Worn and weary, balding, with sad eyes, Raoul Wallenberg looked much older than his 31 years of age when in 1944 he was assigned the responsibility of saving Jews in Hungary. The assignment came by way of the War Refugee Board, an American organization formed that same year with the goal of saving Jews from persecution by the Nazis.
Raoul, who had some Jewish lineage but was not considered Jewish, was born in Sweden to a prominent family of bankers, diplomats, and politicians. He was expected to follow in the footsteps of his family, but he decided to become an architect.
He went to study architecture in America, at the University of Michigan, after ruling out Ivy League schools for being too snobbish. A classmate recalled that at Michigan, “Wallenberg wouldn’t join a fraternity because ‘it would isolate him from a certain strata of students.’”
During his time in college, Raoul worked odd jobs despite his family’s wealth, and hitchhiked across the US, Canada, and Mexico during holidays. He continued hitchhiking even after getting robbed and thrown into a ditch by four men who offered him a lift. In a letter to his grandfather, Raoul wrote of his love of hitchhiking, “When you travel like a hobo, everything’s different. You have to be on the alert the whole time. You’re in close contact with new people every day. Hitchhiking gives you training in diplomacy and tact.”
Raoul finished the University of Michigan with honors, even winning a medal for his scholastic achievements. Unable to find architecture work in Sweden after graduation, Raoul briefly lived in South Africa, soon moving to Palestine for a banking apprenticeship. It was in Palestine that Raoul first encountered Jewish refugees from Germany. The refugees made a strong impact on Raoul and he even kept in touch with some Jewish families who later settled in Sweden.
Upon returning to Sweden, Raoul went into the import/export business with a man of Hungarian Jewish decent. Once it became harder and harder for his partner to travel to Hungary due to his being Jewish, Raoul started making the trips himself. He traveled frequently to Budapest, learned Hungarian in addition to his already knowing French, English, German, and Russian, and ultimately went on to head the international arm of the business, soon becoming a joint owner of the company.
In 1944 Germany occupied Hungary. At the time of the occupation, Hungary had close to 700,000 Jewish citizens. By the time Raoul arrived in Hungary on his mission of rescue, over 400,000 of them had been shipped off to Auschwitz to be killed.
Raoul wasted no time. He did everything he could think of to save Jews. He bribed, extorted, bluffed, and threatened to achieve his aims of saving as many people as possible.
With a fellow Swedish diplomat he created official looking protective passes to give out to Jews granting them Swedish citizenship and making them exempt from wearing the yellow badge that Nazis required them to wear. Sandor Ardai, one of Raoul’s drivers, recalled a time when Raoul came upon a train full of Jews about to depart to Auschwitz,
“He climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross [the Hungarian Nazi party] men began shooting and shouting at him to go away. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them. I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot hit him, which would have been impossible otherwise. I think this is what they did because they were so impressed by his courage. After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours. I don’t remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train, and the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it!”
In total Raoul gave out tens of thousands of such protective passes, but the German government eventually caught on to the ruse and ruled the passes invalid. When Raoul heard of this, he called on Baroness Elisabeth Kemeny, the wife of the Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs in Budapest, for help,
‘’Raoul implored me to help. He was desperate. I talked to my husband and said he must do something. He told me ‘I can’t fight the whole cabinet.’ But after midnight word came that 9,000 passes would be honored. I can still remember Raoul’s elation, his happiness.’’ The baroness had finally persuaded her husband to help by threatening to leave him if he didn’t.
When the Germans abandoned the use of trains to transport Jewish prisoners, instead forming 125 mile death marches toward Auschwitz, Raoul began visiting stopping areas to save people.
“‘You there!’ The Swede pointed to an astonished man, waiting for his turn to be handed over to the executioner. ‘Give me your Swedish passport and get in that line,’ he barked. ‘And you, get behind him. I know I issued you a passport.’ Wallenberg continued, moving fast, talking loud, hoping the authority in his voice would somewhat rub off on these defeated people…
“The Jews finally caught on. They started groping in pockets for bits of identification. A driver’s license or birth certificate seemed to do the trick. The Swede was grabbing them so fast; the Nazis, who couldn’t read Hungarian anyway, didn’t seem to be checking. Faster, Wallenberg’s eyes urged them, faster, before the game is up. In minutes he had several hundred people in his convoy. International Red Cross trucks, there at Wallenberg’s behest, arrived and the Jews clambered on…”
In one of his final acts of rescue, Raoul intimidated the supreme commander of German forces in Hungary, Major-General Gerhard Schmidthuber, into not blowing up a Jewish ghetto housing 70,000 people. As the war was coming to an end and there was not enough time to send the remaining Jews to Auschwitz, Adolf Eichmann, a major organizer of the Holocaust, ordered the slaughter of all Hungarian Jews in one mass execution. When Raoul found out about this, he sent word to Schmidthuber that if he were to go through with the slaughter, Raoul would personally see that he was hanged for crimes against humanity after the war. Knowing that Hitler was close to defeat, Schmidthuber acquiesced and called off the massacre.
Raoul took such risks because his perspective on the work he was doing was simple, “I will never be able to go back to Sweden without knowing inside myself that I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”
In total Raoul saved close to 100,000 Jews. He himself was captured by the Soviets on suspicion of being a spy and is presumed to have died a Soviet prisoner.