewish lives.
One of Wallenberg’s most ingenious tactics was the concept of “safe houses.” He based his idea on the fact that embassies and consulates are considered “extraterritorial,” meaning that although they may legally stand in the heart of a country’s capital, local authorities have no jurisdiction on persons located within their walls.

Wallenberg purchased large properties in Budapest, which he designated part of the Swedish Legation. He hung up large blue and yellow Swedish flags in front of them and firmly insisted that these properties be considered extraterritorial. The Swiss and other neutral governments soon adopted the idea, and by the end of the war 30,000 Jews had found shelter in these safe houses, two-thirds under Swedish protection.

In the first week of January 1945, the Russians were already in control of much of Budapest, but this did not dissuade the Nazis from their plan to murder all the remaining Jews in the city.

Wallenberg sent a message to the local S.S. chief, General Schmidthuber, saying that if he won’t stop this pogrom, he will personally see to it that Schmidthuber is charged with murder and genocide by the war crimes tribunal.

Schmidthuber paced up and down the hall of his headquarters. Finally, his concern for his own fate won out over his hatred for the Jews.

“There will be no massacre; the pogrom is canceled,” he informed the German and Hungarian troops.

Wallenberg’s reputation had preceded his message, and Schmidthuber had no doubt that somehow the Swede had the capacity to carry out his threat. The ploy was successful. Raoul Wallenberg had saved another 70,000 Jews.

Liberation and Imprisonment

At long last, the Russians managed to drive the Nazis from Budapest. Wallenberg’s principal mission had concluded, but he was in no hurry to leave. He was gravely concerned about the 120,000 Jews who had survived. Together with his associates, he had drafted a plan to help them rebuild their lives and reclaim their properties.

For this, he needed the cooperation of the highest Russian authorities — and so, rather than avoiding the Russian forces, he asked to meet with Marshal Malinovsky, one of the commanders of the Russian Army, whose headquarters was in the city of Debrecen.

Wallenberg may have had an inkling of things to come when he commented to an acquaintance, “I’m going to Debrecen. But I’m not sure whether I’m going as their guest or their prisoner.”

After he bade farewell to his office staff, Wallenberg slipped on the ice in front of the hospital he had set up near his office. As he was being helped up, he saw two elderly Jews, yellow stars still stitched to their clothes, taking their first steps as free men.

“I’m glad to see,” he declared, “that my mission has not been completely in vain.”

Later that day, Russian officers handed Wallenberg over to the dreaded NKVD, the precursor to the KGB — the malevolent Russian secret police. He never made it to Debrecen. Instead he was taken to the infamous Lubyanka Prison in Moscow.

Wallenberg’s mother, now Mrs. Maj Von Dardel (she remarried after her husband’s untimely death), was growing increasingly concerned about her son. She pressured the Russian ambassador in Stockholm, Mme. Kollontai, for information. “Wallenberg is in Russian hands,” she was told. “He is safe and sound.”

Mrs. Von Dardel was not reassured, however, and continued to pressure the Swedish foreign office for information. The Swedish ambassador to Moscow, Staffan Soderblom, was reluctant to antagonize the Russians and preferred not to press the issue. A year and a half passed before Soderblom agreed to raise the issue with Josef Stalin.

The Russian dictator pretended that he had never heard the name Wallenberg, but promised to “look into it.” Then, in an unforgivable blunder, Soderblom offered his unsolicited opinion on the matter, suggesting to Stalin that Wallenberg may “have met with an accident in Budapest,” thus saving the Russians the trouble of concocting an original version of what had occurred.

It took them several months, but eventually the Russians issued a firm statement saying that Wallenberg was not anywhere in the Soviet Union and had probably been killed in Budapest.

In the Russian Gulag

The Swedes remained derelict in their duties toward their native hero, and Wallenberg was left to suffer in a Russian prison cell. After returning from an interrogation session, he once reportedly said to his cellmates, “I think I may have been forgotten by Sweden and the rest of the world. I wonder if any of the people I saved still remember?”

Twelve long years passed, Josef Stalin died, and a new era in Soviet politics began. A number of emigres from the Soviet Union began giving testimony that they had seen Wallenberg in prison. Eventually, the ever-increasing amount of data confirming that he was indeed somewhere in the USSR, compiled primarily by a Jew named Rudolf Philip, put pressure on the Soviets to change their story.

On February 6, 1957, they announced that Raoul Wallenberg had “apparently” been in a Russian prison but had died, “probably as a result of a heart attack” on July 17, 1947. The announcement was carefully worded to allow the Soviets to change their minds at a later date.

Raoul’s mother refused to accept the Soviet claim, insisting that her beloved son was still alive. Until her death in 1979 at the age of 87, Mrs. Von Dardel toiled relentlessly to rescue her son. She bombarded the Swedish foreign office with pleas and even turned to the Swedish king, the U.N., and anyone else she thought might have influence with the Russians. For the most part, the world ignored her cries. Raoul Wallenberg had rescued thousands, but there would be no one to rescue him.

raoul wallenberg
A memorial to Raoul Wallenberg outside the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Stockholm (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

A Continuing Mystery

In the ensuing five decades, the Russians would persist in their claim that Wallenberg died in 1947. In November 2000, Alexander Yakovlev, the head of a Russian presidential commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate, announced that he had indeed died in Lubyanka in 1947, but not from a heart attack; instead, Yakovlev said, he had been executed.

There is, however, a significant amount of eyewitness testimony indicating that Wallenberg was seen in various places in the Russian gulag as late as 1981. Though some of these reports have been discredited and others can be attributed to a case of mistaken identity or miscommunication, enough data remained to strain the credibility of the Russian position.

One example is the testimony of Varvara Larina, a hospital orderly at Vladimir Prison, who was interviewed in December 1993. She told of a prisoner kept in isolation who she guessed had been in Vladimir from the middle of the 1950s until sometime into the ’60s. When she was shown a number of photographs, she chose one of Raoul Wallenberg that had never been published and identified him immediately as the prisoner in question.

A Hungarian named Albert Hollosy stated in 1981 that he had spent some time that year in a KGB-controlled psychiatric clinic in Moscow, where a nurse had pointed out Raoul Wallenberg in a wheelchair.

This is not an unlikely scenario, since it was an accepted communist practice to lock up political prisoners in psychiatric hospitals under false names. A Latvian named Antonas Bogdanas claimed that he met Wallenberg in Norilsk in 1951. Both were being sent to a “special prison,” a psychiatric clinic, in Kazan, where Wallenberg was to be treated for “megalomania after claiming that he had been a Swedish diplomat.”

Seven decades after Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by Russsian authorities and disappeared into the depths of the Russian gulag, new clues emerged about his fate.

The new information emerged with publication of the memoirs of General Ivan Serov, who served as the head of the KGB in the mid- and late-1950s and died in 1990.

Four years ago, during renovations in Serov’s Moscow dacha, his diary was found hidden in the wall of a garage. Serov’s granddaughter recently published selected excerpts, which included several references to Wallenberg.

According to a report in The New York Times, Serov states that he had been instructed during the 1950s by then-Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was eager at the time to repair relations with Sweden, to find out what happened to Wallenberg.

Serov came to the conclusion that Wallenberg had been executed on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1947, and writes that he saw a so-called Certificate (“Akt”) of Cremation for Raoul Wallenberg’s remains, signed by two officials of Lubyanka Prison — Chief Warden Aleksandr Mironov and Lubyanka’s Commandant (chief executioner), Vasilii Blokhin — in 1947.

Serov also reportedly wrote that former State Security Minister Viktor Abakumov, who was arrested in July 1951 and who had been in charge of the Wallenberg case, was allegedly interrogated in 1953 or 1954 by Col. Aleksandr Kozyrev, then acting head of the MVD Department of Investigation of Especially Important Cases. In this interrogation, Abakumov presumably confirmed that Raoul Wallenberg, in fact, had been “liquidated” on direct orders from Stalin.

