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Raoul Wallenberg, Life and Work

Personal data

Wallenberg was born in Stockholm on August 4 1912, three months after his father's death. He belonged to one of the best-known and richest families in Sweden, a family of bankers, industrialists and politicians. His grandfather saw to it that he was given a first-class education, and after school and military service, he spent a number of years at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the U.S. In 1935 he returned to Sweden with a bachelors degree in Science of Architecture. (Original documents written and drawn by Wallenberg during the course of his studies are kept at the Bentley Library , University of Michigan.) After practicing at a Swedish business firm in Cape Town, South Africa, and at a Dutch bank in Haifa (today's Israel), he again went back to Sweden and became the joint owner and international director of the Mid-European Trading Company, a business which dealt with the import and export of food. The director of the company was Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew living in Sweden. Wallenberg was fluent in English, German and French and traveled extensively in Europe, including Hungary, even after the war had broken out.

Hungary - the last chapter of the Holocaust

Hungary had joined Germany in the war in 1941. But after Germany had lost the battle of Stalingrad, Hungary became a reluctant ally and initiated secret negotiations with the Anglo-Saxon powers. The Germans, who knew about these covert initiatives, decided to occupy the country in order to prevent Hungary's desertion from the German camp. Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944. By then, the number of Jews in Hungary was more than 700 000. On April 16 1944 the deportations of the Jews began, and within a couple of months several hundred thousand had been transported to concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz, Poland, and murdered. (In 2001, the Ministry of Education in Hungary chose April 16 as the official date of commemoration of the Holocaust.)

The deportations, which were organized by Adolf Eichmann (with the help of the Hungarian gendarmerie), began in the countryside. The Jews in Budapest turned desperately to the embassies of neutral countries, among them Sweden. The embassies started to issue protective documents to those who had some kind of connection with those countries.

The Wallenberg mission

In January 1944 Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American President, decided to establish the War Refugee Board (WRB), in order to fight the Nazi persecution in Europe. Governments and organizations were approached for assistance, aid and information about the situation of the refugees in occupied countries, and to organize rescue operations. The project to save the Hungarians Jews was only one of many such operations, but it was to be the most spectacular one. The World Jewish Congress contacted Marcus Ehrenpreis, then Chief Rabbi in Stockholm, for the right person to organize the rescue campaign for Hungarian Jews. Raoul Wallenberg's name was suggested by Kálmán Lauer, Wallenberg's business partner.

The American ambassador to Sweden, and Iver Olsen, the Sweden representative not only for the WRB, but also for the Office for Strategic Services (OSS), i.e. the predecessor of the CIA, made sure that Wallenberg was a suitable candidate. The Foreign Office agreed to assign Wallenberg as First Secretary to the Swedish Legation in Budapest. A diplomatic passport was issued for him, and his mission was to give assistance to Jews in Hungary. However, WRB and JOINT (Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), not the Foreign Office, were to give him instructions, as well as financial resources through a Swedish bank (the bank which was owned by the Wallenberg family at the time). The instructions were not detailed, but rather a general framework. Wallenberg was not allowed to act openly in the name of WRB, but if necessary, he could communicate with the WRB office in Stockholm.

Vilmos Böhm, a Hungarian Social Democrat, met Wallenberg in Stockholm and informed him about reliable contacts in Budapest. (Böhm was appointed the first Hungarian ambassador to Sweden after the war.)

At the beginning of the summer of 1944 the Foreign Office informed its embassy in Hungary that Wallenberg was to "monitor the developments of the Jewish question and report to Stockholm" and suggest how to plan for the time following the end of the war. He was to report directly to the envoy.

Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9 1944. (For a number of years since the political changes in Hungary, this day has been commemorated at one of the Wallenberg memorials erected in Budapest.) By then, most Budapest Jews had not yet been affected by the deportations. Not only some embassies, but also the Red Cross tried to help them by issuing protective documents.

Raoul Wallenberg immediately set up a special unit within the legation and started to organize the rescue operations. He was assisted by a voluntary workforce, mostly Jews, and by end of the year they were already around 300 people involved. From the start he invented the ‘protection passports' as complementary to the already existing provisional passes, visas, and Red Cross protective documents. The number of Jews to whom protection passports were issued increased rapidly, far beyond those who had even the remotest connection to Sweden. As many as 15-20 000 Jews were settled in houses which were protected by the embassy (so called protected houses), 34 addresses in all. A total of 50 000 Jews in Hungary were saved by foreign embassies and the International Red Cross, approximately half of these by Wallenberg himself.

As the situation gradually got worse, and especially after the Arrow Cross party, with the help of the Germans, had taken over political power by the middle of October, Wallenberg had to negotiate directly with Eichmann and the Nazis; it is known that he had to use bribes to achieve his goals.

The effort to rescue the Jews was a fight against time. In November 1944 the deportations were accelerating. Germany needed slave labourers for the war industries, and more Jews were constantly being sent off. An admiring eyewitness report describes Wallenberg: "/He/ was now the only remaining hope for the persecuted Jews. Like a rescuing angel he often appeared at the very last moment. Just when a deportation train was about to start… he used to arrive at the station with a written (false or genuine) permission from the Germans to set free all Jews with Swedish protection passports. If the Jews had already been brought out of the city, he hurried after them and brought back as many as he could to Budapest on hastily procured trucks. -- Uncountable were those Jews who during the death march toward Vienna had given up all hope, then suddenly received from one of Wallenberg's flying squadrons a Swedish protection document. … More than once, he managed through his good connections to make the authorities … revoke their decisions or at least give them a more lenient form."(From "The Book that Disappeared: What happened in Budapest."by Lars G. Berg). There is also this report: "On Christmas Eve Arrow-cross people gathered some people from the Swedish protected houses and put them in a train at the Jozsefváros Railway Station -- this was the last deportation train. Wallenberg manages to get these people off the train after it had already left."(From "Jewish Budapest".)

Arrest and imprisonment

During the winter of 1944-45, the Russians advanced, and fierce and bloody battles between German and Russian troops took place inside Budapest. Wallenberg felt it too risky to stay in the capital and decided, with the consent of the Swedish Legation, to contact the Russians directly. He prepared to leave for the town of Debrecen, the Red Army Headquarters. The last time he is reported to have been seen in Budapest was on January 16 1945 - at the corner of Aréna út (now Dozsa G ö yrgy út) and Benzcúr utca.

It is known that Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians on January 19 and then sent to Moscow, where he was imprisoned. He was first put in the Lubjanka prison and was later transferred to Lefortovo, and then, in the spring of 1947, sent back to Lubjanka. Archival documents verify that he was interrogated on at least five occasions. It has not been possible to establish with certainty why he was taken prisoner -- he had himself told one of his fellow-prisoners that he had been called a political prisoner. If so, this meant that, according to practice, he was not to be tried in court. One of many theories put forward is that the Russians suspected that he was an American spy.

The Russians later claimed that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947. However, the last documented interrogation with him took place in March 1947. After that there is no written evidence on his whereabouts.

PDF fileOne fellow-prisoner testified that "Raoul Wallenberg in March/April 1945 was brought into /his cell/. Wallenberg declared that he had come to Moscow to negotiate with the Soviet authorities about, among other things, the Soviet attacks on the buildings of the Swedish Legation as well as to arrange protection for the Jews. -- Raoul Wallenberg saw his arrest as a inexplicable mistake. They shared cells during six to eight weeks, and Raoul Wallenberg was then convinced that the mistake would be sorted out and the planned negotiations could begin. No interrogation took place during this time. Raoul Wallenberg was in very good shape and used to exercise regularly, he often sang." He taught English to his fellow-prisoner and got Russian lessons in return. (From "Raoul Wallenberg. Report from the Swedish-Russian Working Group.)

Scanned selection (PDF 400 KB, 5 pages) contains:
Appendix 10: Prison registration card from the Lubjanka prison for Raoul Wallenberg;
Appendix 4: List of documents in Russian archives and relevant to the Wallenberg case;
Appendix 7: Warrant of arrest for Raoul Wallenberg;
Appendix 9: Message to Bulganin about Wallenberg.

Objects in the archive

In 1989 the wooden shelves in the archival repository of the KGB, housed in the same building as the Lubjanka prison, were replaced by metal ones. After an investigation of the KGB files, the staff went through a storage-room containing rubbish, office material and so on, all in a mess. From the top shelf a parcel fell down. If it had not been for a cigarette case which dropped to the floor, nobody would have paid any attention to it. The parcel had been sealed with glue. When the contents were examined, the archivist found Raoul Wallenberg's diplomatic passport, his car registration certificate, his prison file card, his golden cigarette case, some foreign currency and his pocket agenda. This is how, according to the Russians, the remaining belongings of Raoul Wallenberg turned up.


Raoul Wallenberg, Life and Work

  • Personal data
  • Hungary - the last chapter of the Holocaust
  • The Wallenberg mission
  • Arrest and imprisonment
  • Objects in the archive

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