The FIR honors with this newsletter the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, born 110 years ago, who made an important contribution to the rescue of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust in World War II. He died in July 1947, according to sources so far.
Born near Stockholm on August 4, 1912, he worked for the Central European Trading Company after completing his education in the late 1930s. On behalf of this Jewish company, he also traveled as a non-Jew to parts of Europe occupied by or collaborating with Nazi Germany. When Hungary was occupied in the spring of 1944, because of his good contacts, he went to Budapest on July 9, 1944, as the first secretary of the Swedish embassy, to rescue a group of Budapest Jews with the assistance of the U.S. War Refugee Board. The Swedish government had listed 800 Hungarian Jews with ties to Sweden, whose admission Sweden guaranteed.
Wallenberg issued so-called Swedish protection passports. These documents identified the holders as Swedish citizens awaiting their safe repatriation. Although the papers had no binding significance under international law, they were mostly recognized by Hungarian authorities and German services. In preparation for departure, Wallenberg placed people in “rescue homes” near the Great Synagogue in Budapest, marked as “Swedish Library” or “Swedish Research Institute” with Swedish flags. There was an infirmary in each house, so he saved many from death. To the Jews in the Budapest ghetto itself, Wallenberg could only help by delivering food. The following episode shows how consistent he was:
When Adolf Eichmann had a large number of Jews driven on death marches toward the German border in November 1944, Wallenberg distributed food and asked for holders of Swedish protection passports. Through his determined demeanor and by checking them off on imaginary lists, he gave the impression that these people were Swedish citizens. In this way, Wallenberg succeeded in returning about 200 of the deportees to Budapest.
In the last weeks before the liberation of Budapest by the Red Army in mid-February 1945, Hungarian Arrow Crossers murdered between 10,000 and 20,000 more ghetto residents. About 70,000 Jews survived in the Budapest ghetto. Wallenberg, in contact with the Wehrmacht, is said to have played an important role in ensuring that the ghetto was not destroyed.
After the liberation of Budapest by the Red Army, Wallenberg wanted to continue to help the Jewish people, but for reasons that have not yet been definitively clarified, he ended up in Soviet custody under suspicion of espionage. Whether it was Wallenberg’s contacts with the American War Refugee Board or other accusations is unclear. Significantly, the U.S. government also refused to say anything about whether Wallenberg had worked as a spy.
Raoul Wallenberg, who had rendered outstanding services as a rescuer of Hungarian Jews, was now caught in the mills of the Cold War. In 1945, he was transferred to Moscow for interrogation, where, according to the Soviet government, he probably succumbed to a heart attack during an interrogation on July 17, 1947. In view of many ambiguities about the circumstances of his death, there are countless speculations about his death and the time of death, which, however, cannot be conclusively substantiated either by witnesses or by documents. On February 6, 1957, then-Foreign Minister Gromyko informed in a diplomatic note about the time and circumstances of death mentioned here.
After his death there were numerous honors for Raoul Wallenberg, including the highest Swedish award (for civilians) “Illis quorum meruere labores” (1952) and from the Yad Vashem memorial the honor as “Righteous Among the Nations” (1966). The Hungarian capital, Budapest, posthumously named him an honorary citizen.