SOURCES
Who Was Raoul Wallenberg?

Raoul Wallenberg was a scion of the wealthiest family in Sweden. Orphaned of his father at birth, he was raised by his mother, stepfather, and paternal grandfather. His youth gave little if any hint of the incredible heroism he was later to exhibit. Raoul was a very bright, serious, but shy student. He was extremely artistic, but since he was colorblind, he decided to put his talents to use as an architect.

He studied in the U.S. and then, in 1936, he went to Eretz Yisrael, then known as Palestine, where he worked for a while in a bank in Haifa. It was probably there that he first met Jews and heard the tragic tales told by Jewish refugees from Germany who had lost their entire fortunes under the Nuremberg Laws enacted by the Nazi regime. These stories doubtlessly made a deep impression on the young man.

Raoul then returned to Sweden, where he hoped to receive a position in one of his family’s vast holdings. His paternal grandfather had already passed on, and Raoul soon discovered that his cousins, who now ran the Wallenberg financial empire, had little interest in granting his wishes. Eventually he managed to get a job as an assistant for a wealthy Hungarian Jew named Kalman Lauer. It was this job that would serve as a stepping stone for his crucial historic task of saving the surviving Jews of Hungary. 1

 

Joni Moser served as Wallenberg’s errand boy.

“As I spoke German as well as Hungarian, I could pass through barriers and therefore was well equipped to be a messenger. I had been served with a deportation order by the Germans but had escaped, and I used to show the deportation order, embellished with a swastika, to young Arrow Crossmen who could not read German. They only saw the swastika and let me pass. I always took care to avoid the Germans, but they caught me once and it was almost the end for me. But just then Wallenberg happened to come by in his grand diplomatic car. He stopped and asked me to step forward for questioning. ‘Jump in quick,’ he said, and before the astonished soldiers realized what had happened, we were gone. Wallenberg was fantastic! His conduct, his power of organization, his speed in decision and action!”

Moser later told of the day that Wallenberg learned about 800 Jews who were being marched to Mauthausen. He drove with Wallenberg to the march. Wallenberg asked those with Swedish passports to raise their hands. “On his order, I ran between the ranks and told the men to raise their hands, whether they had a passport or not. He then claimed custody of all who had raised their hands — and such was his bearing that none of the Hungarian guards opposed him. The extraordinary thing was the absolutely convincing power of his behavior.”9

Sandor Ardai was sent by the Jewish Underground to chauffeur Wallenberg after his personal driver, Vilmos Langfelder, was arrested by the Arrow Cross. Ardai’s first mission was to drive Wallenberg to Arrow Cross headquarters and wait outside until he managed to rescue Langfelder.

“I thought to myself, he will never do it. How was it possible that the Arrow Cross would release a prisoner just because one man demanded it? But when I saw him come back down the stairs, he had Langfelder with him.”

For a month and a half, Ardai took turns with Vilmos serving as Wallenberg’s driver. Ardai recalled that one day he drove Wallenberg to a train station where a trainload of Jews was about to leave for Auschwitz. Wallenberg forced his way past the S.S. officers.

“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. I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot 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 a caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colors. I do not remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train. The Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded, they let him get away with it!”10

  1. Based primarily on material in the book, Wallenberg: Missing Hero, by Kati Marton.
  2. Ibid. Ms. Marton based her information on an interview with Captain Batizfalvy, conducted by Jeno Levai. An additional source was Per Anger’s book, With Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest.
  3. Based in part on information provided by the noted Holocaust historian, Dr. Rafael Medoff.
  4. Marton biography.
  5. Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, by John Bierman.
  6. Raoul Wallenberg — the Man Who Stopped Death, by Sharon Linea.
  7. Report of the Swedish-Russian Working Group on Raoul Wallenberg.
  8. Marton biography.
  9. Bierman biography.
  10. Ibid.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Hamodia Magazine.