Budapest, Occupied Hungary July 9, 1944

On this date in 1944 Raoul Wallenberg, a 31-year-old bache­lor from a distin­guished Swedish family, arrived in Buda­pest, capital of Nazi-occupied Hungary. With diplo­matic accredi­ta­tion from the Swedish Minis­try of Foreign Affairs (Sweden was a neu­tral nation), Wallen­berg had been secretly recruited by the recently created (Janu­ary 22, 1944) U.S. War Refugee Board to rescue Hun­gar­ian Jews by either trans­porting them out of Hungary or estab­lishing havens of temporary refuge for them inside the country.

Wallenberg arrived in Hungary when depor­ta­tions of Jews were well under way. In just six week in the summer of 1944 over 450,000 Hun­gar­ian Jews were fed into Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers and crema­toria in Nazi-occupied Poland, and only an esti­mated 250,000 remained in the coun­try, chiefly in the capital. Sweden’s special envoy imme­di­ately set about printing and distri­bu­ting thou­sands of certi­fi­cates of protec­tion (Schutz­paesse in German; see example below) to as many of the sur­vi­vors as he could find, thus pre­venting their depor­ta­tion and inevi­table murder. Using WRB and Swedish funds, Wallen­berg rented over 30 buildings, there­by lending the buildings extra­ter­ri­torial status pro­tected by diplo­matic immunity. Roughly 10,000 persons found shelter in these “safe houses.” At its height Wallen­berg’s network employed 350 people, mainly Hun­ga­rians mixed with Swedes, a few diplo­mats from neutral Switzer­land, Por­tu­gal, Spain, and the Vatican, and some anti-fascist Hun­ga­r­ians who liaised with Britain’s secret espi­o­nage organization, the Special Operations Executive.

Wallenberg’s action made him a special target of SS Ober­sturm­bann­fuerher (Lt. Col.) Adolf Eich­mann. Head of the German Gestapo’s Section IVB for Jewish Affairs, Eich­mann had arranged the in­famous Jan­uary 22, 1942, Wann­see Con­fer­ence in a Berlin suburb, at which plans were hatched for the “final solu­tion to the Jewish problem” in the German sphere of influ­ence in Europe. The “final solu­tion” was the Nazis’ euphe­mism for the exter­mi­na­tion of Euro­pean Jewry. The largest popu­lat­ion of Euro­pean Jews left intact were the 725,000 or so living in Hun­gary, 300,000 of whom were refu­gees from Nazi-con­trolled Europe. Eich­mann’s task since crossing into Hun­gary on the heels of eleven Wehr­macht divi­sions on March 19, 1944, was to quickly round them up and deport every last one of them to what he called the “Auschwitz mill.”

The fearless Swede put his life on the line multi­ple times. Eich­mann denounced Wallen­berg’s “abuse of the safe con­ducts” the Swedish “Jew-lover” liberally distrib­uted. One day early in Novem­ber 1944 Wallen­berg inter­ceded with SS guards to save perhaps 200 Jews who held Swedish Schutz­paesse, slipping a few more to people when the guards weren’t looking. Most famously, on Novem­ber 23, 1944, in Eich­mann’s presence Wallen­berg delayed the depar­ture of a train­load of Jews stopped at the Hunga­rian-Austrian border, ignoring the fixed bayonets Arrow Cross (Hunga­rian Nazis) guards pointed at his chest, and handed out “replace­ment” Schutz­paesse to as many people on the plat­form as he could. In short order he had lined up 300 Jews, who clambered into cars and trucks in a convoy he led back to Budapest.

Accorded the honor of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem as well as Israeli citizen­ship in 1986, Wallen­berg—some­times called the “Swedish Schindler”—is widely cele­brated for saving tens of thou­sands of Hun­gary’s Jews. Oddly, Sweden’s govern­ment turned a blind eye and deaf ear after Wallen­berg was reported taken into custody and placed in deten­tion by Soviet intel­li­gence oper­a­tives during the Red Army’s offen­sive against the Wehr­macht in January 1945. Seventy-one years after his disappear­ance, Sweden issued his death certi­fi­cate after repeated requests by Wallenberg’s family.

