Raoul Wallenberg — remembering a hero on his 107th birthday

To save tens of thousands of Jews, Swedish diplomat bribed, cajoled, persuaded and even threatened German and Hungarian officials; what happened to him remains unclear

A monument commemorating Raoul Wallenberg in Tel Aviv. (CC BY 2.5 Avishai Teicher/Wikipedia)
A monument commemorating Raoul Wallenberg in Tel Aviv. (CC BY 2.5 Avishai Teicher/Wikipedia)

Raoul Wallenberg was born in Sweden, on August 4, 1912. This scion of one of the most powerful Swedish economic dynasties, even today, turned into a remarkable rescuer of the 20th century.

His father, also named Raoul, was a naval officer who died of cancer a few months before Raoul’s birth. His mother, Maj Wising, raised him with the guidance of her father-in-law, Raoul’s grandfather, Gustaf, a career diplomat. A few years later, in 1918, Maj married Fredric von Dardel, with whom she had a son, Guy von Dardel, and a daughter, Nina Lagergren.

Raoul’s paternal grandfather sent him to study in Paris and then to Michigan, where Raoul graduated in 1935 with an Architecture degree from the prestigious University of Michigan. He spent quite a lot of time travelling across the United States and, upon his return to Sweden, he discovered that his academic degree did not qualify him to engage in architecture in Sweden.

Still under the tutelage of Gustaf, Raoul took a job in a construction company in South Africa and later at a bank in Haifa. In 1936, he went back to Sweden and, thanks to his father’s cousin, Jacob Wallenberg, he got a job at the Central European Trading Company owned by a Hungarian Jew, Koloman Lauer, who lately would have an instrumental role in Raoul’s destiny.

When World War II broke out, Lauer could no longer travel to his native Hungary, as the country became increasingly drawn into the Nazi axis. Wallenberg became Lauer’s representative, traveling to Hungary to conduct businesses and to take care of Lauer’s family there. Eventually, he became Lauer’s partner and made several visits to Germany and to occupied France, which exposed him to the peculiarities of the German bureaucracy. This knowledge would later become a precious asset for the young Swede.

As the war went on, the situation of the Hungarian Jewry became more precarious and following several reports which spoke of the deportation of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to the recently established War Refugee Board (WRB), an organization created thanks to the efforts of US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Quite anecdotally, the father of the latter, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was an American diplomat who exposed to the world the tragic Armenian Genocide, some three decades earlier.

President Roosevelt was well aware of Sweden’s particular status. On the one hand, it was a neutral country, namely with full diplomatic presence in Hungary. On the other hand, Sweden heavily traded with both Allies and Nazis, profiting from both parties, and Roosevelt understood the Swedish need to participate in a humanitarian mission to assuage the plight of the Jews. He therefore sent Iver Olsen, a WRB official to try and handpick the right person to head an ambitious rescue program.

It was Lauer who introduced Wallenberg to Olsen and warmly recommended him for the mission.

Wallenberg was 32 years old, with no diplomatic experience, but Olsen was deeply impressed by him, and the Swedish government acquiesced to the idea and appointed him a member of the Swedish Legation to Budapest, with the special assignment to save the remains of the Jewish population.

Raoul arrived in Budapest on July 9th, 1944. What he did during his short period there, half a year, is widely known. Working days and nights, recruiting hundreds of volunteers, he managed to save tens of thousands of Jews. Wallenberg was audacious and focused. He bribed, cajoled, persuaded and even threatened German and Hungarian officials to play ball. Knowing the German fondness for official papers and stamps, he designed and distributed thousands of Schutzpasses to Jews. This was a kind of certificate devoid of any legal standing that gave relative protection to its holder. On several occasions, he risked his own life, by going to places where Jews were being rounded-up for execution or deportation, demanding from the Nazi officers to release them, claiming they were Swedish citizens. Thanks to his organizing skills, he also. Set-up safe houses and hospitals for the persecuted Jews

All in all, this remarkable hero was able to save scores of human lives in just six months. When the war was nearing its end, Wallenberg, preoccupied with the fate of the refugees, arranged a meeting with Marshal Rodyon Malinovsky, the commander of the Soviet forces. The encounter was supposed to take place on January 17th, 1945. Raoul was driven from Budapest to Debrecen by his loyal driver, Vilmos Langfelder.

Instead of the meeting Malinovsky, Wallenberg and Langfelder were arrested by the NKVD and rushed to Moscow for interrogation, apparently in the notorious Lubyanka prison.

What led the Soviets to apprehend the Swedish diplomat is still unclear. What is undisputable is that the abduction and the likely ensuing murder of both detainees were done under orders of Joseph Stalin itself. This was confirmed to us by a senior Russian diplomat, Alexander Darchiev. Back in 2006, as Deputy Ambassador of Russia in Washington DC, he wrote us:  “….responsibility for the death of Mr. Wallenberg lies with the USSR leadership at that time and on I.V. Stalin personally. No other authority could deal with a Swedish diplomat, representative of a neutral state, a member of the “Wallenberg House”, well known abroad and to the Soviet government”.

Ambassador Darchiev’s letter to the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation:

Regrettably, successive Swedish governments were shy in their efforts to try and liberate their compatriot. Same can be said about Wallenberg’s own powerful family, led at that time by Jakob and Markus Wallenberg, first cousins of Raoul’s father.

Eventually, Raoul’s mother and stepfather, committed suicide in 1979, out of despair, for having been unable to bring their son back home.

Prof. Guy von Dardel, Raoul’s half-brother, passed away in 2009, without achieving his dream to retrieve Raoul. In fact, this renowned physicist, devoted most of his life to bring Raoul back home. His daughter, Marie and Louise, continue this quest.

Nina Lagergren, Raoul’s half-sister, passed away a few months ago, at the age of 98. She too, devoted her life to keep alive Raoul’s legacy.

Back in 2016, 71 years after his disappearance, the Swedish Tax Authority declared Raoul Wallenberg officially dead. To be sure, this was a bureaucratic measure, and does not shed any light into the fate of the Swedish hero.

Decades ago, we established the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation with a mission to preserve and spread around the legacy of this unparalleled hero. Nowadays, our flagship program, Houses of Life, was inspired by Raoul Wallenberg and pays tribute to him. Since its inception, in 2014, we managed to identify more than 500 sites in Europe that gave shelter to Jews during the Shoah. Most of the refugees were children, left by their parents, before the latter were being transported to the death camps. We have found Houses of Life in Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Austria, Greece and Albania and the numbers are growing by the day. In each site we affix a commemorative plaque, explaining the tale of heroism that took place under its roof and we stress that the rescuers acted in accordance to Raoul Wallenberg’s own legacy.

At the same time, we continue to call upon the Russian authorities to allow an unfettered access to their wartime archives, with the hope that historians can find some trace about Wallenberg’s fate. Perhaps he is buried somewhere in Russia and in such case, it is never too late to bring this outstanding hero back home, next to his loving relatives.

In the meantime, Wallenberg does not have a proper grave but the Houses of Life are meant to act as symbolic monuments, reminding us all of the feats of this Swede, who was born 107 years ago.

Eduardo Eurnekian – Chairman

Baruch Tenembaum – Founder

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation – IRWF

The IRWF is a global-reach NGO with a mission to preserve and divulge the courageous legacy of Raoul Wallenberg and all of the rescuers. It is based in New York and has representative offices in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires and Berlin.

read more: