Circumstances surrounding Raoul Wallenberg’s assignment in Budapest

Wallenberg’s operation in Hungary was to be just one of about half a dozen similar ones, although it became the far most sensational. The World Jewish Congress was set to choose a suitable person for the assignment through Dr. Marcus Ehrenpreis, Chief Rabbi in Stockholm. Though ultimately Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jewish director of a trading company, suggested Raoul Wallenberg. Lauer’s suggestion was initially met with scepticism concerning Wallenberg’s lack of diplomatic experience and his young age – he was 32 at the time. Nevertheless Wallenberg had two important qualities on his side; his internationally famous and well-regarded family name and his winning personality; Wallenberg has been described as bright, energetic and courageous. In the end, Iver Olsen, being the representative of the WRB as well as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS; later known as the CIA) in Stockholm, assured himself of Wallenberg’s good qualities and obtained the acceptance of this mission from the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The main arrangements for Wallenberg’s work in Budapest were to provide him with a diplomatic passport and a rank as a secretary at the Swedish Legation (Embassy) in Hungary. He would not receive instructions from the Swedish Foreign Ministry, but from the WRB, which together with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JOINT) also would generate the financial recourses needed for the mission. No documents have been found in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ archives concerning Wallenberg’s appointment, meaning that he was not actually working for the Swedish Government, although he was included into the staff at the Swedish Legation. It must be pointed out that Wallenberg was not to be acting under the name of the WRB, even though he effectively did work for them. He was not given detailed instructions but something more like general guidelines. These guidelines included an account of the financial arrangement, descriptions of various escape-routes from Budapest and a list of valuable contacts in the area.

Upon Wallenberg’s arrival in Hungary, approximately 400 000 provincial Jewish men, women and children had already been deported to the extermination camps in Poland, under the direction of Adolf Eichmann. Only about 200 000 Jews remained in the capital. Eichmann was now preparing to erase the entire Jewish population within a short period of time. Soon after his arrival, Wallenberg organised the creation of a special department at the Swedish Legation, in charge of saving Jews. The staff mainly consisted of Jewish volunteers, who numbered over 300 in the last months of the operation. The Swedish Legation in Budapest was already before Wallenberg’s arrival issuing provisional passports and certificates to Jews with Swedish connections. Wallenberg’s first task became to extend this idea and start mass-producing these protective documents. He had previously learned about the German and Hungarian weakness for external symbolism. Therefore an impressive protective passport (”schutz-pass” in German) printed in yellow and blue with the Three Crowns coat of arms in the middle, was designed. In actual fact, these protective passports had no value what so ever, from the view of international law. With rather shocking and unconventional methods (everything from bribery to blackmail threats) he succeeded to issue more then 10 000 of these protective passports. As Eichmann’s tactics grew increasingly brutal, Wallenberg built up a network of ”Swedish Houses”, where Jews could seek shelter. The number of sheltering Jews in these houses soon rose to about 15 000 people. As a last effort, before disappearing into the Soviet prison system, Wallenberg stopped an ordered massacre of 50 000 Jews in the Jewish ghetto of Budapest. Two days later The Soviet troops arrived finding 120 000 Jews living in Budapest. Some estimations say that Wallenberg must be given credit for having saved approximately 100 000 of them.