Holocaust Hero Rauol Wallenberg, 1912–1947?

Passport photo of Rauol Wallenberg, 1944Swedish Schutzpass of Rabbi József Katona

Left: Swedish aristocrat, businessman, diplomat, and humani­tarian Raoul Wallen­berg (1912–1947?) is widely honored for his success­ful efforts to rescue tens of thou­sands to as many as one hun­dred thou­sand Jews from Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists and the Nazis in German-occupied Hun­gary during the later stages of the war. While serving in his offi­cial capa­city as secre­tary to the Royal Swedish Embassy in Buda­pest between July and December 1944, Wallen­berg, who was one-sixteenth Jewish, issued thou­sands of certi­fi­cates of protec­tion (Schutz­paesse), some­times called protec­tive pass­ports. The blue-and-yellow certif­i­cates embossed with the three-crown royal emblem signi­fied that the bearers were under the official protec­tion of the Swedish Embassy and there­fore could not be deported to death camps such as Auschwitz. (The Swiss embassy, too, had its own ver­sion of the Schutz­pass). At the height of the Soviet siege of Budapest on Janu­ary 17, 1945, Wallen­berg dis­appeared during a visit to Red Army head­quarters. He was later reported to have died in Moscow’s Luby­anka prison on July 17, 1947, while impri­soned by the Soviet secret police. The motives behind Wallen­berg’s arrest, deten­tion, and prob­a­ble exe­cu­tion, along with ques­tions sur­rounding his ties to the U.S. Office of Stra­te­gic Ser­vices (a war­time intel­li­gence agency of the United States) and Hungary’s anti-fascist opposition, remain murky.

Right: Swedish Schutzpass issued to Rabbi József (Joseph) Katona, the Chief Rabbi of the Dohány Street Syna­gogue (Great Syna­gogue), dated Buda­pest, Hun­gary, Septem­ber 15, 1944. Rabbi Katona sur­vived the war along with more than 100,000 Hun­garian Jews—mostly owing to the efforts of Wallen­berg, his diplo­matic col­leagues, and hundreds of “protected Jews,” who together estab­lished sanc­tu­aries, hos­pi­tals staffed by dozens of volun­teer nurses and doctors, schools, nurs­eries, orphan­ages, and soup kitchens in a so-called “inter­national ghetto” for Jews holding Swedish and other protective passes and forged documents.

Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park, Dohány Street Synagogue, BudapestRaoul Wallenberg Memorial, Wallenberg St., Tel Aviv

Left: Hungary named Wallenberg an honorary citizen in 2003. Several Hun­garian sites honor him, including this one in the Raoul Wallen­berg Memo­rial Park at the Dohány Street Syna­gogue in the center of Buda­pest. A joint second­ary and voca­tional school located several miles from the Dohány Street Syna­gogue is named after him.

Right: The statue of Raoul Wallenberg on Wallenberg St., Tel Aviv, Israel, is iden­ti­cal to the one in Buda­pest. At least five streets in Israel are named after Wallen­berg. Israel granted Wallen­berg honorary citizen­ship in 1986 and honored him, as it did German indus­tri­alist Oskar Schindler, at the Yad Vashem memo­rial in Jeru­salem as one of the Right­eous Among the Nations, a desig­na­tion that recog­nizes Gen­tiles who saved Jews during the Holo­caust (Hebrew, Shoah, or catas­trophe). The U.S. Congress made Wallen­berg an Honorary Citizen of the United States in 1981, the second person after Winston Chur­chill to be so honored. The portion of the street on which the U.S. Holo­caust Memorial Museum is located was renamed in his honor.

Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg