July 21, 2020

Remembering Raoul Wallenberg on his birthday

Remembering Raoul Wallenberg 

Baruch Tenembaum writes about the Righteous among the Nations, Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest, Hungary, during the Holocaust. 

I have dedicated my adult life to the recognition of goodness. That is how, by the end of the last century, an idea was born: To set up an NGO with the purpose of identifying, preserving and spreading-around the legacy of those women and men who reached-out to the victims of the Holocaust and other atrocities, such as the Armenian Genocide. 

The organization I founded, together with my late friend, US Congressman Tom Lantos (the only Shoah survivor that served in the US Congress), was named after a singular man, born exactly  108 years ago, on August 4th, 1912. His name was Raoul Wallenberg. 

In the summer of 1944, when he was only 32 year-old, Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, devoid of any diplomatic experience.  There, in the Hungarian capital, he started his work as Head of the Swedish Legation (a tailor-made title for him), with the aim of rescuing some 200,000 Hungarian Jews who were not yet deported to the Nazi concentration camps.

Wallenberg was selected for this sensitive mission by the War Refugees Board (WRB), an organization that was set-up in the USA by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

Wallenberg’s candidacy was approved by the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and by the Swedish government which was keen to attenuate the American pressure for its neutral role in WWII.

Raoul Wallenberg was born into a powerful family group, whose industries were responsible for producing a large part of the Swedish national product in those days (and that is even true nowadays), and dealt with both Allies and Nazis during the war. 

His father, named Raoul as well, had died before the birth of his son. Raoul was raised with devotion by his mother and his step-father, under the close scrutiny of his paternal grandfather, Frederick, a seasoned diplomat.

Raoul spent several years in Michigan, USA, where he graduated as an architect. After that, under the guidance of his grandfather, he held various jobs, including a trade company in South Africa and a bank in Haifa (prior to the establishment of the State of Israel). Later, he became partner of Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew based in Sweden, in a prosperous food trading company.

Wallenberg and Lauer took to each other and the latter recommended the US and Swedish authorities to pick-up Raoul for the fateful rescue assignment in Hungary. 

Wallenberg’s mission in Budapest was short-lived but crucial. Upon his arrival,  he started to set-up a big-scale and carefully orchestrated rescue operation. He stood out as a skilled organizer, both resourceful and audacious.

Among other things, Raoul established more than 30 safe-houses and improvised hospitals which were protected by the Swedish flag and there, he sheltered tens of thousands of Jews. 

He designed a Swedish document (Schutzpass), which was devoid of any legal value, but was full of colors and stamps, something which made a great impression upon the Nazis. He handed out those Schutzpasses to thousands of Jews and, in most cases, these passes offered good protection to their holders, deterring the Nazis and their local henchmen.  

Evidences show that on several occasions, Wallenberg went in person to assembly points, where Jews had been rounded-up for deportation or immediate execution, and there he confronted the Nazi officers, demanding the liberation of the largest possible number of Jews, claiming they were protected by his country.

As mentioned before, Wallenberg’s mission was short-lived. It lasted only 184 days. In early 1945, it became clear to all the Red Army was about to push out the Nazis from Hungary. Till that date, Wallenberg and his aides had managed to save the lives of some 100,000 Jews.  

Wallenberg wanted to guarantee the security of the survivors under the Soviet rule. For that, he set-up a crucial meeting with Marshall Rodyon Malinovsky, Supreme Commander of the Red Army in the Hungarian front, with headquarters in Debrecen. 

On January 17, 1945, he asked his assistant and driver, Vilmos Langfelder to take him from Budapest to Debrecen, situated some 230 Km east of the Hungarian capital. 

When they arrived to their destination, rather than meeting Marshal Malinovsky, the two men were arrested by SMERSH offices (the counter-intelligence unit of the Red Army) and transferred to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. From that point, their traces disappeared from the face of the earth.

It is widely believed that both men were harshly interrogated under torture and at some point, executed by their captors. 

What was the motive behind Wallenberg’s arrest? This question remains unanswered even today, but the historical context should be understood. Stalin was a ruthless and paranoiac dictator who did not hesitate to liquidate people. It is possible that he thought Wallenberg was a spy or a bargaining chip in the Soviet’s dealings with the West and his powerful family. 

I hope someday, the Russian authorities will agree to open the archives of that period and shed light on this tragic matter. 

Back in 2006, in response to a letter sent to President Putin asking for information regarding the fate of Wallenberg, we received a letter from the then Deputy Chief of Mission of the Russian Federation in Washington DC, Alexander Darchiev (a seasoned diplomat), who stated: “Responsibility for the death of Mr. Wallenberg lies with the USSR leadership at that time and on Joseph Stalin personally. No other authority could deal with a Swedish diplomat, representative of a neutral state, a member of the “Wallenberg House”, well known both abroad and to the Soviet government” .

Today, remembering this hero on his birthday and 75 years after his disappearance, I still hope the mystery around his death will be unveiled so that he can have a proper grave. 

As founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, together with its Chairman, Eduardo Eurnekian,  I pledge to continue to efforts to pay tribute and spread-around Raoul’s feats and to strive for his return to his homeland. 

Baruch Tenembaum

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation