Raoul Wallenberg

Rescuer of 30,000 to 100,000 Hungarian Jews During the Holocaust

A picture of rescuer Raoul Wallenberg.
Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. (circa 1937). (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Who Was Raoul Wallenberg?

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who is credited with saving an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. While on assignment in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the final year of World War II, Wallenberg issued certificates of protection, both legal and forged, to Hungarian Jews, preventing their deportation and thus saving their lives. 

Although hailed a hero, the end of Wallenberg’s life is shrouded in mystery.

He was last seen alive being put into a Soviet military vehicle on January 17, 1945.  The Soviets claim that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in 1947; many don’t believe that.

Background on Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg was born on August 4, 1912, in Stockholm, Sweden into a wealthy family that was well-established in the world of banking.  His father, after whom he was named, was a Swedish Naval Officer who died of cancer three months before he was born.  His mother, Maj Wising Wallenberg, raised her first-born son with the assistance of her mother, who was also newly widowed, until Maj remarried in 1918.  Maj later had another son and daughter with her new husband, Fredrik von Dardel, who treated Raoul as if he were his own son.

Following high school, Raoul Wallenberg served a compulsory term in the Swedish military.  His wealthy grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg, hoped that Raoul would follow the lead of many family members and pursue a career in banking; however, Raoul was more interested in the study of the Russian language and the field of architecture.

  He spent one year furthering his study of these areas in Paris at the beneficence of Gustav and then in 1931, he enrolled at the University of Michigan in the United States, where he spent the next three and a half years.  Wallenberg graduated with honors in 1935 and returned to Sweden.

Pre-War Professional Career

Although Wallenberg had hoped to work as an architect in Sweden, job opportunities for an American-trained designer were scarce.

  Wallenberg utilized his family contacts to obtain employment with a construction goods firm in South Africa. After six months in Cape Town, South Africa, he decided to try a stint with a banking firm in Haifa, in British-occupied Palestine.  He did not remain there long and soon returned to Sweden to work for the Central European Trading Company, a Jewish-owned, import-export business.

It would be this career move that would place Wallenberg in a position to enter the ranks of diplomatic service.  The company’s owner, Kálmán Lauer, a Jew of Hungarian descent, recognized that the increasing influence of Nazi Germany and its anti-Jewish policies would impact his ability to conduct business throughout Europe.  Lauer needed someone not Jewish to help him, so he hired Wallenberg.

By 1941, Wallenberg became a joint-owner of the firm and the company’s chief representative to Lauer’s homeland, Hungary -- an area that was no longer safe for Lauer due to growing antisemitism and the spread of the Second World War.  It was during these business travels that Wallenberg first witnessed the precarious situation of the Jews of Hungary, including many members of Lauer’s family who had remained behind.

The Situation in Hungary

During the 1930s, Miklós Horthy’s conservative regime in Hungary held many of the same ideals as the Nazi Party.  A ban on liberal political parties was soon followed by the enactment of antisemitic laws in 1938 that closely resembled the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany.  Conditions that were unfavorable to the Jewish population of Hungary increased in 1940 when the country officially joined the Axis Powers.  Hungary benefited greatly from Adolf Hitler’s protection and the economic revival that occurred with German support.  In June 1941, Hungary offered military support to Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

The relationship between Horthy and Hitler was tenuous at best.  Horthy needed the support and protection of Nazi Germany, but did not wish to utilize extensive Hungarian resources to impart the Final Solution on Hungarian Jews.

  To show solidarity for the Nazi leader’s ideals, Horthy acquiesced to the deportation on non-Hungarian Jews in August 1941.  The vast majority of these deportees were massacred by the Einsatzgruppen.

Following the Battle of Stalingrad, Horthy recognized that the tide of the war was turning against Germany.  Hitler sensed his growing discontent and pressured Horthy to show allegiance by deporting the 800,000 Jews who remained in Hungary.  Horthy only deported 10,000 Jews in the Spring of 1943 and began to secretly explore peace negotiations with the Allied Powers later that year.

