I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
During the first few years of the Second World War, Hungary was one of the safer places for European Jews. From the late 1930s, the Hungarian government cosied up to Adolf Hitler. As the Nazis conquered and occupied countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary was handed parcels of territory as a reward for playing nice with the Fuehrer.
The two countries joined together to attack the Soviet Union in 1943, a military adventure that ended in disaster. At this point, the Hungarian government decided it was prudent to switch sides and tried to negotiate peace with the Allies. Hitler found out about Hungary’s wavering allegiance and ordered the occupation of the country in March 1944.
Frank Vajda, a Jew, was eight years old at the time and he watched the German tanks rumbling into Budapest. In 2015, he told the BBC “They came roaring by and I remember the people being ecstatic ... all giving the Hitler salute and screaming ... I was horrified.”
The hideous fate that had befallen Jews in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere was now visited upon those who lived in Hungary.
Hungary under Nazi Occupation
When Hitler’s storm troopers entered Hungary there were between 700,000 and 725,000 Jews living in the country (some estimates say 800,000). They had a good idea of what their fate was going to be.
In May 1944, two men had escaped from the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and alerted the Western world to the scale of Hitler’s “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” This was the first eyewitness account of the horrors of the gas chambers.
Jews in Hungary were already being rounded up, herded into cattle trucks and shipped off to almost certain death. They began seeking help from neutral countries, among them Sweden.
A young diplomat, Per Anger, at the Swedish legation in Budapest began issuing documents giving Jews protection as Swedish citizens. However, the government in Stockholm realized their tiny office in the Hungarian capital was going to be swamped with applications.
A young businessman, named Raoul Wallenberg, who had connections in Hungary was sent to organize the rescue of Jews. The Jewish Virtual Library describes him as “a quick thinker, energetic, brave and compassionate.”
Wallenberg in Budapest
Appointed First Secretary of the Swedish legation, Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944. Under the direction of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazis had already sent 148 trainloads of Jews to the death camps; 400,000 people were destined never to see their homes again. Others were marched in extremely harsh conditions to their doom; many died on the way.
Wallenberg immediately set about his work and threw the diplomatic protocol handbook out of the window. This was not a time to shuffle paper and engage in ambassadorial niceties. Wallenberg started using bribes and threats of extortion to get what he wanted out of German officials.
He opened an office close to the biggest Jewish ghetto in Budapest and hired 400 people, mostly Jews, to run it. He created what were called “schutz passes” that were a sort of pseudo passport. The Swedes managed to persuade the Germans that the passes gave people the protection of the Swedish government although they carried no legal weight at all.
Wallenberg opened many safe houses and flew the Swedish flag from them giving them status as Swedish embassy annexes. Within their walls, he sheltered Jews from the Nazis. He set up a spy network that operated within groups of Hungarian fascists and the Budapest police.
On one occasion, the Nazis had rounded up some Jews and taken them to the banks of the Danube. The usual practice was to shoot the prisoners and let the river carry the bodies away. Wallenberg was alerted, rushed to the scene, and confronted the soldiers. He said they could not shoot the people because they had Swedish passports.
The wife of one of the prisoners, Marianne Balshone, told the BBC in 2015 that “Believe it or not, this Raoul Wallenberg had such power and charisma and God knows what gave him the strength - but they let everybody go and my husband returned.”
Wallenberg went to the railway yards and gave food, clothing, and schutz passes to any of the poor wretches he could reach. Then, according to Biography.com “He … ordered those with the passports to leave the train and come with him. Hundreds did, and the Nazi officials just stood there dumbfounded.” Perhaps, they realized the end was near for their repulsive plan and wanted future prosecutors to remember their "kindness."
By January 1945, Soviet troops entered Budapest and the deportations ended. There were about 120,000 Jews still living in city’s ghettos. There were almost none left alive outside the capital.
On January 17, 1945 Raoul Wallenberg went to meet the Soviet Marshal Rodion Malinovsky. He told friends he didn’t know if he had been invited as a guest or a prisoner. It turned out to be the latter and he was never seen in the West again.
What happened to him is shrouded in mystery.
One story has him murdered on his way to seeing Malinovsky. Then, in 1957, Soviet foreign minister Andrey Gromyko said a document had been found that showed Wallenberg had died of a heart attack in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison in July 1947.
Later, there were several unconfirmed sightings of Wallenberg, even into the 1980s.
There have been several investigations into his disappearance but they have all come up empty handed. Nobody knows why the Soviets arrested him or why they murdered him (nobody buys the claim that he died of natural causes).
Raoul Wallenberg has been named an honourary citizen of the United States (1981), of Canada (1985), and of Israel (1986). Honourary citizenship is rarely conferred; in the U.S. it has happened eight times, in Canada six.
The Swedish government notes that “In Jerusalem there is a memorial, Yad Vashem, dedicated to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II. A street named ‘Avenue of the Righteous’ runs through the area, bordered by 600 trees planted to honour the memory of non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi executioners. One of these trees bears the name of Raoul Wallenberg.”
The University of Michigan awards the Wallenberg Medal to people who display an outstanding commitment to humanitarianism in defence of oppressed people. One of the recipients is Sir Nicholas Winton, a British humanitarian who rescued 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia just prior to the Second World War.
The Lubyanka Prison, in which Raoul Wallenberg probably died, was run by the Soviet Union's main security organization the KGB. From 1975 to 1991, Russia's President Vladimir Putin was a career officer in the KGB.
- “Raoul Wallenberg.” David Metzler, Jewish Virtual Library, undated
- “Raoul Wallenberg Biography.” Biography.com, March 15, 2016.
- “The Swedish Schindler who Disappeared.” Rob Brown, BBC World Service, February 1, 2015.
- “Raoul Wallenberg – a Man who Made a Difference.” Government of Sweden, December 11, 2015.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor