August 4, 2002

The diplomat who saved 100,000 Jews from the Nazis


He was sent to Budapest in 1944. He issued Swedish passports that he distributed among the Hungarian Jews. It is not clear whether he is dead or alive. Two survivors remember him in Buenos Aires.

Ladislao Ladanyi eyes fill with tears when points to the portrait of an aristocratic looking young man with his hair plastered down and dressed in a dark suit. ”This is my savior”, he announces with solemnity and he smiles gently. Ladislao adds, ”He means my life”, as if it was necessary, and introduces the man in the picture who saved him from death in 1944: He is Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued around 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis and disappeared in 1945. Today he would be 90 years old.

Ladislao, an active 81 year-old man, comes and goes from a wardrobe in his Barrio Norte apartment, full of pictures and documents, where he stores his most intimate and painful memories. Finally, he returns with a yellowish paper, written in Swedish and German, that was his passport to life. It has a picture of a young Ladislao -at that time he used the surname Loewinger -, and the indication that the bearer ”is under the protection of the Embassy of Sweden in Budapest”. In the inferior angle the signature of Wallenberg, at that time First Secretary of the diplomatic branch at the Hungarian capital, devastated by the Nazi regime, can be seen.

Wallenberg had been born into one of the most prominent families in Sweden, of several generations of bankers and statesmen. He was just 32 years old when in 1944 he was asked to lead a high-risk mission to help the Jewish community in Budapest that was under threat of extermination. The young man, who was the manager of a firm involved in to the export and import of food, accepted the challenge.

Ladislao, who in 1940, had ran away from his native Berlin to Budapest with his family, escaping from Nazism remembers that ”pressures against the Jews of Hungary began little by little.” ”Laws against Jews began to appear little by little: we could not obtain work permits, we could not go to public places, we were excluded from society and from work”.

Soon, Hitler’s plans to annihilate all the Jewish population in the territories occupied by Germany started to become real in Budapest. Hungary, that had supported Germany in its war against the Soviet Union which began in 1941, had 700,000 Jews in its territory at the beginning of 1944. Hitler ordered the occupation of Hungary in March of that year, and soon started the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the terrifying concentration camps.

Ladislao, who was 19 years old at that time, started to wander call on embassies in search of a visa to leave the country because the situation ”was desperate”. ”But all of them closed their doors”, he assures. At the Argentine delegation, on the other hand, at least he was able to leave the papers. And he suspects that somehow from that place they somehow ended up in Wallenberg’s hands. Shortly after Ladislao and his parents were confined to live in the Jewish ghetto in Budapest, crammed in rooms with seven or eight people in ”horrible” conditions, he remembers. The mass deportations had started.

It was then that the document of salvation arrived. ”It was an invention of Wallenberg”, Ladislao says. It was the yellowish paper saying that he and his family were under the protection of the King of Sweden. They left the ghetto and went to live to in a building flying the Swedish flag.

When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, in July 1944, the Germans had already deported more than 400,000 Jews. There were only 200,000 left in the capital and it was not a matter of wasting time. The young Swede used all the means, conventional and otherwise, to save lives. He surprised everyone with the design of a protective passport, with highly visible coats of arms of the Swedish royal house (neutral during the war), with no international value, but impressive in the eyes of the German bureaucracy.

He also created the so-called ”Swedish homes” that accommodated families like Ladislao’s and in a short time these buildings with Swedish flag protected more than 15,000 Jews. When conditions were totally desperate, Wallenberg issued a rustic version of his passport, consisting of a sheet of paper bearing his signature. In the middle of the chaos, that paper was, at times, the difference between life and death.

The diplomat did not hesitate to threaten or bribe Germans so that they liberated those who had no Swedish passport. When mass deportations by train stated, there are people who saw him on the roofs of the trains handing out piles of safe-conducts to the people inside the cars (see ”Thanks…).

By the time the Soviet troops arrived in Budapest in the middle of January 1945, Wallenberg is supposed to have rescued around 100,000 Jews from death. But he could not save himself. On January 17th of that year he was last seen, under Soviet escort, with his driver on a visit -in theory- to a USSR military base in southern Budapest. He never returned.

It is not known whether he is alive or dead but the Russians themselves said that he had passed away in 1947, in a Soviet prison. The reasons why he had been arrested remain a mystery. Maybe the Russians suspected that Wallenberg was an American spy, or that maybe they did not trust the Swedish contacts with the Germans.

Today some people call him ”Hero without a grave.” But for Ladislao, Wallenberg is more than that. In Buenos Aires, where he arrived in 1948 to meet up with his sister once again, the grandfather gives a thankful look at the portrait of the young man. ”He is my God”, he mumbles about the man who saved his life.

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