On March 19, 1944, Hitler’s trust in Horthy nearly dissolved and with the Red Army closing in, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht to invade Hungary.  Horthy was told he could remain in office only if he would appoint a government that was viewed as entirely cooperative by the Nazi regime.  Horthy decided to place General Döme Sztójay in the position of prime minister, in hopes that Sztójay would not pursue further deportations of the Hungarian Jews.

Horthy’s worst fears were soon realized when Sztójay began to put the machinery of deportation into place.  The first deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz occurred on May 15, 1944; it is estimated that over 400,000 Hungarian Jews were sent there between May and July 1944.  The rate of deportation was so high that records in Auschwitz-Birkenau note that one in three people killed in the death camp during this period were of Hungarian-Jewish descent.

Wallenberg Is Recruited

In January 1944, after being pressured by the Jewish community and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt organized the War Refugee Board (WRB) to assist in the rescue of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe.  A member of the WRB, Iver C. Olsen, was sent to Stockholm to explore the possibility of furthering contact with the Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Hungary and to find an individual to lead relief efforts in Budapest. 

After contact with Lauer, Olsen arranged a meeting with Wallenberg and was impressed by his knowledge of the Hungarian Jewish community.

  After a brief period of negotiations with the Swedish government regarding Wallenberg’s status as a diplomat, Wallenberg traveled to Budapest, arriving on July 9, 1944.

Horthy Resumes Power, Temporarily

In August 1944, Horthy took advantage of the distraction provided by Germany’s struggles on both fronts to remove Sztójay from power and replace him with Géza Lakatos.  The new government once again halted the deportation of Jews from Hungary.  They also furthered peace negotiations with the Allies and, in October 1944, signed an armistice agreement with the Soviet Union.

The Nazi regime was prepared for this development and acted swiftly; they captured Horthy and forced him to abdicate his position upon the threat of his son’s life.  Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Fascist Arrow Cross Party, was named as Horthy’s successor.  Szálasi soon resumed actions against the Jews of Hungary.  Wallenberg’s actions now became more critical than ever. 

Wallenberg Takes Action

In the Fall of 1944, 200,000 Jews remained in Budapest.  Wallenberg decided that the best way to circumvent their deportation was to bring them under the protection of a foreign government, as Hungary did not wish to further affect their standing on the world stage. 

To achieve this goal, Wallenberg obtained permission from the Swedish government to issue “certificates of protection” that made nearly 20,000 Jews the legal responsibility of the Swedish government and afforded them Swedish passports. 

Wallenberg also enlisted the aid of numerous other individuals and organizations to follow suit, including Carl Lutz, the Consul General of Switzerland in Hungary, and Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian friend and business associate who agreed to pose as a Spanish diplomat. 

Lutz aided the Jews of Budapest by issuing over 50,000 certificates of emigration to Palestine on behalf of the Swiss government, which prevented the deportation of these individuals based on their potential status as emigrants.  Perlasca successfully fooled the Hungarians into believing that he legitimately represented the interests of Spain.  He then issued forged certificates of protection from Spain and other neutral countries to save the lives of additional Jews.

These real and forged documents served a vital role in protecting the Jews remaining in Budapest; however, the work of Wallenberg and his colleagues did not end there.  Utilizing the funds provided by the WRB and other supporting organizations, the group created a de facto ghetto for the Jews in Budapest and provided them with essentials such as housing, medical care, and food.  This afforded the Jews additional protection from deportation because the Hungarian government could not argue that they were supporting these individuals.

Wallenberg is said to have worked around the clock, sleeping only 3-4 hours each night because he was so driven to save as many as possible. He also rented additional homes within Budapest to function as “safe houses.”  These locations were private homes that flew the Swedish flag and were therefore left alone by the Hungarian officials.  Jews who lacked protective documents were stashed in these homes. Nearly 15,000 were saved by these measures.

Survivor accounts show that Wallenberg took other heroic measures to save Jews in Hungary.  Shortly after the takeover in October 1944, the Arrow Cross government sanctioned executions of Jews along the banks of the Danube.  Many of the victims were merely injured by the gunshots but perished by drowning in the icy waters. Upon hearing of these measures, Wallenberg rounded up several colleagues and braved the freezing waters to successfully save dozens of women and children.

Wallenberg is also said to have pulled Jews directly from cattle cars filled with deportees and out of groups being marched on foot to concentration camps.  In each case, he claimed that the deportees had already been afforded protection of the Swedish government and therefore could not be legally deported.

Wallenberg is also credited with thwarting a planned massacre of Hungarian Jews in January 1945.  Through his network, Wallenberg received word that Adolf Eichmann had ordered the round-up of Jews in the largest section of the Budapest ghetto.  He knew that the German military would be asked to carry out this round-up; thus, Wallenberg used his alliances to threaten post-war action against the chief German general in Hungary, August Schmidthuber.  Wallenberg sent word through an ally in the Arrow Cross that after the war, Wallenberg would insist that Schmidthuber be put on trial for this massacre.  As a result, the action was called off and Wallenberg was once again successful in saving countless lives.

Wallenberg Goes Missing

Despite his many heroic actions, the fate of Raoul Wallenberg is still clouded in mystery.  In mid-January 1945, Soviet forces entered the city of Budapest.  The last known sighting of 32-year-old Wallenberg was on January 17, 1945 in the company of a Russian military official at one of the safe houses in the city.

Wallenberg allegedly told those residing in the house that he did not know at that point if he was being asked to aid the Russians or if he was being held as an enemy. He arrived and departed from the house in the company of his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, who was also never seen again.

Theories About Wallenberg’s Disappearance

Various theories abound regarding Wallenberg’s detention, but the most commonly accepted answer is that the Soviets believed Wallenberg to be an American spy. His connections with the WRB and Iver Olsen, who was an American agent for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), all pointed to very close connection with the United States.  Wallenberg’s family believed that the Soviets viewed Wallenberg’s efforts for the Jewish community to be a mere cover for a larger American spying operation.

In the immediate post-war period, the Swedish government and Wallenberg’s family pressured Soviet officials for information regarding his status.  After 12 years of silence, the Soviet government released an official statement in 1957 stating that Wallenberg died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947.  Officials and the family were skeptical of this announcement because of Wallenberg’s robust health prior to his detention.

Until the end of their lives in 1979, Fredrik and Maj von Dardel (Wallenberg’s step-father and mother) continued to pressure the Soviet and international community for answers.  Following their death, their son and Wallenberg’s half-brother, Guy von Dardel, continued the quest until his death in 2009.  Wallenberg’s half-sister, Nina Lagergren, continues the quest today.

It has been hoped that the fall of the Soviet Union would enable additional records to come to light regarding Wallenberg’s fate.  In 2009, documentation surfaced that showed that both Wallenberg and Langfelder were interrogated on July 23, 1947; six days after Wallenberg’s originally stated death date.

Accounts by eye-witnesses are said to place Wallenberg in a Soviet Gulag in the 1950s.  Despite this evidence, the Russian government continues to guard files related to Wallenberg and his exact fate remains unknown.

Soviet records indicate that Langfelder died on March 2, 1948, but this report is also viewed with skepticism.

Wallenberg’s Legacy

Recognition of Wallenberg’s efforts bloomed slowly in the immediate post-war years.  In 1963, Raoul Wallenberg was officially recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel.  The honor was bestowed upon his mother, who firmly believed that her son would one day return to accept the honor in person.  Because of her steadfast belief, Yad Vashem did not plant the traditional tree in Wallenberg’s honor until her death in 1979.

Wallenberg has also been officially recognized for his heroism by the US Congress, an effort led by the late Tom Lantos, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and former US Congressman from California.  Lantos credits Wallenberg with saving his life and in 1981, requested that Wallenberg be made an honorary US citizen.  This was only the second time this honor was awarded; the previous recipient being Winston Churchill

Six years later, Raoul Wallenberg also received honorary citizenship in Israel. In 1993, when the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was constructed, the District of Columbia formally renamed a section of 15th Street that borders the Museum as Raoul Wallenberg Place.